If public education helps all students achieve basic skill levels, is that enough? Should it be up to parents and students to find ways to take learning to a higher level, or does society have something to gain if more schools make it part of their mission?
One of the joists in the “class ceiling” that many observers point to is No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The goals of the federal education law, in effect since 2002, include bringing all students up to math and reading “proficiency”–grade-level skills–and closing achievement gaps correlated with race, income, and other factors.
Laudable goals, most agree, but critics take issue with how the resulting testing system has dominated schooling and led to unintended consequences–like neglect of students who might otherwise zoom ahead.
“Because the accountability systems are so focused on the lowest-performing students, teachers see A’s and B’s and good standardized test scores and they say, ‘OK, they’re fine, we don’t have to focus attention on them,’ ” says John Bridgeland, chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, an education and policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
The teaching in many schools is prescriptive, even scripted. “We have squeezed out of the curriculum the kinds of things that really contribute to the next generation of highly creative, productive, inventive, entrepreneurial people,” says Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. It happens most “oppressively” in schools that serve poor and minority children, he adds.
Nearly 80 percent of teachers surveyed in 2008 by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington agreed that “getting underachieving students to reach proficiency has become so important that the needs of advanced students take a back seat.”
There’s no national policy requiring that gifted children be identified and served by school districts. There’s no national definition of “gifted.”
The only federal program to support gifted education, known as the Javits Act, used to supply about $7 million a year, mainly for research on how to better identify and serve poor and minority gifted students. But Congress eliminated it this year.
State policies are a patchwork. About one-quarter of states provide no funding for gifted education, and 13 states bar students from entering kindergarten early, according to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in Washington.
The United States ranks 31st out of 56 nations in the percentage of students with advanced math skills, says Mr. Hanushek. Just 6 percent of American 15-year-olds scored at the advanced level in math on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That compares with 28 percent in Taiwan and more than 20 percent in both Finland and Korea.
In some schools, technology is being deployed to give students more individualized tasks at whatever level challenges them.
But the majority of teachers know little about strategies to meet gifted students’ needs. Only five states insist that all teachers have training in gifted education before they begin their jobs, notes a 2009 report by the NAGC. In 36 states, no such training is required of general education teachers at any point in their careers.
Students should be grouped by ability, some parents and educators say. But how that’s done can be controversial. “Tracking” became a subject of hot debate in the 1980s, with critics saying that students who start off at a disadvantage, particularly minority and low-income kids, often get stuck in low-level classes and are not being prepared for higher education or skilled jobs.
Now, in some circles, even talking about ability grouping can be taboo. But supporters say the pendulum has swung too far.
“We have no problem having [varsity sports teams] and lavishing attention on those kids . . . . But we don’t do that for math . . . literature . . . science,” says Mr. Loveless, author of “The Tracking Wars.”
In an early 1990s analysis of hundreds of studies of ability grouping, researcher James Kulik found that high-IQ students in accelerated groups outperform nonaccelerated students of the same age and IQ by the equivalent of a full year of academic gain on achievement tests.
There is research on both sides of the debate, however, and detracking advocates say that’s the better approach. What’s needed, they say, is a high bar for all students–with teachers getting the support they need to engage both the strugglers and the high-achievers.