The Excellence Gap: Our public schools are shortchanging their best students
One size fits all education is failing our kids and shortchanging the nation’s future.
The numbers tell the story. Since No Child Left Behind, political squabbling has resulted in the delay of re-implementing the best parts of the program. As a result we are seeing even higher dropout rates.
How do we educate all our kids and nurture the best and brightest at the same time? Should we demand accountability from our schools and how can we measure success? If schools focus on ‘teaching to the test’ what happens to those gifted students?
Something has to give- be they from schools, teachers, government and school boards. The status quo will only leave us farther behind.
If an out-of-control national debt weren’t reason enough to worry about America’s global competitiveness, here’s another. Virtually all education reformers recognize that America’s ability to remain an economic superpower depends to a significant degree on the number and quality of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians graduating from our colleges and universities—scientific innovation has generated as much as half of all U.S. economic growth over the past half-century, on some accounts. But the number of graduates in these fields has declined steadily for the past several decades. A report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation concludes that “bachelor’s degrees in engineering granted to Americans peaked in 1985 and are now 23 percent below that level.” Further, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 6 percent of U.S. undergraduates currently major in engineering, compared with 12 percent in Europe and Israel and closer to 20 percent in Japan and South Korea. In another recent study, conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, the U.S. scored near the bottom relative to major European countries, Canada, and Japan in the percentage of college graduates obtaining degrees in science, math, computer science, and engineering. It’s likely no coincidence that the World Economic Forum now ranks the U.S. fifth among industrialized countries in global competitiveness, down from first place in 2008.
Making matters worse is mounting evidence that America’s best students—kids we’re counting on to become those engineers, scientists, and mathematicians—have had a drop-off in academic performance over the past decade. A recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study finds that the country’s highest-performing students in the early grades are losing some of that advantage as they move through elementary school and into high school.
Ironically, one reason for their slipping performance is almost certainly the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the most significant federal education-reform legislation of the past half-century. Partisan squabbling has stalled congressional reauthorization of NCLB for two years. But NCLB became law thanks to a rare bipartisan consensus that U.S. public schools were failing to turn out high school graduates who could flourish in a technology-based economy. Democrats and Republicans need to reunite and recognize that federal support for elite education—above all, in math and science—is essential for advancing America’s economic success.
No Child Left Behind was propelled by a moral imperative best expressed by President George W. Bush’s call to overcome the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The new law’s “civil rights” component shaped some of its unique features, including holding states and school districts accountable for their success in narrowing racial achievement gaps. Before NCLB, the federal government had sought to achieve some degree of educational equity through the Title I compensatory funding program, which sent nearly $200 billion to the nation’s highest-poverty schools over four decades. Title I yielded meager results, however, and suffered from lack of accountability. With NCLB, the federal government took a new, interventionist approach to education reform, requiring states and school districts to meet certain goals and mandates in return for Title I funds. The states henceforth had to conduct annual tests in reading and math for all children in grades three through eight, with the results—broken down by race, sex, and socioeconomic status—made public.
Unfortunately, NCLB also left the door wide open to the corruption of educational standards. The law demanded that all American students be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 and imposed increasingly onerous sanctions on districts and schools that failed to make adequate progress toward that goal—but then let each state set its own proficiency standard. To look good to the feds and the public, education authorities unsurprisingly lowered standards and found other ways to game the tests (see “Can New York Clean Up the Testing Mess?,” Spring 2010).