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Education reform: the problem with helping everyone reach 'average'

The crisis in US education isn't just overall poor national performance. Even our best students are less competitive. If we really want to 'win the future,' we have to target our brightest students, not ignore them in the fight to bring all students up to 'proficiency.'

By Ann Robinson / March 11, 2011

Little Rock, Ark.

The alarm clock is sounding on American education. While China’s emergence as an educational powerhouse is relatively new, the continued poor performance by US students – though improved, still 31st place in math on the most recent international test – is not. Today, Shanghai tops the charts, but yesterday, it was other nations. Even a casual observer of education news knows the US long ago ceded its place as world leader in student performance. It’s an unsettling state of affairs.

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But what’s more unsettling is how prominent education leaders like Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called America’s sorry standing a “wakeup call.” President Obama has called for a new “Sputnik moment” to reignite the nation’s commitment to science education. But the wakeup alarm didn’t just start going off. It sounded decades ago; the US has just repeatedly hit the snooze button.

The crisis in American education includes both our overall poor national performance and the miniscule numbers of US students achieving at the highest levels. Even our best students are less competitive. The problem with previous education reform efforts is that they have poured time, money, and resources into bringing all students up to proficiency – at the expense of our most gifted students. If we want the best educational performance, we have to target our brightest students, not ignore them in the fight to help everyone reach “average.”

Moving from paper to practice

We’ve been inundated with reams of reports, studies, and expert panels advising us how to fix this problem. During one week last fall, two government-convened panels released reports full of prescriptions for what the nation must due to reclaim its position as a leading innovator.

The reports by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the National Science Board offer a plethora of recommendations including better teacher training, creating 1,000 new STEM-focused (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) schools, and holding schools accountable for the performance of high-achieving students.

Though they highlight crucial goals, unfortunately, these proposals carried no implementation plan. To prevent them from collecting dust on a shelf, we offer the following core recommendations:

Reignite innovation

Reignite innovation. The original “Sputnik moment” was more than empty rhetoric. It featured real resources and genuine commitment to drive innovation and identify and support students who excelled in math and science. We need a similar vow today to identify and serve all high-potential and high-ability students to fill the talent pipeline.

To achieve this, the administration must assign clear authority and accountability to the Department of Education for supporting high-potential and high-ability students and to stop neglecting these students in federal education policy. One omission is that there is no national data collected on gifted students that can help districts make key decisions about their curricular and instruction needs.


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