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.'

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.

West loses edge to Asia in education: Top five OECD findings

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.

And this administration has again recommended eliminating the sole program federal program for high-ability students – the modest Javits grant program that focuses on strategies to reach disadvantaged gifted learners.

Do better than 'proficient'

Hold schools accountable for more than proficiency. Accountability drives action. If states and school districts know they will be evaluated not just on achieving proficiency but on improving student performance at the high end of the achievement spectrum, they will implement and fund strategies to do so. Districts can use multiple factors to identify students – not just intelligence test scores – recognizing that giftedness takes many forms. We must use a variety of services – such as grade acceleration, enrichment programs, advanced courses and more – to develop this talent. All of which requires teachers with specialized knowledge and skills.

Our national obsession for proficiency alone doesn’t cut it in today’s competitive global environment. The push for proficiency must extend to a quest for excellence so that more students reach the highest levels on national and international benchmarks.

Talent is color- and income-blind

Seek talent in all settings. High potential and giftedness are color and economic status blind. Yet due in part to funding issues, quality gifted education programs are available almost exclusively in well-off suburban districts, while most urban and rural districts offer few to no such opportunities. Our failure to cast a wide net to identify and serve gifted students from minority and underserved communities is a national tragedy that has squandered untold amounts of talent.

Correcting this problem means we must reject the notion that low-income equals low performance. Although Title I, the federal program that supports schools in low-income settings, permits funds to be used to support all eligible students, the direction from the Department of Education and from many in Congress focuses on using federal education funds exclusively for low-performing students. No guidance from the Department of Education urges districts to spend Title I funds on their high-ability students. Other grants aimed at children in poverty focus on remediation when they should also focus on student excellence.

A federal pilot program to help Title I districts better identify and serve their high-potential students would be welcomed steps. Such a program should highlight schools where underserved students are reaching high achievement levels and establish new, rigorous STEM schools and other programs that develop talent in disadvantaged.

Invest in our innovation leaders

As we begin a new decade, the nation has two choices: We can continue doing more of the same, commission more studies and reports, and act surprised when the next round of scores show that American students continue to lag behind their global peers.

Or we can marshal the collective resolve of a half-century ago that catapulted the US to become the world’s innovator and rededicate ourselves to address the challenges before us. America’s greatest asset then is still our greatest asset now – human capital. If we don’t identify and invest in our brightest students, we can’t expect those leaders in innovation to emerge.

We know what it takes. Let’s stop hitting the snooze button.

Ann Robinson is president of the National Association for Gifted Children and the director of the Jodie Mahony Center for Gifted Education, University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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