Can we be equal and excellent too?

That's the question John W. Gardner posed in his seminal 1961 book, Excellence. We've asked it again in 2008. We wondered, in particular, how high-achieving (some say gifted) youngsters are faring academically in the era of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that focuses on boosting the achievement of poor and minority students. The question is more important than ever, considering how much America's future depends on the brainpower of the country's best and brightest. If they're being neglected, we're all in trouble.

Many of the answers revealed in our new Fordham Institute study aren't surprising, though they're illuminating. Low-achieving pupils (defined as the 10 percent with lowest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) made big strides from 2000 to 2007, gaining sixteen points (on NAEP's 500-point scale) in fourth-grade reading, eighteen in fourth-grade math, and thirteen in eighth-grade math. NCLB and state-level efforts to impose standards and accountability on the schools are plainly boosting the kids who need it most--surely a good thing.

Meanwhile, however, the performance of high achievers is unimpressive at best. Their scores haven't fallen, mind you. But neither have they risen much. Their recent trajectory is "languid," according to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, the study's lead analyst. But "languid" doesn't cut it in today's competitive world.

Teachers, we learn from a companion survey, feel pressured by No Child Left Behind to focus on the needs of the worst-performing youngsters. Three fifths of them say that low achievers are a "top priority" in their schools, while fewer than one in four reports that high achievers are. Furthermore, a full 40 percent of teachers say that the content and curriculum of honors and accelerated classes are "too often watered down and lacking rigor."

We also probed teachers' views of fairness regarding low and high achievers. They were asked: "For the public schools to help the U.S. live up to its ideals of justice and equality, do you think it's more important that they (A) focus on raising the achievement of disadvantaged students who are struggling academically OR (B) focus equally on all students, regardless of their backgrounds or achievement levels?" Almost nine out of ten teachers chose the latter option.

That looks to us like an overwhelming repudiation by teachers of one of NCLB's core tenets: that narrowing the "achievement gap" should be the nation's foremost educational objective. And perhaps it explains why the performance of our top students hasn't outright fallen in recent years: teachers' personal views have tempered the federal law's intentions. In other words, teachers haven't totally yielded to NCLB-style pressure to bring the bottom up because doing so would force them to abandon their own belief that all kids deserve equal attention in the classroom.

NCLB boosters will likely respond that "That's a phony choice. We never said to ignore the other students. We just want disadvantaged kids to have their fair share."

Which sounds great but it also underscores Gardner's question. "Can we be excellent and equal too?" Can our schools focus on the kids at the bottom and the kids at the top and everybody in between? Of course we want that answer to be yes. Perhaps lawmakers will find a technocratic solution to NCLB's flaws.

Perhaps. But listen again to the teachers, who have limited time and finite resources and must decide how to allocate them. Eighty-one percent of teachers say that "academically struggling" students are likely to get their one-on-one attention today, versus just 5 percent who say that about "advanced students."

So let's bring some honesty to this debate. How should we define "justice" in America's public education system? Does it mean a single-minded focus on bringing up the performance of low-achieving youngsters, or does it mean helping all students--rich and poor, black and white, low and high achieving--equally? Count us with the teachers on this one. If America is to compete successfully on this shrinking, flattening planet (and, more crassly, if NCLB is to survive politically), then no children, even the swiftest among them, can have their educational needs "left behind."

Our low performers are starting to make respectable gains. By all means, let's keep that trend going. But if gains by low achievers are our only measure of success, America faces big challenges in the years ahead.

(Click here [and scroll down] to read press and blog coverage of the report, to find summaries and issue briefs, and to watch a video presentation about it.)

This article originally appeared this morning on National Review Online.

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