Distressing but not surprising

Guest Blogger

We asked a few experts to weigh in on our new study, "Do High Flyers Maintain Their Performance: Performance Trends of Top Students," as part of an online forum we'll be hosting on Flypaper over the next couple days. Here is a guest post by Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

These results are distressing, but not surprising. As I note in my forthcoming essay "Our Achievement Gap Mania" (appearing Wednesday in National Affairs), the past decade's relentless focus on "gap-closing" has pushed all other considerations to the periphery. We have to make choices, but self-interest and a proper respect for all children demands that we wrestle at length with how we prioritize the needs of some kids over those of others. Yet "gap-closing" has become a reflexive, bipartisan project. Would-be reformers talk of little else and to even question the priorities of gap-closing is to be, at best, deemed ill-informed and, at worst, branded a racist.

Gap-closing has become the lexicon of federal officials and funders, of advocates and analysts. It has fueled funding priorities, shaped federal programs, driven policies, and informed practice. It has had real consequences and now we see, thanks to the careful efforts of Xiang et al., that some of these are problematic. (I'm curious what the results would have been if Xiang et al. had been able to examine the growth of high-flyers in subjects like science or foreign language instruction?and not only in the prioritized areas of math and reading.)

[pullquote]The real problem has been the unwillingness of gap-closers to acknowledge the costs of their agenda or its implications.[/pullquote]

The results of our monomaniacal focus on "gap-closing" have been predictable. Teachers have told pollsters that they devote vastly more attention to students who are struggling, even though they suggest that their own moral compass dictates that all students are entitled to an equal share of their time and energy. School districts have zeroed out science labs and language instruction in order to free up time and money for remedial instruction in reading and math. Research and new school models focus on finding ways to help at-risk or poor-performing students become proficient in reading and math; with comparatively little attention to the needs of more advanced students.

Now, let's be clear. The legacy of achievement gap mania isn't necessarily undesirable. Focusing on the neediest students is admirable, as far as it goes. With limited time, talent, and resources, we can't do everything?and it's not unreasonable that some think our priority in every case should be the most in need. (I disagree with the premise, as I argue in National Affairs, because I don't think the gap-closing stance is especially compelling in terms of schooling, policy, politics, or moral philosophy, but I certainly grant that it's a defensible stance). The real problem has been the unwillingness of gap-closers to acknowledge the costs of their agenda or its implications. The NWEA team is to be congratulated for making clear the costs and implications of this effort, and for posing squarely the thorny, unpleasant questions that would-be reformers have consistently sought to avoid.

Frederick M. Hess is resident scholar and director of education studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He writes an Education Week blog entitled Rick Hess Straight Up.

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