The Forgotten Middle
Does making the case for challenging all students require making enemies of gifted ones?
That seems to be the opinion of Mary Catherine Swanson, creator of the Advancement Via Individual Determination system, which helps underachieving students prepare for college. She touts excellent results for this challenge-and-support method; 95% of students in her program go to college, vs. about a third for similar students not in the program. Her website is avidonline.org. She also has a commentary in the 11/2 issue of Education Week (www.edweek.org, requires subscription) called "It's Time to Focus on the Forgotten Middle."
Her calls for school reform are common sense: our economy needs a lot more skilled workers in the future. Our schools, though, do not adequately prepare the middle quartiles of students for college. To do that, schools need to invest in individual instruction and challenge all students to the extent of their abilities. Here, here!
But then we get this salvo:
"Today, our school policies focus on the top and bottom quartiles to the exclusion of the huge middle. Federal programs are aimed at either gifted and talented students or special-needs and at-risk kids. The two ends of the spectrum understandably have demanding and costly needs, but they have gotten most of the attention and money."
Say what? The 2002 federal education budget allotted only $11 million for gifted programs, and these funds are almost entirely for research and demonstration projects, not classroom instruction. Programs for gifted students are either funded at the state or local level. But they're not exactly getting "most of the attention and money." America spends 143 times more on special education than gifted education. The fifty states, Washington D.C. and the federal government spent roughly $50 billion on special education in 1999-2000.
But for a progressive educator, saying the hard truth -- that special education eats up the funds that might otherwise have been available to provide individual support and challenge to children in the middle quartiles -- is very difficult. So reform efforts rope in gifted education as an equal offender -- as though the tiny fraction of a penny of the educational dollar spent on high achievers is as powerful as the 21 cents on the dollar spent for special ed.
Swanson is right that both ends of the spectrum have demanding needs. She's wrong in thinking this country does much about the top.