Lower-Income, High-Achieving Students Fall Behind
It's a popular belief that gifted kids are "the kids with disposable income," as Mara Sapon-Shevin wrote in her book Playing Favorites. Since all gifted kids supposedly have well-off parents, there's no need for schools to concern themselves too much with their welfare. After all, these are the kids best able to fend for themselves.
Now a new report from Civic Enterprises, a think tank, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, called The Achievement Trap, shows not only how wrong that assumption is, but that it's a dangerous assumption as well. Fully 3.4 million K-12 students with family incomes below the national median test in the top quartile for academic achievement. Unfortunately, a higher proportion test in the top quartile in first grade than later on. In other words, as these students progress through school, their achievement suffers.
As I mentioned in the last post, there is much to dislike about No Child Left Behind (though I think there's some evidence that it has created incentives to reverse failure in the worst schools). One thing to dislike is that these millions of high-achieving, low-income students are in fact getting left behind. Even as they fall out of the top quartile, they rarely test as "failing." And so they're ignored both by the standards movement, and by the folks who dislike gifted education because it's only for the kids with "disposable income."
I'm glad this report is out, and I hope it gets some attention, because it shines a spotlight on what many of us who are involved in gifted education know. The leveling impulse in schools hurts all gifted kids, but it does not hurt all gifted kids equally. Well-off parents can afford to move to a different district, put their kids in private schools, hire tutors, pay for summer courses, or give up a parent's income to homeschool. Low-income families are simply stuck with the schools they get. And so, these promising children wind up falling out of the top quartile, and going to college at lower rates than other children whose potential they matched in first grade.
Can anything change it? Under the current educational set-up, I think the best approach is to measure individual children's progress, not just the progress of groups and schools. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has hinted at shifting NCLB to this concept. What gets measured gets changed, and if schools are held accountable for the low-income children who drift from the 90th percentile in first grade to the 70th percentile in fifth grade, maybe that's a few more children who won't fall through the cracks.