Friday, June 20, 2008

Did NCLB hurt gifted students?

This week, the Fordham Institute released a new report on "High Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind." I'm trying to get an interview with the authors, but then it occurred to me that the good thing about a blog is that I can write about the same topic multiple times! So I'll give my first thoughts on the report now, and hopefully start a discussion. Then, when I get the authors on the phone, I'll have better questions to ask.

For the Fordham report, authors Tom Loveless, Steve Farkas, and Ann Duffett looked at how students in the 90th percentile and the 10th percentile scored on the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or "the nation's report card"). They particularly focused on scores since 2002, which is roughly when the current national focus on accountability began. They also surveyed teachers about their time and priorities.

This is the major finding: Congress passed NCLB with the goal of narrowing the achievement gap. That has, in fact, happened over the past 5-6 years. Here is why it has happened: lower-achieving students have made fairly large gains on the NAEP. High-achieving students have made small gains. Consequently, the achievement gap has been closing.

The bigger question, of course, is whether this is something to be celebrating, and whether Congress set the right goal.

In education, there is always a fundamental tension between excellence and equity. As Americans, we really like both concepts. We want all students to achieve more in the future than they do now, and we also want some students not to lag too far behind others. But these are conflicting goals. If all student scores were rising on the NAEP at a fast clip, the achievement gap would stay the same. In fact, if all student scores rose by 10%, this would expand the achievement gap (a student scoring 200 would go to 220, a 300 to 330, expanding the gap from 100 to 110). This means that, fundamentally, we have to choose which of the goals of excellence and equity is most important.

The Fordham report gives data on what we have, apparently chosen. I want to stress that it does show something important: NCLB has not, per se, hurt the highest achieving children on an objective test measurement standard. Scores are relatively flat. The NAEP (like an out-of-level test -- e.g. giving the SAT to 7th graders) allows for a full spectrum of scores to show up. So this is not the case of a consistent 99th percentile grade-level score masking a decline in achievement that a blunt test can't pick up.

But the authors did also survey teachers, and found something that is also salient. Some 60% of teachers said low achievers were a "top priority" at their schools, and 23% said high achievers were (teachers could give more than one answer). Asked about who was likely to receive more one-on-one attention, 81% of teachers said struggling students were, with only 5% saying advanced students were.

We don't really have data of how teachers felt in the past. But it is clear that in this era of accountability, NCLB and other policies have designated our national priority: raising the test scores of low-achieving students. Everything else is secondary.

It is, of course, a worthy goal to raise low scores. On the other hand, a teacher's one-on-one attention is a zero-sum game. If it's going to low achievers, it's not going to high achievers. So basically, as a nation, we have made a choice to let high achievers coast. This shows up in the NAEP scores.

I -- and many readers of this blog, I'm sure -- am not terribly comfortable with this national choice. I've long advocated taking the basic concept of accountability and applying it to individual students, rather than schools. That way, no one can hide behind averages on a grade-level test that make it more critical for a kid on the border of proficient to become proficient than for a high-achieving student to excel. From my first read of the Fordham report, I think we can start making a case in public policy spheres that we should change NCLB's mission from closing the achievement gap to raising the achievement of all students (really meaning "no child"). It does us little good to make sure everyone is capable of reading a ballot and balancing a checkbook if we can't also produce engineers and doctors and programmers and the like. Equality is not a useful end goal in itself. Excellence is.

But I would really like to hear from some readers about this. Anecdotally, is NCLB hurting high achievers at your school? Leaving them to languish? Is it causing a new set of priorities? Or just reinforcing beliefs people already had?


McSwain said...

This report is about high achievers, not gifted. They are not necessarily the same.

I think NCLB hurts the "middle" more than the gifted. We have GATE money in CA, so those identified as gifted get special attention. In my district, teachers spend a lot of time designing independent projects for GATE kids to do while we work with others. I don't think this kind of self-directed learning is a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

It depends where you are in CA. I am not seeing time spent on designing projects for GATE kids or GATE kids getting special (or ANY) attention in our school.

Yes, there is GATE money. It amounts to $10 per identified GATE student PER YEAR.

InTheFastLane said...

I think this has always been an issue, that higher level students are often not given attention because they are seen as already capable. However, from working in education, I have seen how many more programs and time and money is given to struggling and borderline students.

That being said, the state of Indiana recently passed requirements for high ability programming. Students are required to be identified and given some sort of appropriate curriculum. At the middle school level, in which I work, this means that at each grade we have accelerated math and Lang. classes and students are "clustered" in these classes based on their strengths. In some cases this means we are able to provide enriched instruction in Science and Social Studies as well. Now, not all of these students are "gifted" (about 60 students per grade level, in grade sizes of 300), but it does allow for higher level instruction.

We will see how this benefits our higher level students. But, the reality is that the highest students, the truly gifted students, could still be unchallenged.

Anonymous said...

Interesting related flypaper comments:

Sandra Foyt said...

I'm homeschooling my 8-year-old son partly because NCLB has been sucking the joy out of learning at our public school.

In a book club gathering today that included several teachers - and the teacher that my son would've had this year - it was uniformly agreed that NCLB is forcing them to focus on the needs of the average to below average students.

Many of the interesting, fun programs that enrich learning for all students have been curtailed. And there is practically no room for any individualization.

It's not exactly a robot factory, but...

Anonymous said...

In our CO school district, I think the worst effect of NCLB for high achievers has been the reluctance of schools to allow children to skip grades. Around the same time that NCLB started, our school district changed their policies to prevent grade skipping. My assumption is that the schools do not want to risk lowering their test scores by having students skip grades.

So we removed our daughter from the public schools to home school her and finally ended up sending her to a private gifted school. Although it's been wonderful to see her regain her love for learning, neither solution has been easy...

Anonymous said...

The report avoided referring to gifted students because states and school systems usually have specific definitions that go along with that term. Particularly for the teacher surveys and focus groups this would have confused things.

I found the survey section and focus group comments to be the most interesting. Most teachers thought in classroom differentiation was difficult. Most teachers did not have adequate training for working with high achievers. A lot of the teachers also felt that the curriculum was not challenging even in special tracks.

The most telling quote to me was from the kindergarten teacher who was not allowed to skip a student - the teacher said he was reading at a fourth grade level and doing second grade math, what was she supposed to do with him?

dgm said...

I think, as inthefastlane notes, schools assume high achievers are "already capable" and therefore (their reasoning must go) they will be fine. It completely ignores the fact that there is more to educating a student than making sure they know some basic facts. We need to look at individual children to see whether they are reaching their potential, whatever that may be.

And this leads me to another issue that others have raised: many schools' reluctance to accelerate children who clearly would benefit from that (and relatedly, the push to "redshirt" kids). The belief, I suppose, is that it will hurt test scores. However, isn't it likely that any kid worthy of acceleration will probably test at very high levels?

Dreams of a Country Girl said...

YES! YES! YES! It made us focus on the children that need interventiona nd let the gifted students to be on their own. One years growth is no the same as on grade level.

Anonymous said...

It is true, GATE programs vary widely . My 4th grader is GATE listed but they offer NOTHING to those kids as they are totally fosued on getting test scores up for teh large number of second-language learner (immigrant) students. ironically she really needs extra services due to ADHD but because of ultra high STAR state test scores they will not give her any Sec 504 or IEP even though heer classroom performance is dismal.And she is not the only gifted kid needing some help. yes, in SF CA they are letting very bright children fail!

Laura said...

In IL we have no mandated funding for gifted ed. Our rural school district will, thus, be doing away with gifted ed, which they have had for over 20 years, in order to "save" money...aka spend it on lower achieving students. My daughter just finished 1st grade, reads at an 8th grade level and is facing a stagnant career as an elementary school peer tutor. Teachers don't have time to make the drastic changes to curriculum that would be necessary to keep her learning at her advanced pace. We send extra work from home! That is what it has come to...

Anonymous said...

We are having a very difficult time dealing with this. Our son is "superiorly gifted" by the schools own admission. He was pulled out of his regular class and went to remedial math and reading with older students.

The school disc. however will do absolutely nothing until he is in 4th grade. And once in fourth grade the program is weak at best.

We can not afford to home school, we can not afford private school. Most of the work he is asked to do in school is way to easy for him, he has a hard time connecting with the kids his age, and so either keeps quiet or "dumbs it up".

NYS were we live has no mandated program for gifted kids. The pricipal at his school "Never heard of a GIEP"

Anonymous said...

I teach at a small school in southwestern Ohio. My family also lives in the community, so my children attend the school. My son, who will be in 9th grade this year, has been in the gifted program since 3rd grade. Next year, he is going to be in all advanced courses, including an advanced sophomore math course. He was scheduled to skip freshman science. However, due to our shortage of teachers, he would not be able to fit chemistry into sophomore year. Since the achievement test in Ohio covers chemistry, he would struggle on that portion of the test. There are aprox. 12 to 13 students who are experiencing the same problem. Our school refuses to cluster the children in the same class because this is "against the law!" We cluster students on IEPs in support classes on a daily basis!

sncpendleton said...

I am very concerned about this issue as in MA we have seen MCAT scores the only focus due to this issue. We own a store and the teachers who regularly come in said that all creative thinking has been removed from the curriculum. The only thing that is taught is the test prep. What kind of education is that really? My son will be starting next year and I've been looking at putting him in private school, but at 10-16K a year to start, we would really need financial assistance and although you can find a lot for college, finding programs for young students is near to impossible. I wish I knew more about starting a foundation - it would be a worthy cause for our nation!

Anonymous said...

You may have heard "No Child Left Behind" referred to by some teachers as "No Child Gets Ahead," and as your statistical argument points out, that appears to be its goal. If the goal is for all students to be "on grade level," and teachers have to document that they spend extra instructional time helping below grade grade level students reach this goal, then the implication is that gifted students' getting ahead is going to ruin the curve for the rest of the students. I have taught kindergaten and first grade in Alabama for seventeen years, and I am increasingly frustrated by the pressure put on us (teachers) by NCLB to document and prove that we are spending more time with struggling readers than any other children. While reading readiness is certainly an important predictor of future success, it is draining all other emphasis from the curriculum and leaves little time for differentiation and acceleration of more able students. Students are generally not eligible for gifted services or accelerated classes until at least third grade, and by then their attiudes toward school (either positive or negative) have already been formed.

Evelyn Bysiek said...

I definitely believe that NCLB has hurt, hurts, and will continue hurting gifted students until something is added to the law that addresses their needs. I found this blog because this is the exact topic that I am researching for my Masters paper. I am in a program at St. Bonaventure University that will certify me in gifted education in New York State. I feel very strongly after reviewing much literature that we are "leaving behind" our gifted students with the "good intentions" of NCLB. At least in New York State (and I'm going to assume most places in the country), there has been a massive increase in teaching to the test, and a massive decrease in the amount of funds allocated to gifted education. As a matter of fact, these funds have been reallocated for remediation programs to ensure that these students on the "brink" of passing the high-stakes tests that will determine the state of the school district will indeed pass. Although I have a lot more to say about this, I'll just end with this statement. By focusing on minimum benchmarks, we are severely limiting opportunities for gifted students to reach their full potential.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think NCLB has hurt the gifted learners in our AZ school. The formal gifted program here was never good-- just a one-hour-per-week pullout session-- but teachers used to at least informally challenge their gifted students by giving them additional spelling words, brain teasers to do when their work was completed, etc.

Now the gifted program has been completely eliminated due to "budget cuts". Yet there are 2 ELL classes with only 5 students each and 2 teachers in each classroom! The regular classroom teachers seem to be spending all of their time concentrating on the low-achievers.

If only we could spend the same amount of time and money on our most gifted students I wonder what we would be able to achieve?

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this story and all of the posts here. You are all right -- Advanced learners are suffering, attitudes are being formed before any potential gifted programs may be available, and our country is focusing exclusively on mediocre achievement.
We can probably all share stories of our children or others around us who are becoming depressed, joyless, and angry at school.
One of you suggested a foundation to solve the problem. Many of us are educators. Perhaps we should begin a new school system not subsidized by the government of private education, based on a foundation, and headed toward excellence. Who will start this?

Anonymous said...

I teach gifted 3-5 graders in a SC public school and teach two courses at the graduate level so that teachers can get their GT endorsement. Imagine my shock when my own district asked me to help develop a new curriculum for our GT students but we were not allowed to leave grade level standards! (No acceleration) Also, all teaching was to center around Math and ELA! (no science or social studies)...when I started asking questions as to their reasons for this, I was called into the Asst. Superintendent's office and told to either do what was asked or find somethin else to do!

Dreamgyrl360 said...

I can believe this. I am big on homeschooling but my husband isn't, so our daughter is in a Charter School (attempted compromise).
Our daughter is pretty gifted. She enjoys her friends but the work is actually waaay too easy for her and she just speeds thru everything.
The things she NEEDS to learn, however, are not being supplemented. And I TRY to help with that, but after being at school for 9 hours/day, that gets to be tiresome for her. Especially since she has homework to complete as well.
Their award system puts her at a disadvantage -- the first 6 weeks, she got the "Flying Phoenix" award, that used to be given to only ONE student in the entire primary department (voted in by the teachers -- she is the only one in the history of the school to get votes from TWO teachers, so it was a no-brainer). NOW, due to the grumbling of the "natives", lol, there is a flying phoenix for every classroom, and our daughter is no longer eligible because of "Let's give someone else a chance".
She is the smartest child in the school. But she only gets ONE award, the High Honor Roll (the A honor roll). She does not get "participation" -- which doesn't make sense but it does to THEM -- she does not get perfect attendance (because we have holy days to observe and no school's going to step in front of that). There is no party for High Honor Rollers but there is a popcorn party for PERFECT ATTENDANCE.
My point: WHAT is my child's motivation?? She's insanely obedient at the school -- NEVER gets in trouble, EVER. She is clearly different than them and stands out constantly. But what's to make her continue this? Perhaps she wants to talk in class? Perhaps she wants to slap one of the mean girls in her class?
Perhaps she doesn't like homework (she doesn't; she says it's for kids who don't know what they're doing)?
Maybe she should stop doing these things? Perhaps she should become a little tyrant bully that doesnt turn in assignments?
THEN she'll get LOTS of awards and attention.
YEAH that's the ticket. *sarcams*

Anonymous said...

I had to pull my son out of public school in the middle of 1st grade in a Pennsylvania public school. They knew he was gifted before I did and never told me. He was depressed at school in Kindergarten which turned into daydreaming in 1st grade. They put him in enrichment pullout which is two half hour classes per week. This fixed the problem for a little bit but did not last. I was pressured the entire time to medicate and label him ADD. They knew better then me and the psychologist I took him to for screening. They played games with his grades and did many things behind my back. If the pullout doesn't fix the problem then they must have ADD or some other mental illness. I saw many gifted children medicated for an easy way to blame them for being disinterested, take any obligation off of the schools and gain extra federal funding for doing this. Children that are high IQ and getting F's and D's, barely passing each year. Pennsylvania is mandated but not funded so gifted kids are a burden. I put my son in a Montessori school and after a bit he regained his enjoyment in learning. We are now living in NC which has gifted funding and my son is doing great. His teachers LOVE him, he participates in Duke TIP programs every summer and he will be entering 9th grade in an early college school. He will have 2 years of college completed by the end of 12th grade. I know he would have been a mess if I had listened to his kindergarten teacher, 1st grade teachers, guidence counselor or principal of that school. I feel very sorry for the children they have hurt because their parents were unaware and way too trusting toward teachers! It hurts me very badly to know that this is happening and nobody is there to stop it!