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Archive for December 18th, 2011

These Dangerous, Low Income Kids are Slowing Down Our Children Academically …

… say concerned low-income, minority parents of high performing and gifted kids. And they want it stopped.

If these parents were white, as Peter St. Onge of the Charlotte Observer helpfully pointed out, this would be considered a racist complaint with no further thought given to whether letting academically troubled kids slow down academically advanced or gifted ones was a good educational strategy — for the kids, for Harding High School, for the school system or the country.

The school dropout story is always told by the media using the same template. It is about struggling kids needing a little extra help who didn't get it because taxpayers are stingy. Never does anyone stop to consider that we might be failing our best and brightest as well.

But most of these parents aren’t white, so they can ask these questions. And they’re right. They have hit upon the central problem in American education today — the neglect of academically advanced kids and what often amounts to discrimination against them in resources and prioritization.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a striking history of outright discrimination against high achievers who would be nurtured in any other country. (I’ll get back to that in a minute.)

It is part of a national pattern Time magazine documented in 2007. The article focuses on geniuses, but gets at some uncomfortable truths about high achieving kids in general and how our education system is geared to neglect them in favor of a strategy of putting the majority of our resources into boosting low achievers to the middle, a strategy that bloats education spending and has yet to actually produce nationwide academic excellence. I’m convinced this is the central problem in American education, the failure to nurture more advanced kids. Here are some examples from the Time article:

-We take for granted that those with IQs at least three standard deviations below the mean (those who score 55 or lower on IQ tests) require “special” education. But students with IQs that are at least three standard deviations above the mean (145 or higher) often have just as much trouble interacting with average kids and learning at an average pace. Shouldn’t we do something special for them as well?

-American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn’t even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs. But it can’t make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.

-In a no-child-left-behind conception of public education, lifting everyone up to a minimum level is more important than allowing students to excel to their limit. It has become more important for schools to identify deficiencies than to cultivate gifts. Odd though it seems for a law written and enacted during a Republican Administration, the social impulse behind No Child Left Behind is radically egalitarian. It has forced schools to deeply subsidize the education of the least gifted, and gifted programs have suffered. The year after the President signed the law in 2002, Illinois cut $16 million from gifted education; Michigan cut funding from $5 million to $500,000. Federal spending declined from $11.3 million in 2002 to $7.6 million this year.

-But surprisingly, gifted students drop out at the same rates as nongifted kids–about 5% of both populations leave school early.

-Later in life, according to the scholarly Handbook of Gifted Education, up to one-fifth of dropouts test in the gifted range.

-Patrick Gonzales of the U.S. Department of Education presented a paper showing that the highest-achieving students in six other countries, including Japan, Hungary and Singapore, scored significantly higher in math than their bright U.S. counterparts, who scored about the same as the Estonians.

You can see the problem here. This isn’t discussed in this country because educators hide behind race and class to avoid discussing this issue. No one is talking about neglecting low-achieving  students. Far from it. But is making these students and their needs the primary and often only real focus of the education system a winning strategy for America? St. Onge’s piece comes close to asking these questions:

(Parents’) concerns touched on safety issues this school year, the first since Harding’s magnet program was eliminated while hundreds of students were added from now-closed Waddell High. But the parents’ primary worry was academic – many of those new students, who come from low-income minority homes, were below grade level, demanding attention from teachers that inevitably held back the progress of Harding’s traditionally higher-achieving students.

The concerns mirrored those that many Harding parents have voiced since CMS contemplated the change to Harding a year ago. Those parents, almost all of them black, predicted then that academics would suffer, and they are rightfully worried now.

And if they were white, they would be called racist for saying so.

Now back to CMS. This is a school system that partners with and backs a non-profit that hands out college scholarships to low-income black males (but not black females) simply for graduating. Yet when challenging academically gifted students is on the table, even if it doesn’t cost extra, it is shot down as discriminatory to those who don’t qualify. Here’s more on how CMS discriminates based solely on academic talent:

Last month, the school system did away with a high honors program at Bailey Middle School in Cornelius. System leaders were apparently so clueless about what’s going on around them that they didn’t realize that Bailey’s former principal, who had been given greater autonomy due to her success with student achievement by the district, had authorized it. The program had one single criterion: students had to test in the top 5 percent of their class to attend. It was income, race and gender neutral. The goal, God forbid, was to challenge these kids beyond what a regular honors course could do.

Oh, the horror. CMS administrators told both me and WBTV’s Dedrick Russell that the program had to go because it “discriminates” — yes, they actually used that word …

Everyone who tested in the top 5 percent was accepted into the program. After a long e-mail exchange with administrators and much twisting of words by the same, it became clear that the students this program “discriminated” against were those who didn’t or couldn’t test in the top 5 percent — in other words, those who didn’t qualify.

And something else became clear, too. At CMS, recognizing, rewarding and nurturing raw academic talent is considered to be discriminatory and a thing to recoil from. It was so controversial that the system pulled the plug on the program immediately once bureaucrats discovered it. (These would, no doubt, be the same bureaucrats baffled by our inability to compete academically with students in China, where they actually celebrate academic talent.)

CMS spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on programs based on students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and poor academic achievement or combinations of the two. That’s fine. But if the Bailey program discriminates, how is that programs based on lack of achievement aren’t discriminatory? Or programs based on other factors that aren’t academic at all, like income level? These programs exclude students from getting extra help if they don’t qualify. How is that fair?

These parents are right. Without extra resources or at least a strategy for advancing academically advanced kids, Harding will falter academically. Then school board and county leaders will whine about the tragic decline in scores at Harding and schools like it when they are angling for another whopping property tax increase. They will then throw more money at these schools with minimal results. Who will get the blame for those results? The taxpayer, who selfishly declined to turn over even more funds to prop up this mess. And round and round and round we go.

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