It’s déjà vu all over again. Back in 2008 the Fordham Institute claimed in this report that our nation’s best students were being hurt by current education reform efforts, particularly NCLB. Fast forward to earlier this week where Fordham released another report to once again try to show that our education reforms are being targeted at our low performing students at the expense of our top students. The similarities don’t end with both studies examining the performance of high achieving students. In both reports Fordham’s conclusions don’t fit what their own data says.
In the 2008 study Fordham argued our top students were being left behind because their gains were not as large as the gains low performing students made post-NCLB. I argued then that their own data didn’t fit their claim. Once again, Fordham’s claim that our top students are being left behind doesn’t fit their own data. As a matter of fact, according to Fordham’s report the gap in math scores between low- (those scoring below 10th percentile) and high-performing (those score above the 90th percentile) did not significantly change as students moved from 3rd to 8th grade or from 6th to 10th grade. The good news is that all students made consistent gains. Unfortunately for low-performing students, their performance still lagged way behind. The story is a bit different in reading where gaps did close between the lowest and highest performing students. However, Fordham sees this gap closing as a negative even though high performing students continued to make significant gains between the 3rd and 8th grades.
Just as I argued in 2008, this is how gaps should be narrowed, where everyone improves but the lowest performers improve at a faster rate. However, Fordham didn’t agree with me then and I’ll safely assume they won’t agree with me now. We will just have to agree to disagree because I don’t believe the data shows our best students are being short changed simply because our lowest performers are making more progress than our highest performing students.
Now that doesn’t mean our schools or our education policies should focus solely on our lowest performing students. Educators and policymakers need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to reach their highest academic potential before they go onto college or the workplace. Yet, neither Fordham study provides compelling data that our schools are short changing our highest performing students.
Yes, educators and policymakers need to focus on our highest achieving students. International test scores show we have a much smaller proportion of advanced students than the leading countries such as South Korea and Finland. But the same international tests show we also have a much larger proportion of very low performers than most other industrialized nations. And students with such low achievement have little chance to go onto any sort of postsecondary education or find a good job that pays a living wage and offers benefits. So we need to at least sustain the gains our highest achievers are making since many will be our country’s future innovators, policymakers and business leaders. At the same time, we need to accelerate the gains our lowest achieving students are making so they at least have the minimal skills necessary to either go onto earn some sort of postsecondary degree/certificate or find a good job. Doing so is not a zero-sum game. If we provide our teachers with the training, resources, and support they need, they can improve the performance of all students. – Jim Hull