The U.S. is so obsessed with helping students reach minimum proficiency that it has been blind to those who have already cleared that bar (“The Bright Students Left Behind,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 20). As a result, we are shortchanging the very students who could one day become the nation’s stars in their respective fields.
This treatment of the talented perplexes our competitors abroad. They have no qualms about differentiation in education. For example, Singapore, whose students consistently finish near the top on tests of international competition, begins its sorting out process with its Primary School Leaving exam and continues doing so throughout the school years. Finland, which is known for the excellence of its public schools, uses selective admission to its high schools, despite its commitment to equity.
But the U.S. can’t get beyond equating differentiation with elitism, which is anathema. I’m not suggesting that we should abandon efforts to provide greater opportunity for disadvantaged students. They certainly deserve a helping hand. Yet I don’t think all students are capable of equal academic performance regardless of the best instruction.
Let me explain. Some students may improve their ability somewhat with inspired teachers, but the gains will be minimal. Asserting otherwise is what Charles Murray correctly calls “educational romanticism” (Real Education, Crown Forum, 2008). Whether we want to admit it or not, everyone has limitations. It’s not defeatist to acknowledge this reality. Yet when we don’t achieve this idealistic goal of equal academic outcomes, we refuse to accept it, arguing that more money will change matters.
The truth is that ability varies enormously. Students who demonstrate academic talent are treated as stepchildren in this country, rather than nurtured. It’s not that they deserve preferential treatment. Instead, it’s that they deserve equal treatment. But they’re not getting it because we are transfixed on those below average. I think we’re going to regret this double standard. But by the time we wake up, it will be too late.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.