Student Achievement

Are High-Achieving Students Getting Short Shrift?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 21, 2011 2 min read
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As the nation has zoomed in on helping low-achieving students, thereby closing the achievement gap, some have wondered whether that focus has essentially deprived higher achieving students of the opportunities they need. A new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute will add grist to that debate mill: it finds that high-achieving students lose ground as they progress through school.

And in a stroke of interesting timing, American Enterprise Institute wonk (and EdWeek blogger) Rick Hess has plopped an essay in “National Affairs” that argues, among other things, that “achievement-gap mania” could do a disservice to high-achieving students. He points to a 2008 poll of teachers that found low-achieving students to be a far higher priority for them than high-achievers.

Hess also notes that when a new law allowed California to divert money from gifted students to other education purposes, most districts jumped at the chance. He ticks off other studies that have taken note of test results that show healthy gains among lower-achieving students, but only modest or no gains among their advanced peers.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of tea-leaf reading to figure out the message here: we overlook our highest achieving students at our peril. The question, though, is how to translate that into action, with limited resources, to avoid the No Child Left Behind “tradeoffs” that Hess and the Fordham report discuss.

It’s always been easier politically to defend the needs of struggling students than those of advanced students. The elitist whiff of arguing for gifted students is hard to shake; however sound the argument, it can come off like trying to nab more for the already fortunate. Was I the only one whose first thought, after reading gifted-students advocate Nancy Green’s comment in EdWeek’s story about the Fordham report, was “ouch”? (“They are the ones who are going to solve our complex problems,” she said.)

Obviously, students who are academically advanced, whether on a steady trajectory, or at a given point in time, aren’t going to be the only ones who solve our nation’s complex problems. When Albert Einstein dropped out of high school, most of his teachers figured the odds weren’t too good that he would end up in the ranks of the great contributors to society, either. But that isn’t the way it turned out. So all students need the careful attention, intellectual nurturing and smartly crafted strategies that wonderful teachers can offer.

Whether our society can sufficiently imagine, and then create, the changes necessary to make that happen is the question.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.