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Equity & Diversity Commentary

Proficiency Is Not Enough

By Carol Ann Tomlinson — November 06, 2002 6 min read
The ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act fails to balance equity and excellence.

Throughout our history, Americans have stood strong for two bedrock values: equity and excellence. Defining equity in terms of access to opportunity, we remain a country that values the possibility that every child—even those born into poverty—can achieve eminence through effort. We are a better and stronger people, we continue to remind ourselves, to the degree that we support this journey. At the same time, we hold fast to the value of excellence. Americans want to be the best—in science, engineering, movie-making, athletics, and countless other endeavors. If something matters to us, we want, as a nation, to push the envelope of possibilities in that area.

Balancing these twin commitments, to equity and to excellence, is a challenge. But it is a nonnegotiable one if we are to become who we wish to be. Nowhere is the challenge greater than in public education. Yet, nowhere else do we find the means to achieve the balance that we seek. Schools are the primary pathway in our society to equality of opportunity. They also are the mechanism through which we train individual human minds to function at peak levels—and, thus, to collectively scale new heights as a nation.

Yet, one of the reasons it is so devilishly difficult to balance equity and excellence in our schools is that, despite the political rhetoric to the contrary, we simply don’t provide adequate economic support to nurture both goals. We have a substantial history in education, in fact, of supporting one to the detriment of the other. There have been few examples of our simultaneously giving attention to both goals. At times, we have come close to setting the fulcrum at a point of balance, but rarely have we done so. The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 appears to be another missed opportunity.

This federal legislation is a laudable advance toward equity. Its impetus to ensure that all children achieve proficiency in the foundational skills of learning is clear, and some financial support for doing so is forthcoming. It would not take much to adjust the legislation so that it also supported excellence. But for now, it does not.

At present, the No Child Left Behind Act aims the nation’s attention and resources at ensuring that nonproficient students move systematically toward proficiency. There is no incentive for schools to attend to the growth of students once they attain proficiency, or to spur students who are already proficient to greater achievement, and certainly not to inspire those who far exceed proficiency. To provide encouragement—even the impetus—to ensure that schools plan for the growth of every child, thus attending to both equity and excellence, would not require a great deal.

In most classrooms, there are students who can score at a level far beyond proficiency in that grade before each school year begins. Our educational history demonstrates clearly that teachers are prone to ignore these students in favor of learners in academic difficulty. Few, if any, provisions are made in general classrooms to ensure continuing challenge for advanced learners. In some cases, programs outside the general classroom, often meeting once a week for less than an hour, are designated as places that should provide this academic challenge.

Many other students in general classrooms, of course, have achieved proficiency, or will achieve it, prior to designated testing dates. The No Child Left Behind Act, with its focus on proficiency rather than academic growth, enhances the likelihood that this broad swath of learners will be all but irrelevant in daily classroom planning.

The act does nothing to focus our national conversation, teacher training, or classroom planning on what would be necessary to teach young people to be truly literate.

That we as a nation have elected to “raise educational standards” through a remediation-focused initiative is a familiar irony. Yes, decoding and encoding are clearly invaluable tools for opening access to educational opportunity. But we have known for a long time that true readers are born when young people discover meaning in literature; writers are born when children discover the potential of the written word for sharing stories and probing issues in their own lives and in the larger world.

Readers and writers are also thinkers, askers of questions that defy easy answers. One wonders what the differences for learners, and for the nation, might be if the power of the federal government lined up behind a curriculum designed to ensure reasoning and a passion to communicate. Wouldn’t this serve our young people better than defining success largely in terms of decoding and encoding?

Making sure children have the ability to decipher and record words is certainly a step in the direction of ensuring equity in education. The problem, however, is that by setting the bar of achievement at a level lower than what we ought to expect of any of our children, the No Child Left Behind Act does nothing to focus our national conversation, teacher training, or classroom planning on what would be necessary to teach young people to be truly literate. Once again we seem to forget that excellence and equity are required of a nation that wills itself to excel in the world.

Perhaps most regrettable is that this new legislation repeats a past pattern of approaching a group of largely poor and minority students with minimal expectations for achievement. That these students are often poorly served in school (and in society) is both evident and tragic. The question is whether they will be better served by an educational initiative that emphasizes baseline performance or one that is directed at ensuring their growth well beyond proficiency.

If the No Child Left Behind Act put its considerable force behind continuous growth for every learner, outcomes for students we seldom identify with excellence might be remarkably improved. Students who are currently nonproficient might well be better served (as would many other students) by a systematic plan to move the maximum number of learners toward excellence, rather than limiting the focus to something significantly less robust.

As it is now, No Child Left Behind supports the proposition that proficiency is good enough.

If the language of the federal legislation were amended, and the necessary funding provided to require planning for monitoring and ensuring the growth of every child, we would be far closer to an educational system primed to maximize the capacity of each learner. As it is now, No Child Left Behind supports the proposition that proficiency (which can be defined at somewhat minimal levels) is good enough.

An equity initiative that discourages attention to excellence—no matter how laudable its goals may seem—cannot take us the full distance we need to go as a nation. While it is a critical time in our history to ensure that vulnerable students are fully supported in growth, it is not a good time to tacitly post a sign on the schoolhouse door that says, “We have no serious plans for you once you are beyond proficiency.” At this moment in history, it would seem more essential than at most other times to make a clear statement of will and policy to ensure that we raise ceilings of performance as fervently as we raise floors.

How much more promising the No Child Left Behind Act would be if it genuinely ensured that no child would be left behind in terms of developing his or her possibilities—if it unreservedly supported both equity and excellence.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a professor of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Va., and the president of the National Association for Gifted Children, whose headquarters are in Washington.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Proficiency Is Not Enough

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