Federal Opinion

No Child Gets Ahead

By Anthony P. Carnevale — September 25, 2007 6 min read
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In spite of all the political rhetoric about serving the needs of working families, we continue to squander the talents of their children. Grade school data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study suggest that there are more than a million grade school students from families making less than $85,000 a year who start out in the top half of their class but fall off the college track on the way to high school. There are more than 800,000 left in the top half of their class by the 8th grade, but only half will still be there when they graduate—and only half of those will ever get a two-year or four-year college degree.

These are not rich kids. They are a racially and economically diverse group. Half come from families that make less than $50,000 a year, and 20 percent come from families with an annual income below $30,000.

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They are the obvious “low-hanging fruit” whose harvesting would improve our educational performance and economic competitiveness, as well as the vitality of our culture and political system. They would leaven the economic and racial diversity of our campuses and, ultimately, in our best jobs. They also would blaze an upwardly mobile trail that others left even further behind could follow. And helping these students validates the uniquely American notion of social progress that has always been less about who gets what and more about who’s next.

By serving high-performing students from working families we serve ourselves. Compared to their more-affluent peers, top students from working families are more likely to use their college education to become public servants, such as schoolteachers, public administrators, or members of the civilian or military uniformed services.


Yet in spite of their performance, these extraordinary students from ordinary families get overlooked in American education. Good students from affluent families do well, in part, because they have hyper-parents with lots of well-to-do support systems working on their behalf. The lowest-performing students from the poorest families don’t get much, but they do get compensatory government aid, especially through federal programs funded under the No Child Left Behind Act. Students from working families are on their own.

The fact that these high-performing students continue to go unnoticed and unserved is evidence of deeper limitations in the current reform vision for American education, beginning with the No Child Left Behind law.

As presently constructed, NCLB doesn’t help high-performing students in general, and may actually hurt high-performing students from working families. The law promotes uniform statewide education standards that are subject to an inherent political gravity that pulls them down to the lowest common denominator, if only to avoid self-inflicted failure. As a result, standards do raise up the lowest-performing students by setting a firm floor under academic achievement, but can also pull down the high performers nearby because the bar is set too low.

In their present form, the federal and state standards create unintended consequences and moral hazards because they force indefensible choices between the poorest students and deserving students from working families.

Don’t take my word for it. In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Colleen Donovan, David N. Figlio, and Mark Rush found that schools with significant numbers of low performers respond to the rewards and sanctions in standards-based accountability schemes by shifting their focus to the lowest-performing students. They teach to the test, the researchers write, “dulling student and teacher creativity and limiting what students learn,” and generally ignoring students who can meet the standards. Such an approach, they say, “unambiguously harms college-bound students”—especially those in the same schools as low-performing students.

With lower standards on offer, many high-performing students from working families rush down to meet them. They give in to lower standards because their college and career expectations are fragile and they get less support at home and at school than students born into affluent families.

Erosion in the performance of high-achieving students often goes unnoticed, especially in schools with significant numbers of low-performing students. The higher-performing students are not challenged by the standards, or the standardized tests that come with them. They ace the standardized tests and continue to bring home the top grades in their classes, even as they fall further behind their peers in affluent public and private schools, where the primary focus remains high achievement.

Meanwhile, students in schools dominated by affluent families live on another educational planet, in an orbit defined by the gravitational pull of admissions requirements at selective colleges, not by the No Child Left Behind law or state standards. This is why almost eight in 10 students at the nation’s top 150 colleges come from families that make better than $140,000 a year.

What’s to be done? Raising standards would help, but efforts to raise state standards are an uphill struggle. Already, the most ambitious statewide performance standards are foundering on the shoals of Algebra 2, the early marker for students who are most likely to go on to college and have the best shot at middle-class jobs.

The way forward is to move beyond uniform standards altogether, toward individualized standards: standards tied to persistence and improvement in the educational performance of individual students. Individualized standards pass the Goldilocks test: They are never too high or too low. They are always “just right,” because the standard is fitted to the student, not the other way around.

Don’t get me wrong. We need to set a place for uniform standards (and the standardized-test makers who love them) in the states and even nationwide. But they should not be seated at the head of the table. Pride of place in education reform needs to be reserved for measures of individual student progress.

As presently constructed, NCLB doesn’t help high-performing students in general, and may actually hurt high-performing students from working families.

The basic regimen in establishing an accountability regime based on individual student performance begins with taking an accurate roll of the students. Seems simple enough, but our current student-records systems are so bad that we still have no idea how many students drop out every year. Once we find the students we need, records systems with individual transcripts can track each student through the K-12 pipeline.

More difficult by far is the development of tests that allow us to track and inform individual learning. Our current tests are statistical snapshots. They are too scattershot in their coverage of content to provide diagnostic information that can guide the more finite processes of teaching and learning in particular knowledge domains. And current tests are not aligned from year to year, so they do not measure individual students’ persistence or improvement.

The No Child Left Behind Act was a brave line in the sand on standards and accountability, and thanks are due to President Bush, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and Rep. George Miller for leading in this direction. But the doctrinaire fights over federal money and power are less important now that the idea of standards and accountability has traction in the states. Going forward, the law should focus less on uniform standards and more on helping states build capacities to meet standards, one student at a time.

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2007 edition of Education Week as No Child Gets Ahead


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