Study suggests high-achieving students are being left behind in U.S. schools

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

The Fordham Institute today released a report on two fascinating studies about the state of high-achieving students under the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative. The studies indicate that while the lowest-achieving (10th percentile or below) students have indeed made gains as measured by standardized tests since (but not necessarily because of) the institution of NCLB, the highest-achieving students are languishing, making almost no improvement and in many cases not receiving the same amount of attention and opportunity as the lowest-achieving students.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Teachers are much more likely to indicate that struggling students, not advanced students, are their top priority.
  • Low-achieving students receive dramatically more attention from teachers.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Shouldn’t we be putting our resources where they’re most needed?

Teachers don’t think so. Even though their schools are devoting the majority of their resources to struggling students, 86 percent of teachers in the study indicated that schools should focus equally on all students, and not focus so heavily on those who are in the lowest percentile.

Another interesting tidbit from the study: Low-income, black, and Hispanic high achievers on the eighth-grade standardized math test were more likely than their struggling peers to be taught by experienced teachers. These students also were as likely as their higher-income peers to have teachers who majored or minored in math.

The Fordham Institute explains the implications of its studies:

Neither of these studies sought a causal link between the No Child Left Behind Act and the performance of high-achieving students. We cannot say that NCLB “caused” the performance of the nation’s top students to stagnate any more than it “caused” the achievement of our lowest-performing pupils to rise dramatically. All we know is that the acceleration in achievement gains by low-performing students is associated with the introduction of NCLB (and, earlier, with state accountability systems). Neither can we be sure from these data that teacher quality explains why some low-income, African-American, and Hispanic students were able to score in the top 10 percent on the 2005 eighth-grade math NAEP, though there does appear to be a relationship between the experience and education of math teachers and their students’ performance.

The national survey findings show that most teachers, at this point in our nation’s history, feel pressure to focus on their lowest-achieving students. Whether that’s because of NCLB we do not know (though teachers are certainly willing to blame the federal law). What’s perhaps most interesting about the teachers’ responses, however, is how committed they are to the principle that all students (regardless of performance level) deserve their fair share of attention and challenges. Were Congress to accept teachers’ views about what it means to create a “just” education system–i.e., one that challenges all students to fulfill their potential, rather than just focus on raising the performance of students who have been “left behind”–then the next version of NCLB would be dramatically different than today’s.

The authors of the report write that this unintended consequence–the lack of progress of high-performing students–is “worrisome for America’s future competitiveness.”

What says the blogosphere? Plenty, even though the report was just released today.

On the Fordham’s blog, Flypaper, Mike Petrilli explains how schools might better measure their accountability to students under a revised version of NCLB:

Everyone’s right that policymakers can tweak No Child Left Behind to create incentives for schools to pay attention to the top students and the bottom students (and everyone in between). A new version of the law could, for example, expect schools to help all of their students make progress over the course of the year (not just the ones below “proficiency”). It could give schools credit for helping more students reach the “advanced” level on state tests (though these still not be high enough). And it could allow out-of-year testing so that assessments could accurately measure how far above grade level bright students are—and could then determine whether or not they are staying well above grade level over time.

Eduwonkette writes about the liability of models of accountability that, like NCLB, are based on proficiency rather than growth. Systems that focus on a proficiency goal ask lower-achieving students (and their schools) to make larger gains than higher-achieving students, who likely have already met or exceeded the proficiency target. Accordingly, the high-achieving child grows less than does her struggling peer. This model doesn’t take into account students’ initial levels of achievement.

At the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondiscio writes about his frustration with schools’ relative lack of attention to the highest-achieving students:

These are the students I refer to as “Not Your Problem” kids. As a teacher, when I raised concerns that my brighter student[s] were bored and neglected, and expressed frustration at my inability to sufficiently differentiate instruction to challenge them, I was dismissed by an assistant principal who pointedly said “those kids are not your problem.” She meant I was to focus on getting my low-achieving students to proficiency; the high achievers were already there and could be left to their own devices.

I’m positively giddy to see this issue getting attention. It was my No. 1 concern as a classroom teacher.

Melissa Westbrook provides a nice roundup of this study and another one that came out this week about the efficacy of the SAT on predicting college success. She’s glad to see low achievers making progress–after all, she points out, “If it had been high achievers moving forward 16 points and lower achievers moving ahead 3 points, there would have been howls.” Her conclusion? “We need to work for all students across the board.”

Corey Bunje Bower doesn’t see a problem with the study’s findings, especially when one looks at the problem from an international perspective:

Given that the low-performing students in the U.S. lag behind low-performers in other countries while high-performing students hold their own against other high-performers (previous post), it’s hard for me to see this as anything but a good thing.

Brigitte D. Knudson has a long, thoughtful post on the commodification of education. An excerpt:

Beyond the implications for college, No Child Left Behind and the standardized testing movement have fueled an entire industry. In Michigan, where I teach, the Michigan Department of Education is required under No Child Left Behind legislation to provide Supplemental Education Service Providers — tutors — to students whose schools or school districts fail under the act. Interestingly, this has allowed tuturing centers, like Sylvan, to prosper (Sylvan Learning Centers represent the largest block of SES Providers on MDE’s 7-page list, with 25 of the 112 available choices for parents in the state, no doubt partly because of their corporate identity and slick marketing provided to franchise owners).


Education is now big business — for-profit in many cases. There are even seminars aimed at prospective small-business owners to suck them into the “Education Industry,” because education, like everything else in the United States, is not about our children, it’s about making a dollar. Yes, folks, the business model applied to education — the commodification of education. They even have a website: Don’t let the sweet little pictures of parents and children fool you — it’s not about parents and children, it’s about entepreneurs making money. Even if your kid isn’t at a failing school and you need a tutor, these places can work to get you LOANS! One Sylvan Learning Center touts that it will work with “SLM Financial, a subsidiary of Sallie Mae, to ensure children get the tutoring help they need.


Testing to improve our students? How about testing to exploit a new economy? SAT. ACT. Tutoring Centers. Remedial tuition dollars. Banking and loans. Anyone smell a skunk? How about No Child Left Unscammed?

Personally, I don’t have a problem with entrepreneurs entering the educational field–after all, there are some truly excellent educational consulting and publishing companies out there. However, like Knudson, I do have a problem with businesses taking advantage of parents–particularly low- and middle-income parents–because of a government mandate that students perform at a particular level on a standardized test.

Over at Eduwonk, Andrew Rotherham elaborates on the tough choices highlighted by the Fordham Institute’s report.

Choices do have to be made. It doesn’t mean that we throw different groups of student under the bus, but any accountability system that holds people accountable for everything holds them accountable for nothing. So choices have to be made about emphasis. And considering the yawning achievement gaps, graduation rate gaps, and outcome gaps that separate poor and minority students from other students, that’s where I’d argue the emphasis should be placed. And, within those groups of students on the wrong end of the achievement gap are plenty who with better schools would also be recognized as gifted.

There are certainly steps that policymakers can take to help lessen the zero-sum nature of these choices. They can, for instance, also reward schools that do a great job with high achieving students as well as closing gaps (something they can do under No Child Left Behind now but few do in a meaningful way). Or, we can think about various non-regulatory accountability strategies, for instance giving parents more choices within the public system, to create some countervailing forces. And of course, states and localities should invest in programs for gifted kids and ways to stretch them.

What are your thoughts?

Mr. Rogers sends his love

Here’s a video that makes me tear up every time I watch it, but I wanted to share it because I think it embodies nicely what I’m trying to do with The Multicultural Toybox:

Why I created The Multicultural Toybox

lesliepurpleblogher.jpg I’m white. My nearly two-year-old son is white. My husband is white. So is just about everyone in my extended family. Why should I care about multicultural toys?

Because I’ve always been uncomfortable with homogeneity, and I want my son to feel the same way. Even as young children, my sister and I would shift uncomfortably and point out when we were among only white people. For example, at age 10 as my sister scanned the crowd at a local church’s holiday craft fair, she announced, “It’s going to be a very white Christmas.”

When it comes time to open presents, I don’t want all my son’s Christmases to be white. I want him to have a variety of playthings that are fun and educational and sustainable. And I want people of color to be represented on and among these toys because as a Californian that’s the world he lives in.

The Multicultural Toybox also represents my commitment to human and civil rights. I grew up in a household that, while not explicitly antiracist, embraced progressive values. I remember asking my mother in first grade: “What’s a fag?” After ascertaining I had heard this word on the playground, she explained that “fag” is a derogatory term for gays, and that I shouldn’t use it. And I asked her about gays, and she said “It’s when a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. And that’s okay.”

My interest in cultural differences, in whiteness, and in gender led me to pursue (and finish!) a Ph.D. in cultural studies. Much of what you read on this site is informed by the lessons I learned in graduate school, both in class and, much more informally, as the only white person in my cohort of students. I do not write The Multicultural Toybox to “represent” or to show, in the phrase of one of my classmates, that I am “down with the brown.” Rather, The Multicultural Toybox represents a genuine search for a better world that begins with children’s playthings.

Truth be told, I care as much about ethical toys as I do about multicultural toys. We can’t always afford to keep to the most stringent standards for ethical toys, and friends and family give my son mass-produced toys that are made of plastic (and, as we learned recently from the toy recalls, lead paint) and come only with white dolls and figurines. These days, it’s expensive to have a conscience. But I try anyway, and I invite you to join me on the journey.

If you have any questions or suggestions for improving the site, or if you just want to share with me a link to a relevant toy you’ve found or created, you can always direct them to me at leslie AT multiculturaltoybox DOT com.  If you own a toy store or market a line of toys or dolls, I’d be happy to discuss advertising options with you.

Many thanks for your readership.