Stephen J. Schroeder-Davis: Federal rules leave gifted kids behind

  • October 22, 2009 - 10:17 AM

No Child Left Behind is the federal education law designed to eliminate student achievement gaps in America -- specifically, achievement gaps related to race and economics.

The law's effectiveness has received mixed reviews. But in terms of a third achievement gap -- the chasm between what gifted students could learn and what they are actually learning -- NCLB has produced significant, if unintended, results.

Why? Imagine this scenario: You are Ms. Jones, a fifth-grade teacher. You know that among your 30-plus pupils, several are below "grade level," some are near that benchmark and several are above it.

The quotation marks are used to indicate that "grade level" is a misleading designation that suggests students of the same age are similar in their ability to read, reason and concentrate.

In fact, a typical fifth-grade class could represent a continuum of 12 grade levels in a fundamental skill such as reading. This means there will be students with emergent literacy skills (just learning to decode) alongside students reading at a post-high school level.

Let's call the struggling student Nickleby, the average student Loman and the gifted student Harrison. For which of these students are most teacher education, curricula, texts, staff development and resources intended?

If you answered that they are intended for Loman, you would be partly correct. Most curricula are designed to accommodate the "typical" student's learning needs. Classrooms have for years been designed to teach to the middle, leaving students at the margins in danger of being underserved.

So what of our two atypical students, Nickelby and Harrison? Struggling Nickelby is protected by No Child Left Behind, which demands that all students, regardless of obstacles, must reach a "grade-level standard" at a designated time. NCLB receives $66 of every $100 in federal education funding, and the draconian punishments for noncompliance ensure that our struggling students will receive the outsized portion of Ms. Jones' time and attention.

What then, will become of Harrison, who mastered fifth-grade requirements years ago, and who is therefore as much at-risk as Nickleby of being underserved? What resources and laws will protect him and see that he makes appropriate yearly progress -- or, for that matter, any progress at all?

None. There are no provisions in NCLB to support gifted students, and these students receive less than 3 cents of every $100 in federal education funding.

No single educational standard can be appropriately challenging for all students, and the NCLB standards are not remotely challenging for gifted students. While teachers scramble to raise the test scores of underperforming students and to maintain the scores of grade-level students, too many gifted kids are languishing as they wait for curricula and instruction that will challenge them.

This fact is demonstrated by research recently released by the Fordham Foundation. Tracking students over seven years in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math, the study revealed that low-achieving students (those in the bottom 10 percent) were progressing in reading at five times the rate of high-achieving students (those in the top 10 percent), and at three times the rate in math.

In other words, the achievement gap is being narrowed by the wholesale neglect of our gifted students.

If gifted students were receiving appropriate instruction, the achievement gap would widen every year due to their ability to learn at rates exceeding that of their peers. The fact that gifted students are learning comparatively less demonstrates the severity of the neglect they are experiencing.

Education should not be a zero-sum game in which some students prosper at the expense of others. America has sufficient resources to support and challenge our Nicklebys, Lomans and Harrisons. But with the current accountability systems and funding disparities, our most capable students will continue to experience the tragedy of neglect, boredom and an ever-widening gap between what they are learning and what they are capable of learning.

Stephen J. Schroeder-Davis is a curriculum specialist for the Elk River School District. The opinions here are his alone.

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