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Education 2011: Excellence for All

by Frederick M. Hess

Getting past the minimum-standards mentality

School reformers of all stripes have for the past decade focused manically on “closing achievement gaps” that divide students along racial and class lines. But they have given short shrift to the needs of high achievers, middle-class students, and suburban families.

The school-choice movement has been almost solely about helping the worst-served kids escape awful schools, offering nothing to the three-quarters of families who like their schools and typically bought their homes because of those schools. No Child Left Behind’s accountability metrics, which are based on students’ clearing a minimal proficiency bar in reading and math, have provided little useful information about schools in which nearly all students achieve these modest aims. And in the hands of progressives, teacher-quality reform has entailed an energetic push to move effective teachers to the neediest schools and classrooms, thus stripping middle-class families of their favorite teachers.

This overall approach has signaled to suburban and middle-class voters that school reform is something to be tolerated rather than embraced. That helps explain why big education-reform packages, such as the one Mitch Daniels signed this year in Indiana, are once-a-decade phenomena. Happily, there’s a more promising path forward. It begins with recognizing two principles.

First, we need to talk more broadly about school improvement. No Child Left Behind (subtitled “An act to close the achievement gap”) has predictably placed enormous pressure on teachers and principals to prioritize remedial reading and math instruction above all else. In a nation whose future will rest heavily on the shoulders of a new generation of inventors and entrepreneurs, one need not squint terribly hard to see the problems with this strategy.

And second, we must recognize that advanced learners will have different needs than students who are struggling to catch up. We ought not to favor advanced students at the expense of others, but neither should we dismiss their needs. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been too willing to do the latter. Last year, the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division announced that it would investigate school policies at the local level that have a “disparate impact” on poor or minority students — signaling its willingness to take school systems to court for having too few such students in Advanced Placement courses or programs for the gifted. This bit of social engineering ignores the unfortunate reality that economically advantaged children are more likely to be ready for tough classes than are children from low-income families (who are disproportionately raised in households with fewer books and spend more time watching television).

Embracing a win-win reform agenda does not mean retreating on school choice, accountability, or teacher quality. Rather, it means moving beyond the pinched, redistributive logic of gap-closing and taking a broader view.

School-choice advocates have made their case primarily by highlighting the needs of low-income families desperate to escape lousy schools. This has been a sensible place to start, but it would be better to see school choice as part of a continuum of educational options. Some families will want wholly new schools, but others may prefer that their children stay in the local public school, for the most part, while taking a few classes elsewhere. After all, Gallup reports that 79 percent of parents give their oldest child’s school an A or a B, when asked to grade it, and just 4 percent a D or an F. Many such parents would nonetheless embrace a wider array of options when it comes to language, literature, and math instruction. Envision students opting out of their school’s mediocre French courses and instead using those dollars to purchase online instruction in Mandarin or Arabic, or forgoing their school’s lousy math instruction and instead taking math classes at a local community college.

In a welcome development, states are already deemphasizing No Child Left Behind’s single-minded concern with making sure students clear a minimum-proficiency bar and are focusing more on whether all students are making academic progress. This shift is no panacea, but it means that school performance is now being gauged in a manner that encourages educators to attend to all students and not simply the least successful ones. Another smart step would be for states to incorporate wider measures of excellence, ranging from cost-effectiveness to student performance in advanced courses, when holding schools accountable.

As for teacher policy, grow-the-pie strategies have been too rarely explored. Teach for America does remarkable work recruiting thousands of college graduates each year who feel a special mission to help the nation’s worst-served students. TFA and its imitators have expanded the pool of teachers by pursuing graduates who did not receive education degrees and would normally be prohibited from teaching by state licensure requirements. TFA’s experience has, consistent with research by economists Dan Goldhaber and Dominic Brewer, demonstrated that teaching licenses are irrelevant when it comes to predicting classroom performance.

But surveys suggest there are tens of thousands of other talented grads every year who also might be inclined to teach, albeit in less demanding circumstances and with less emphasis on a mission to “close the gap.” Rather than recruiting such candidates, reformers have ignored or dismissed them. Plenty of promising candidates might be enticed into teaching by starting salaries that average close to $40,000 for ten months’ work, the chance to make a difference, and the substitution of focused TFA-style preparation for vacuous ed-school courses. In a nation that scrambles to hire 300,000 new teachers a year, it’s hard to think of a more pressing educational priority than tapping new sources of teaching talent.

In the past decade, philanthropists, researchers, and education innovators have also kept a laser-like focus on serving the least proficient students and improving the worst schools. The best-known charter-school brands, for instance — ventures such as KIPP Academies, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and YES Prep — are unapologetically committed to gap-closing.

These schools are terrific, but their recipes aren’t designed for proficient, independent learners. For those students, alternative forms of innovation might be more valuable: for example, online tutoring geared to mastery of advanced subjects, computer-assisted instruction for second-language learning, or distance learning that makes it cheaper and easier to offer high-quality Advanced Placement courses, even in schools where there are only a few interested students (a terrific example is Florida Virtual School, which has served hundreds of thousands since its launch in 1997). The handful of innovators and charter operators already seeking to serve proficient students are often mocked for catering to “students who don’t need any more help,” and have difficulty winning the support of funders and federal agencies. The consequence is that the most interesting innovation in this area is happening outside of our public system — through the efforts of such profit-seeking ventures as the language program Rosetta Stone, the online tutoring outfit, and the nascent private-school chain Avenues: The World School.

Those who argue for reform that’s about overall excellence and improving the opportunities for all students have been tarred in recent years as anti-reform or racist. But laudable efforts to help our least fortunate students need not come at the expense of the rest. We can do much better by all our children — and the first step is escaping the pinched confines of the achievement-gap mentality.

– Mr. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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