Closing the achievement gap, but at gifted students’ expense

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama high-fives a girl named Malia after reading "'Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the second graders in the library of Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, Va., Dec. 17, 2010.

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  • Our single-minded focus on closing achievement gaps has certainly hurt our top students @AEIEducation

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  • Only 5% of survey teachers said their advanced students were likely to get one-on-one attention

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  • What’s best for our worst-off students is bad for high achievers is blithely ignored by many school reformers

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President Obama’s remarks on inequality, stoking populist anger at “the rich,” suggest that the theme for his reelection bid will be not hope and change but focus on reducing class disparity with government help. But this effort isn’t limited to economics; it is playing out in our nation’s schools as well.

The issue is whether federal education efforts will compromise opportunities for our highest-achieving students. One might assume that a president determined to “win the future” would make a priority of ensuring that our ablest kids have the chance to excel.

To Obama, however, as for President George W. Bush, such concerns are a distraction at best. Last year the Education Department’s civil rights division announced that it would investigate local school policies that have a “disparate impact” on poor or minority students — signaling a willingness to go to court if department officials think that school systems have too few of such children in gifted programs or Advanced Placement courses. This bit of social engineering ignores the unseemly reality that advantaged children are statistically more likely to be ready to succeed in tough classes than are low-income children raised in households with fewer books and more television.

The result is a well-intended but misguided crusade to solve via administrative fiat the United States’ long-standing achievement gap: the dramatic differences in test scores between white and minority students and between middle-class and poor youngsters. The message to schools was unmistakable: Get more poor and minority children into your advanced courses or risk legal action by Uncle Sam.

Then, in September, the president offered states and school districts flexibility around onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act — linked to certain conditions. Among these: States must explain how they are going to move more students into “challenging” courses. The effect will be yet another push to dilute high-level classes.

The goal of helping more young people succeed in challenging coursework is laudable.But pushing ill-prepared students into tougher classes without adequate preparation isn’t doing anyone any favors.Indeed, the administration’s strategy has been tried. Nationally, the number of graduates who had taken Advanced Placement exams rose from 1 million students in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008. In a 2009 study of AP teachers, just 14 percent of educators said that the growth stemmed from an increase in the pool of qualified students. Half of the AP teachers in high-poverty schools said that their African American and Hispanic students were not prepared for AP instruction. Fifty-six percent said that too many students were in over their heads, with adverse consequences for those students and their better-prepared classmates.

"Our single-minded focus on closing achievement gaps has almost certainly hurt our top students."

Our single-minded focus on closing achievement gaps has almost certainly hurt our top students. In 1996, Rand Corp. scholars determined that low-achieving pupils benefit when placed in mixed-ability classrooms, faring about five percentage points better than those placed in lower-track classes, but that high-achievers score six percentage points worse in such general classes.

In 2008, six years after No Child Left Behind became law, a survey of teachers found 60 percent saying that struggling students were a “top priority” at their schools, while just 23 percent said the same of “academically advanced” students. Eighty percent said that struggling students were most likely to get one-on-one attention from teachers; only 5 percent said the same of advanced students.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association released a study in September that tracked more than 100,000 high-achieving pupils over time and found that more than one-third lost steam as they progressed through school. The Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless has reported that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in reading and math between 2000 and 2007, top students’ gains were “anemic.”

There are trade-offs here. But the possibility that what’s best for our worst-off students is bad for high achievers is blithely ignored by the Obama team and many other school reformers. (To be fair, it was ignored by the Bush team, too.) Advocates with a single-minded focus on closing achievement gaps have insisted that what’s good for the neediest kids is best for all kids. Those who question this mantra risk being labeled racist.


It’s not like we can afford to coast. Just 6 percent of U.S. eighth-graders scored “advanced” on the 2007 international Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessment, while many nations fared at least twice that well.
Implemented thoughtfully, a commitment to getting more students into advanced classes is an objective worthy of a great nation. But it’s not going to happen overnight — not without defining “excellence” down.


At this very moment, millions of high-achievers are waiting to be challenged. Meeting their needs is another objective worthy of a great nation. They deserve our encouragement, not our indifference.


Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Our Achievement-Gap Mania,” an article published in the journal National Affairs’ Fall 2011 edition.

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Frederick M.
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