The Excellence Gap
Our public schools are shortchanging their best students.
If an out-of-control national debt weren’t reason enough to worry about America’s global competitiveness, here’s another. Virtually all education reformers recognize that America’s ability to remain an economic superpower depends to a significant degree on the number and quality of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians graduating from our colleges and universities—scientific innovation has generated as much as half of all U.S. economic growth over the past half-century, on some accounts. But the number of graduates in these fields has declined steadily for the past several decades. A report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation concludes that “bachelor’s degrees in engineering granted to Americans peaked in 1985 and are now 23 percent below that level.” Further, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 6 percent of U.S. undergraduates currently major in engineering, compared with 12 percent in Europe and Israel and closer to 20 percent in Japan and South Korea. In another recent study, conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, the U.S. scored near the bottom relative to major European countries, Canada, and Japan in the percentage of college graduates obtaining degrees in science, math, computer science, and engineering. It’s likely no coincidence that the World Economic Forum now ranks the U.S. fifth among industrialized countries in global competitiveness, down from first place in 2008.
Making matters worse is mounting evidence that America’s best students—kids we’re counting on to become those engineers, scientists, and mathematicians—have had a drop-off in academic performance over the past decade. A recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study finds that the country’s highest-performing students in the early grades are losing some of that advantage as they move through elementary school and into high school.
Ironically, one reason for their slipping performance is almost certainly the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the most significant federal education-reform legislation of the past half-century. Partisan squabbling has stalled congressional reauthorization of NCLB for two years. But NCLB became law thanks to a rare bipartisan consensus that U.S. public schools were failing to turn out high school graduates who could flourish in a technology-based economy. Democrats and Republicans need to reunite and recognize that federal support for elite education—above all, in math and science—is essential for advancing America’s economic success.
No Child Left Behind was propelled by a moral imperative best expressed by President George W. Bush’s call to overcome the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The new law’s “civil rights” component shaped some of its unique features, including holding states and school districts accountable for their success in narrowing racial achievement gaps. Before NCLB, the federal government had sought to achieve some degree of educational equity through the Title I compensatory funding program, which sent nearly $200 billion to the nation’s highest-poverty schools over four decades. Title I yielded meager results, however, and suffered from lack of accountability. With NCLB, the federal government took a new, interventionist approach to education reform, requiring states and school districts to meet certain goals and mandates in return for Title I funds. The states henceforth had to conduct annual tests in reading and math for all children in grades three through eight, with the results—broken down by race, sex, and socioeconomic status—made public.
Unfortunately, NCLB also left the door wide open to the corruption of educational standards. The law demanded that all American students be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 and imposed increasingly onerous sanctions on districts and schools that failed to make adequate progress toward that goal—but then let each state set its own proficiency standard. To look good to the feds and the public, education authorities unsurprisingly lowered standards and found other ways to game the tests (see “Can New York Clean Up the Testing Mess?,” Spring 2010).
But NCLB’s accountability system led to another distortion, this one harming top students. Because the law emphasized mere “proficiency,” rewarding schools for getting their students to achieve that fairly low standard, teachers and administrators had an incentive to boost the test scores of their lowest-performing students but no incentive to improve instruction for their brightest. Robert Pondiscio, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation and a former New York City Teaching Fellow, describes how the process worked at his South Bronx elementary school. “Eighty percent of the kids in my fifth-grade class were scoring at the two lowest levels on the state reading and math tests,” he recalls. (Each student in New York State receives a test score from 1 to 4, with 1 signifying performance far below grade level, 2 below grade level, 3 grade level, and 4 advanced.) “Early in my teaching career, an assistant principal told me that the kids in my class already scoring a 3 or 4 ‘are not your problem.’ In other words, my goal should be to move the kids scoring at the lower levels up a few points on the scale. I was not specifically ordered to do this, but the message was very clear. My job was to get more kids over the lowest two hurdles, because that’s how the school was rewarded for good performance in the city’s accountability system.”
As a result, Pondiscio says, the few gifted minority students in his class didn’t receive any extra attention—attention that could have given them a better chance to pass the rigorous test for admission to one of the city’s elite specialized science and math high schools. That’s especially sad when you learn that the percentage of black students passing the admissions test for top-ranked Stuyvesant High School has dropped steadily over the past decade. Last year, it fell below 1 percent.
Writing in the Washington Post, California educator Susan Goodkin similarly showed how NCLB’s requirements were undermining high achievement in her state. “Teachers must contend with constant pressure to focus their attention simply on bringing all students to proficiency on grade-level standards,” Goodkin wrote. “My district’s elementary school report card vividly illustrates the overriding interest in mere proficiency. The highest ‘grade’ a child can receive indicates only that he or she ‘meets/exceeds the standard.’ The unmistakable message to teachers—and to students—is that it makes no difference whether a child barely meets the proficiency standard or far exceeds it. Not surprisingly, with the entire curriculum geared to ensuring that every last child reaches grade-level proficiency, there is precious little attention paid to the many children who master the standards early in the year and are ready to move on to more challenging work.”
And so, in the No Child Left Behind era, America’s elite students have often found themselves left behind—or at least taken for granted. “Let’s be honest about the trade-offs,” said Fordham Institute vice president Michael Petrilli, commenting on the institute’s study. “We’ve been making good progress for kids at the bottom and for poor and minority kids—that’s important. It just can’t be the only thing that we do.”
Though I was among the education writers who enthusiastically supported No Child Left Behind, I should have realized that by focusing almost exclusively on the educationally disadvantaged, yet ignoring the country’s future scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, NCLB—despite its framers’ best intentions—would damage America’s competitiveness. As noble as combating “the soft bigotry of low expectations” is, America’s global standing and economic well-being are more likely to be improved by nurturing a culture of academic excellence and creating programs that support elite education in math and the sciences.
NCLB could easily have included reforms to benefit academically gifted students—for example, using financial incentives to encourage states and school districts to expand programs for gifted kids in the early grades and to create more merit-based science and mathematics high schools. The idea of strengthening elite education never entered the NCLB conversation, however; the civil rights agenda pushed everything else off the table. With Republicans trying to establish their civil rights bona fides, a bipartisan consensus formed to focus the new legislation almost exclusively on shrinking the racial achievement gap.
A decade later, despite indications of academic decline among the country’s top students, education policymakers still haven’t expressed much interest in improving instruction for high achievers. Look on the website of the U.S. Department of Education, and you’ll find the usual impossibly optimistic boilerplate about bridging achievement gaps. “Under the Obama administration,” says one report, “education has become an urgent priority. By 2020, we will close the achievement gap so that all students—regardless of race, income, or neighborhood—graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and careers.” Meanwhile, Congress eliminated $7.5 million in funding for the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Program earlier this year.
Regrettably, the states haven’t done much better in helping gifted youngsters achieve their best. Perhaps the best indicator of the states’ neglect is that fewer than 100 science and math high schools currently exist across the country, and they enroll only 47,000 students. This is an absurdly low number, particularly when you consider the declining number of American students pursuing advanced science and engineering degrees. Yes, there are lots of good comprehensive high schools, primarily in wealthy suburbs, that provide top science and math students with opportunities to excel, to take college-level courses, and to compete in contests like the Intel Science Talent Search. But as the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report points out, graduates of dedicated science and math high schools are, on average, better prepared for advanced college-level academics and far more likely to pursue undergraduate and advanced degrees in “STEM studies,” as educators have dubbed the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
Many states lack specialized math and science public high schools altogether. New York City, though, has eight, with admission to each determined entirely by the applicant’s score on a competitive exam. These eight schools present a model that, were it replicated throughout the country, would almost certainly raise the level of instruction for the nation’s elite students. The three largest of the schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech, with a total enrollment of about 10,000 students—have been around for a century. So has another, Hunter College High School, which begins in seventh grade. Three new schools, each with about 400 students, opened in 2001 on campuses of the City University of New York. And five years ago, a regular high school upgraded to specialized status.
It is remarkable that these schools have been able to maintain their uncompromising meritocracy. In the 1970s, New York’s quintessentially liberal mayor, John Lindsay, tried to get their admissions policy changed by claiming that the entrance test was “culturally biased.” (All the schools, Hunter excepted, use the same eighth-grade exam.) But parents at the schools pushed back and successfully petitioned the state legislature to preserve the test as the sole basis for admission by writing it into New York’s education law. Periodically since then, advocacy groups (including Acorn) have made similar charges that the admissions tests are biased and should be scrapped.
The specialized high schools, though, have repaid the city, state, and nation time and again by turning out thousands of extraordinarily talented graduates, some of whom have gone on to make great contributions in science, engineering, medicine, and the law. Bronx Science boasts seven Nobel laureates among its graduates and Stuyvesant four. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is a Hunter graduate.
This success has come despite the schools’ having to operate in less than ideal conditions. (I know this partly because both my sons attended Stuyvesant and my wife teaches in one of the new specialized high schools.) The 41-year-old state law that preserved the elite science and math schools as a meritocracy offered them no relief from the bureaucratic regulations and corrosive work rules that hamper every public school in the city. Among the worst regulations is the prohibition against hiring instructors who, though they may have advanced science or math degrees, lack the useless graduate-level education courses needed to qualify for a state teaching license. The single pay schedule mandated by the union contract is another obstacle to success. Thanks to it, a gym teacher at top-rated Stuyvesant will earn the same salary as a colleague with a mathematics Ph.D. teaching college-level calculus. In fact, the gym teacher will earn more if he has more experience or has taken 30 extra college credits in any subject. (The teachers’ union offers many of the courses that he can take to qualify.)
A decade after passing No Child Left Behind, Congress needs to correct one of the law’s most damaging oversights. An amended NCLB could direct the federal Department of Education to offer financial incentives to states to boost the number of competitive, specialized high schools like Gotham’s, but free of their bureaucratic and union constraints—just as the department already rewards states for such reforms as increasing the number of charter schools and creating new teacher evaluations based on students’ test scores.
These specialized high schools, in fact, could be charter schools. Education reformers under the sway of NCLB’s reigning philosophy have viewed charters almost exclusively as a way to lift up the educationally disadvantaged. But charters could also play a constructive role in improving instruction for the smartest students. Why shouldn’t we encourage universities’ engineering schools, say, to create charter engineering high schools? Competitive entrance exams for such a school could take place at the sponsoring university’s campus. Top students at the school could take college-level engineering courses and even obtain early admission to the university. Companies like IBM and Microsoft could sponsor similar charter schools for science and math.
America will gain if school reformers get over the idea that elite education is undemocratic or comes at the expense of the disadvantaged. Education scholar E. D. Hirsch recently reminded me that Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, laid out an education blueprint that included a separate, dedicated instructional track for the most academically gifted. “The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic,” proclaimed the Founders’ greatest democrat, “turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to.” The next iteration of No Child Left Behind should have a great deal more of this Jeffersonian belief that, though America’s schools should educate all children well, they should also nurture academic excellence for the good of our democracy.
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