"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Encouraging The Best And The Brightest–A Call For A More Elite Education

Chester Finn, writing in the New York Times (9.19.12) has reiterated an argument which I and others have made – it is time to redress the imbalance between spending on low-performing children and on the gifted, talented, highly intelligent, and most promising.  While this is not a call for ignoring the less fortunate nor for dismantling programs to assist them, it is a call for recognizing the disproportionate contribution talented youngsters make to society.

The reasons for this disparity in attention results from a misplaced notion that all children are born equal and if some fall behind, it is for no fault of their own.  Children are not born equal.  Some are born with those attributes which signal success in society – intelligence, perceptiveness, social acuity, drive and ambition, and confidence; and many more are born into families that recognize and nurture these native abilities.  The combination of innate ability and family support is a powerful one.

Unfortunately, once these children enter public school they are thrown into an environment of forced homogeneity.  Because all children are equal according to the ruling ethos, there should be no educational distinction among them – intelligent and slow learners should not only be in the same classes, but the more gifted should help the less well-endowed regardless of the consequences to their own educational development.  There is not one intelligence, say these ‘progressive’ social reformers, but multiple ones, all equal.  In this calculus athletic ability or artistic expression are the equivalents of traditional cognitive ability.  It does not matter of Jonathan cannot do math or read below grade level, he can excel on the sports field or on the dance floor.  Yet traditional cognitive abilities – the facility to do math, excel at reading, think logically and inferentially, write clearly and in a well-organized manner – are the keys to personal achievement and social success. 

Public education’s neglect of high-ability students doesn’t just deny individuals opportunities they deserve. It also imperils the country’s future supply of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs.  

Many school systems have dismantled gifted and talented programs in favor of programs for under-achievers; and those few that have retained them have treated them almost as an extra-curricular activity, not with the rigorous content necessary to challenge students to the limits of their abilities.

Finn and his colleagues did a survey of so-called ‘exam schools’ – public schools which do not consider family, race, ethnicity, or background for admission, only high scores on a rigorous test of traditional cognitive abilities.  These schools provide a top-quality, challenging education to every child who is admitted, an unequalled public sector opportunity.

Yet these schools have come under attack for being elitist and untrue to American democratic principles.  How can you admit students on the basis of test scores alone, these critics argue, when children from disadvantaged communities and families cannot possibly have the preparation required to do well on the test?  How can you comprise a student body with children of only one type of intelligence when there are many?

These fallacious arguments have served to push back these academically elite schools from their mandate and mission.  Of course children from intact homes with motivated parents will gain admission more easily than those without; but this is no reason to admit them.  It is a reason to obligate parents to take more educational responsibility early in their child’s development. 

Diluting the high-intensity intellectual environment of a school by admitting less qualified students would do a disservice to all.  One of the most important elements of top private schools is this competitive, high-octane environment where students challenge and learn from each other as well as from the teachers.

There has been an equally passionate but retrograde outcry against voucher programs which provide public funding for children to attend private schools.  This will drain the public school system of its best students, these critics say, leaving only the most dysfunctional and hard to educate.  Yes, but voucher programs finally allow families of limited means to have the educational choice that wealthier parents have always had.

It’s time to end the bias against gifted and talented education and quit assuming that every school must be all things to all students, a simplistic formula that ends up neglecting all sorts of girls and boys, many of them poor and minority, who would benefit more from specialized public schools. America should have a thousand or more high schools for able students, not 165, and elementary and middle schools that spot and prepare their future pupils.

The exhortation to ‘quit assuming that every school must be all things to all students’ is easier said than done.  Modifying  public education to create more equal opportunity for the talented requires structural reform.  First, school administrators have to reassess the prevailing philosophy that all students are equal, and accept the principle that some are more able than others; and that the duty of public educators is to recognize, promote, and encourage those students who will contribute most to civil society and economic productivity.  Third, these administrators have to be firm in their denial of local politicians who were elected by voters from poor, dysfunctional communities and who want every cent of public funds to address their demands. Fourth, they have to reject the persistent cries of elitism or reverse racism (favoring whites and Asians); and finally they have to recruit and train teachers to teach and challenge, not just babysit, the gifted and talented.

Given what we see in major city school districts like Chicago and Washington, DC, resistance to change is the rule not the exception; and unless there is some flexibility on the part of teachers and school administrators, public school systems will indeed be depleted of their best and brightest as they flee to private schools or elite ‘exam schools’. 

With their support for school choice, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have both edged toward recognizing that kids aren’t all the same and schools shouldn’t be, either. Yet fear of seeming elitist will most likely keep them from proposing more exam schools. Which is ironic and sad, considering where they went to school. Smart kids shouldn’t have to go to private schools or get turned away from Bronx Science or Thomas Jefferson simply because there’s no room for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment