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

Friday, December 16, 2011

Social Engineering in Education

I have written a number of posts on reforming education, and one of them focused on the tendency of school administrators to favor the disadvantaged over the more talented, skilled, and better-prepared.  While I endorsed such administrators attempts to improve the education of poor, minority, and otherwise marginalized students, I condemned the tendency to do so at the expense of the talented.  It is these very talented students who through accelerated and challenging learning in secondary and post-secondary schools, will graduate with an enhanced ability to contribute to the economy and to society. 

An editorial page article in today’s Washington Post by Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/closing-the-achievement-gap-but-at-gifted-students-expense/2011/11/21/gIQAe76ywO_story.html reiterate this conviction, and feel that national educational policies to address the “achievement gap” are in fact misguided attempts at social engineering.  They begin with this indictment:

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.

In short, schools have been pressured by the Department of Education to enroll under-qualified children in advanced classes with the result of undermining their very purpose – to provide additional academic challenges, content, and opportunity to the most talented – i.e., the students who are best able to take advantage of them. 

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.

Such idealistic, interventionist programs not only have the result of diluting the advanced academic environment, but of setting back the aspirations of those less able.  The insistence of the Department of Education, say the authors of the article, succeeded numerically, but failed qualitatively:

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.

Most school administrators, under pressure to show numbers, have neglected talented students who “lose steam” as the authors of the article relate.  They have been ignored and not receiving the attention, support, and encouragement they need (they may be intelligent, but they are still children):

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.”

The authors of the Post article conclude that once again PC is in play:

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.

I have argued in previous posts that there is no reason to accelerate under-performing students in elementary school.  Their lack of performance has to do with many social factors which affect educational competence.  Students living in dysfunctional families and in marginalized communities with little adherence to majority norms which value achievement, social order, and excellence – communities which have high rates of anti-social behavior (crime, drugs) – have little chance of realizing whatever potential they might have once in school.  Unless these social issues are addressed, young children will always come to primary school unprepared.  It is important to address the needs of these children and to raise their performance, but not to unrealistically accelerate them. In the authors’ words, we must define ‘excellence’ down – that is to address needs appropriately, to prepare the underachievers to perform at the norm.  Once they are at this level, the best can be selected and accelerated.

This principle should be applied to secondary and post-secondary education as well.  There should be more technical and vocational classes in high school, enabling students to learn according to their abilities and to gain the skills that will prepare them for productive economic work.

Similarly, not every student has to attend a four-year college – affirmative action and other similar programs that have introduced less-qualified students into a highly competitive environment have failed.  These inappropriately-accelerated students perform poorly, and are set back academically and emotionally by the experience.  Worse, racial and class stereotypes are perpetuated, and the environment for these students becomes toxic.  Public education in many states – Virginia, California, Michigan to name a few outstanding examples – offers a rage of post-secondary opportunities other than the four-year track, and students prosper at junior and community colleges, many of them progressing on to four-year institutions and to a post-graduate career of high-performance and excellence.

The goal of American education should be to give all students the best academic preparation possible.  Whatever their ability, students should be encouraged and helped to perform to their maximum potential.  This does not mean unrealistically accelerating students beyond their abilities and potential. 

What it does mean, however, is that the gifted, talented, and best-prepared students should also be encouraged to perform to the maximum of their abilities and given the guidance and tutelage necessary to do so.  Advanced academic programs which are dedicated to serving the best students should be as well-funded as those which favor the least advantaged.  

In closing, equality in education should mean equal opportunity to perform to the best of one’s abilities; not equal access to all levels of academic instruction.

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