American Enterprise Institute education expert Rick Hess has written a characteristically thought-provoking essay arguing that education reformers focus too single-mindedly on the "achievement gap" — the difference between the test scores of low-income students of color and their white, middle-class peers. There's a lot to chew on in the piece, but here's my summary of Hess' main critiques:
1. In many schools, too little attention is paid to the needs of gifted and talented students
2. In an effort to "raise expectations," too many unprepared students are enrolled in Advanced Placement and other "college level" courses, whose curricula are then watered-down
3. Attempts to impose accountability on teachers by deploying student test scores ignore the fact that in middle-class and affluent schools, where the majority of students will easily achieve proficiency in reading and math, test score "growth" may not be the best marker of teaching success
4. In order to raise the reading and math scores of the lowest performers, less instruction time is devoted to the study of music, art, science, civics and other subjects that aren't considered "basic skills;" polls show that the majority of parents oppose such curriculum-narrowing
5. Other worthy civic and social goals, such as racial and socioeconomic integration, are no longer on the reform radar: "Philanthropic foundations that support education causes are interested in serving as many poor and minority children as possible; when 30% to 40% of a student body is made up of white or affluent students, the school is deemed suspect, as reform-minded foundations see such programs as "wasting" a third of their seats."
Hess astutely points out that this agenda takes the broad aims of the Great Society–reducing poverty and inequality and improving social welfare–and grafts them onto a single public institution that may not be well-prepared to fulfill such ambitious goals: the high-needs school.
What's more, the "eradicate the gap" agenda imposes a school reform mandate on all schools that has been crafted with only the poorest children in mind. As a result, middle-class and affluent parents feel disconnected from the school reform debate.
It's also true that point 1 (you shouldn't ignore the gifted) and point 5 (integration matters) are intimately linked. As I learned when I reported from my hometown of Ossining, New York several years ago, districts that cancel gifted and talented programs in an effort to raise expectations for all students are playing with fire: Engaged, affluent, well-educated parents may choose to withdraw their children from schools that don't offer enrichment programs, and that decision can negatively impact the entire student population. The trick, of course, is to offer enough G&T opportunities to challenge the academically talented while not simultaneously segregating gifted kids in totally separate classrooms, which threatens to undo many of the social and academic benefits of integration.
For this reason, I'm a big fan of an extended school day with rich afternoon enrichment opportunities for both the "gifted" and those who are struggling academically.
The last point I'll make is that Hess' thinking truly represents the convergence point between the right and left critiques of standards-and-accountability reform. Left critics of No Child Left Behind also complain about curriculum narrowing, over-reliance on test scores, and asking schools to do too much in lieu of a broader anti-poverty agenda. Progressives, though, would be less comfortable than Hess is arguing that school reform should focus more on middle class, affluent, or gifted students; instead, we tend to focus on how "choice and accountability" stratgies, despite their excellent intentions, continue to leave behind some of the neediest students, by requiring parents to jump through an ever more complicated set of logistical hoops to enroll their kids in decent public schools, for example.
I really recommend the Hess essay. Lots to think about and argue with.