Poor Analysis of No Child Left Behind in the Washington Post

“Gifted advocate” Susan Goodkin has an interesting, if flawed, criticism of No Child Left Behind in the Washington Post: that it damages the prospects of “our most capable children.” Essentially, Goodkin argues that NCLB forces districts and schools to become so obsessed with improving the scores of low-achieving students that they neglect students who are gifted.

Goodkin’s analysis is simplistic and incorrect. The assumption that there is a necessary tradeoff between resources for low achieving students and gifted ones isn’t proven. In fact, there is no compelling argument that the answer isn’t targeting educational resources better, or developing programs for each group of students.

Her arguments also ignore the fact that there is a huge gap in educational funding available to minority students–and the predominantly minority schools that are struggling under NCLB requirements. And, as Eduwonk points out, those students are hugely underrepresented in gifted education.

The great disgrace of American education has been an absolute failure to address the great needs of our students who live in poverty and our schools that struggle with huge disparities in resources. The Education Trust has a sobering take on these continuing disparities:

Every year, thousands of American children enter school already behind. Most Americans are well aware of that fact. What they often don’t know, however, is that instead of organizing our educational systems to make things better for these children, we organize our systems of public education in ways that make things worse. One way we do that is by simply spending less in schools serving high concentrations of low income and minority children than we do on schools serving more affluent and White children.
In other words, we take children who have less to begin with and give them less in school, too.

[Incidentally, in Montana the gap between revenues available per student in the highest and lowest poverty districts in 2003 was $1,202. Massachusetts, the state that consistently kicks the nation’s ass in tests, averaged over $400 more per student in high poverty districts.]

The answer to the failure of American schools is certainly not demonizing programs that focus attention on low-achieving students, many of whom have never been given an equal chance to succeed. Punishing students for the institutional failures of schools isn’t the answer, either. As flawed as NCLB is, the core is right–before the law mandated improving the educational outcomes of students at the bottom, many districts just ignored them–or drove them out. Blaming those students for wanting more attention and a chance to succeed is clearly not appropriate for a democratic society, nor is it effective education.

more complaining about the article below–just nitpicking

I encourage you to read the entire article–and might ask my students to do so as well, for examples of unsupported claims. Without ever citing a study, Goodkin claims:

  • [teachers] face no penalties for failing to meet the needs of high-scoring students.
  • 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…
  • Shockingly, studies establish that up to 20 percent of high school dropouts are gifted.
  • How much money will administrators allocate to providing advanced courses? How many of the most experienced teachers will teach honors, rather than remedial, classes?
  • At least Susan is familiar with hyperbole. As for the last comment, it may be the most inane remark in the entire article. Anyone with experience in American education knows that the most experienced teachers are not toiling away in remedial classes. Not even close to true.

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    About the author

    Don Pogreba

    Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
    His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
    In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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    • “The assumption that there is a necessary tradeoff” is dismissed as simplistic and inaccurate. The writer is correct…there should be no assumption made. However, schools across this nation make this assumption every day! Try arguing for the “appropriate education” for your child if he or she is not at jeopardy on the state tests.The response is bewildered blank stares and the action is NOTHING. There does not NEED to be a tradeoff but there IS a tradeoff! The attention of so many school administrators is focussed on the typical underachievers who are not performing well on the state tests that they are unable to see the children who are asked to sit in seats to
      warm them” and wait for the rest of the class to “catch up”.

      I also disagree strongly with the premise that addressing the needs of gifted children would “by necessity” neglect the minority and disadvantaged children of our nation. To the contrary! Gfitedness, if properly identified, is not a middle or upper class or a racial divide! There are as many minority and economically disadvantaged gifted students as those who are well off and Caucasian!In fact, we see that the lack of gifted education forces the “well-to-do” parents to serve their children outside the school (with distance programs, afterschool, and weekends) and thus there leaves no imperative for schools to educate ALL of the students in the classroom. Who suffers from this lack the greatest?A minority economically disadvantaged child whose parents do not know how to advocate for the child!This would be a child whose potential could make the difference for his or her own family…perhaps bring them out of poverty! So forget the rubbish about giftedness being elitist!I am concerned (and I am not the author) about those very children of whom you speak. I can take care of my own child who received no education in school, but I must advocate statewide and nationally to help the minority gifted child who has NO VOICE and for whom this neglect is reprehensible and undefensible. The rhetoric is old and banal…look into the studies…she doesn’t quote them, but they are there, actually (this was an op-ed and how many op-eds have bibiliographies?), so why don’t YOU do a bit of research?

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I think this passage might be the core of our disagreement. “Gfitedness, if properly identified, is not a middle or upper class or a racial divide! There are as many minority and economically disadvantaged gifted students as those who are well off and Caucasian!”

      I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, that’s not what is happening. Gifted programs (based on my experience in the schools and the research cited by Eduwonk) do not include poor and minority students at representative levels. Instead, they tend to become public subsidies for those most well off already.

      As for the research remark…well, she just could have done better. I don’t expect a bibliography, but I do expect verifiable claims if one is going to rely on ‘research.’ Take this sentence as an example:
      Shockingly, studies establish that up to 20 percent of high school dropouts are gifted.

      How much more credible would it have been if she wrote, “A study by Stanford’s Dr. John Doe showed…” I would think the WP would give her the five extra words to make her claim credible.

      My broader point is this. I do not believe that her tradeoff analysis is correct. However, if there must be a tradeoff, don’t we have an obligation to help thos historically disadvantaged?

    • I would certainly agree!We should help those historically disadvantaged…and they are probably suffering the most by not having thei most talented children appropriately educated.We are in a nation that prided it self for decades on the fact that the disadvantaged and the immigrants were able to work their way to “the top” if they studied. Now part of that is myth, but I know more than my share of those in past generations (Caucasion,African-American, and Latino)who were hard-working brilliant students who were appropriately challenged. I am finding it hard to locate these kids now.If one does not have a motivated parent or mentor with lots of resources and free time, you are left to sit and daydream in a seat in the classroom until “the others catch up”. By then, many of these kids have tuned out or dropped out (and I do have the citation somewhere on the dropout rate..it is a well-done validated study that will not make it into policy because it does not serve the political powers that be).The disadvantaged will be termed “rebels” or dropouts or “potential gang members” and the “advantaged” may be put on stimulants because they daydreamed during the years in which they were not asked to learn.This serves no one, but I worry that the disadvantaged are more likely to really suffer in the long run…they will not have another chance to prove themselves. The affluent kid might have a parent who finds other opportunities, or will have a teacher who along the way rescues him. The historically disadvantaged kid will have other things to worry about if he is not engaged, so will quit school to support his family or join a gang or just never meet his potential.

      I am a lucky one. A second generation American whose parents were in the generation that recognized certain talents and nurtured them…so my parents took all the advantages and got an education and made that mandatory in their own families.My husband was 1st generation with a similar story.Our kids, however,are not living in that world.My son is 8 and has not been given new information to learn from the time he entered school.We have tried two schools and worked with the system and we are homeschooling him for a while to rescue him from despair.If an upper middle class kid gets that despair,what can happen to a kid who doesn’t have any advocates, who doesn’t have a professional mom who will homeschool him for a while?I can advocate for him (in a very limited manner) but I really need to advocate for that disadvantaged rural or inner-city kid who runs into at least as many obstacles and has no one to rescue him.

      Does the gifted historically disadvantaged kid have any less of a right of appropriate education (a federal mandate) than the other kids?If he learns in a drastically different way (which many of these kids do) should he not be given the same breaks as a learning disabled kid?We do not have to rob Peter to pay Paul if we treat all of these kids with due respect…but we also should not ignore the fact that the gifts that a disadvantaged kid has been given have the potential to help the WHOLE COMMUNITY if nurtured…and we are not nurturing any of them!

    • I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I suspect we are closer to being on the same page than one might initially have concluded.

      I still object to the article’s conclusion that gifted children are the worst victims of NCLB. In a number of ways, the children who struggle are being pushed into a test-focused education that diminishes their desire to learn. It’s a simple recipe: take a student who lacks the skills necessary for success in high school, add a curriculum that is beyond their ability, and carefully measure their failure to achieve. The result? Less interested students, more dropouts.

      Having students sit in class, unmotivated and unchallenged, also must be ended. How do we deal with these two different students? Good teachers in every classroom. Teachers that are motivated and interested, maybe even bright themselves. As long as maintaining order while passing out worksheets is acceptable educational practice, even praised practice, we’re not going to help many of our students at all.

    • I also think we are closer on this debate than one would initially expect.However, I believe that the author is probably in this part of the continuum with us.For she did not say that gifted studetns were hurt more or “the most” by NCLB.She said that this segment of the student population is “conspicuously missing form the debate”. And that is true. It is current not PC to program for gifted kids in most of the nation.

      The issues of NCLB are affecting all of our children,mostly in negative ways, as you have noted.Teaching to the test hurts everybody and ROBS teachers of the chance to be cretive or to flex their creative muscles.They have no chance to stray beyond the curriculum to “seduce” studetns anywhere in the range (I got that word yeaterday from an interview with Frank McCourt on NPR…he used his stories to “seduce” his learners). It is a horrible situation for all!

    • I can’t see in the article where she says that gifted students are the worst victims of NCLB. She maintains that their needs are neglected. I believe she’s right.

      I also have my own problems with the Ed Trust report that you cite, and you touched on my disagreement with your comment on high quality teachers–simply putting more money into a low-income school isn’t going to help, unless the money is targetted appropriately. Lowering class size just for the sake of lowering class size seems to be the main idea many have, and it’s a bad one. The report used the 40% additional funding figure for high-need students without really talking about why that money would be necessary, and that lessens the impact.

    • Moving away from research, my experience would suggest that smaller class sizes do make a difference…when teachers actually teach. Writing instruction absolutely benefits from smaller classes–when students are actually writing.

      Perhaps the article did not make the claim that gifted children are the worst vicitms of NCLB, but it seems close. When she writes,
      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,

      it’s clear that she sees an enormous shift in schools away from gifted students towards struggling ones. I’m just not seeing that happen.

    • I think that the enormous shift has been away from individualization as a whole.New teachers are taught that they ARE able to differentiate curriculum without being taught HOW to differentiate.This hurts all students, because even the so-called average students may have vastly divergent learning styles.But it has been shown in reserach that the greater the standard deviation away from the mean in the gifted direction, the greater the learning style deviates.While teachers are rewarded (or conversely demoted) for results on “proficiency” scales, few are given the means to identify or teach the gifted. If you look at teacher training nationwide,little or no training (pre or inservice) is given on gifted learning.While you may say that one on one time helps that, it doesn’t help if you don’t know how to teach these specific learners or if you have learned myths such as “all kids even out by the third grade” or “no kid can understand division before the 3rd grade”.These factoids are rampant.

      What the author may have been saying is that the system is looking at failure as a measure of success, not incremental achievement.If we are looking at the class as a whole learning to read and one child learned to read at age 2 or 3, is that an appropriate measure?Or should we look at the improvement in the child who may not be rading but is making great strides (the bottom) or the child who has gone from reading for content to reading for finer meaning?

      By the way, the research is out there…it is just not in the schools of education at the undergrad level…there is a healthy research base in gifted education that is totally ignored by educational policy makers. It is easy to ignore making policy if you ignore the research.

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