Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: No high achiever left behind, please
E. Finn, Jr., Amber
M. Winkler, and Janie Scull
In the latest edition of National Affairs, education scholar Rick
The No Child Left Behind Act’s signal contribution has
been [a] sustained fixation on achievement gaps—a fixation that has been almost
universally hailed as an unmitigated good.…Such sentiments are admirable, and
helping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and
important aim. But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated
While Hess is the latest observer of this achievement-gap
obsession, he is by no means the only soldier in this camp. Many analysts worry
that various government policies and programs, including NCLB, tend to “level” pupil
achievement by focusing on the lowest-performing students and ignoring—or,
worse, driving resources away from—our strongest students.
Fordham has previously provided some ammo for these
worriers. In 2008, Brookings
scholar Tom Loveless tracked NAEP results of high achievers—and found they
made little progress as a group over the last decade. Until now, however, no
one had examined the achievement of top-performing students over time at the individual level. This week,
Fordham released a groundbreaking study that does exactly that: Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?
Performance Trends of Top Students. The study
asks a simple question: Do youngsters who outscore their peers on standardized achievement
tests remain at the top of the pack year after year? Put differently, how many
“high flyers” maintain their “altitude” over time? How many fall back toward
Earth, Icarus-like, as they proceed through school, losing the academic edge
they once enjoyed?
To answer these questions, Fordham enlisted analysts from
the Northwest Evaluation Association™ (NWEA) to examine achievement trends for students
who scored extremely well on NWEA’s own highly-regarded assessment, the
Measures of Academic Progress™ (MAP).
In this study, we defined high achievers as students who
score at the 90th percentile or above according to external norms, but we also allowed
for as many students within the subset being tracked to enter those ranks as
qualified to do so.
If the schools these students attend are adequately
challenging them to continue learning at high levels—and providing them the
instruction they need to do so—one would logically expect most of them to
maintain their lofty standing over time. On the other hand, if these youngsters
are left to fend for themselves while attention and resources are showered on
their lower-achieving peers, one might expect them to drop closer to average.
To be sure, only a naïf would expect every high-achiever to stay that way forever: Some will surely lose
altitude. But if many falter, this should set off alarm bells. It would be
especially concerning if many high flyers within particular groups—say, girls, or
minority children, or those attending high-poverty schools—descended over time.
So, what did we learn?
- Nearly three in five high flyers maintained their status over
time, but 30 to 50 percent “lost altitude.”
who fell didn’t fall far: In fact, the majority of these students remained at
the 70th percentile or higher.
math, high flyers grew academically at similar rates to low and middle
achievers. In reading, however, they grew at slightly slower rates.
to make of all this? We see four takeaways.
Nearly three in five high flyers maintained their status over time, but 30 to 50 percent 'lost altitude.'
First, many students
maintained their high-flying status but many lost it: You can choose to view
the results as a glass half-empty or half-full. Some may say there’s no good
reason that a child who initially performed at the head of the class shouldn’t
continue doing so—and something valuable is lost when that doesn’t happen. They’d
be right, too. There are real consequences for graduates who descend from the 90th
to the 70th percentile in terms of merit-based aid and choice of college, maybe
even of high school or program within the high school. It is up to the parents,
schools, teachers, and so on, they’d say, to ensure that a child with that much
demonstrated potential maintains buoyancy.
On the other hand, we ended up with more high achievers
overall than we started with. “Late bloomers,” as we called them, entered the
ranks. Surely that’s good news, and consistent with the American belief in
second chances and upward mobility.
Second, and more
distressing, the progress of the high achievers didn’t keep up with that of
their lower-achieving peers, at least in reading. In fact, high achievers grew
about half as fast from third grade to eighth grade as low-achieving
elementary/middle school students, reducing the gap between the two groups by
over a third. One could celebrate such gap-closing, but one could also be
dismayed by the “leveling” at work. We can hypothesize that many factors
contributed to these results—perhaps NCLB’s focus on low-performing schools or
Reading First’s focus on struggling readers. We simply don’t know—but we are
Third, poverty amongst
one’s schoolmates may not be the thief of high performance that we once thought.
Exploratory findings in the study cast doubt on the notion that wealthy
suburban schools produce greater academic gains for students than their poorer
counterparts. These findings echo the original 1966 Coleman report. Perhaps
growth over time for the highest-achievers has little to do with the schools
they attend and much to do with what’s happening for them personally and at
Finally, while the progress (and the declines) that
many students make over several years are notable (and in the former case
praiseworthy), they’re not staggering. We applaud those who moved from middle-
to high-achieving status but let’s note that most of these kids were already
above average at the outset. What we’re not seeing is students clawing their
way into the high-achieving ranks from the 20th, 30th, even 40th or 50th
percentiles. Instead, students come in and out of the top decile but basically
stay within the top third. No, these aren’t the kids that education reformers fuss
about. They aren’t catalysts for campaigns to expand school choice, or initiate
weighted student funding, or end last-in-first-out policies. They don’t tug at
the heartstrings like the needy children in our most wretched school systems.
(Some high achievers do attend those schools, mind you.) But they deserve
attention, too: Eight, ten, twelve, seventeen years old, with little more than
luck determining whether they finish their school careers simply “above
average” or among the country’s top achievers and brightest hopes for the
future. What will we do to bolster their odds?
|Click to listen to commentary on Fordham's "High Flyers" report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
News Analysis: Ed reform goes global
Fordham's ideas of ed reform
spread far and wide
(Photo by Simon Koleznik)
After the 2009 PISA results went live and catalyzed our latest “Sputnik moment” (and after the release of any international assessments results, for that matter), America found itself humbled—and even a bit sheepish. Within the month, reports emerged—and continue to roll in—that further document our middling performance and set forth lessons to learn from abroad. Finland, South Korea, and Singapore were idolized. This week, we at Fordham are picking ourselves up and dusting off our knees. Heck, we’re even cracking a faint smile. A recent piece in the Economist points to increased school choice, strong standards and accountability systems, and decentralization as pillars of systemic success. Going further, the article showcases Poland’s fourth-largest city, which has significantly moved the needle on student achievement by adopting a “no excuses” culture and accountability model. Empowering school leaders helped spur change in Ontario’s schools. Unscientific, sure—but, for now, we’ll take it. Expect more from us in coming months on how other nations are implementing these reforms (and, what, if anything, we can learn from them).
News Analysis: A promise of what, exactly?
By 2015, South Korea will be entirely
textbook-free, with students accessing content through tablet computers.
Uruguay offers a PC to every pupil. Can you feel the fear of being left on the
wrong side of education’s digital divide creeping in? So could Arne Duncan (and
unlikely bedfellow Reed Hastings). Last Friday, the Secretary announced
the official launch of the dormant Digital Promise nonprofit, a government-funded but
privately run entity intended to “advance breakthrough technologies” in
education, “while creating a business environment that rewards innovation and
entrepreneurship.” (Though this Digital Promise initiative was first written
into federal code through the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, it has
gone unfunded, and largely forgotten, until Duncan’s recent revival.) The
free-market backlash was swift, with Jay Greene warning that, at best, the feds
would stifle innovators with a bureaucratic government agency, and, at worst,
facilitate another Solyndra-esque debacle. Yet warnings of an
education-industrial complex may be premature: Digital Promise has potential to
spur needed technological breakthroughs—if it sticks to basic research
and development. (While the feds have proven themselves wholly inept at guiding
the market and choosing winning innovators, they are well-placed to invest in
early-stage research, a vital component to tech advancements, but one that is
rarely lucrative for private investors.) And although the actual Digital
Promise website is discouragingly vague, there are some signs that it may do just that. If so, kudos to the DOE.
If it goes further than that, Jay can say, “I told you so.”
|Click to listen to commentary on Digital Promise from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children,” by Arne Duncan and Reed Hastings,
Wall Street Journal, September 19,
Solyndra of Digital Learning,” by Jay P. Greene, Jay P. Greene Blog, September 19, 2011.
Unveils Digital Promise Center,” by Ian Quillen, Education Week, September 15, 2011.
Review: Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators
This inaptly named annual report from the OECD (the volume runs to some 500 pages) offers a plethora of data points for member nations looking to size themselves up against their peers. It will tell you how many students graduate from high school and from college—and the relative earnings of each group (a college degree pays off most handily in Brazil and the Eastern European countries). It will tell you how much is spent per pupil—and what the public and private investment in education is (only Chile, South Korea, and the United Kingdom see more than 20 percent of their education funding coming from the private sector). Along with all these crunched numbers, the OECD provides an interesting analysis of how schools are held to account in its member states. Generally, a combination of three mechanisms—regulatory, performance, and market accountability—is used, though the balance within this combo is shifting. Regulatory accountability has historically been the main story in most member states, but performance accountability—in the form of low-stakes national assessments (now given in thirty of the thirty-five member states at the primary level) and high-stakes national examinations (given in twenty-three of thirty-five nations at the upper secondary level)—is gaining ground. (As for market accountability, we’re told that it’s “emphasized” by countries as important but is rarely seen in practice, as the necessary conditions for its success—widespread school choice, student-based funding, and information access among them—simply don’t exist.) If you’re interested in another pile of informative data—or want more than just the skinny on accountability abroad, dive in.
Review: Recruitment, Retention and the Minority Teacher Shortage
This report by UPenn professors Richard Ingersoll and Henry May answers a touchy question in education reform: What causes the minority-teacher shortage? To this end, the authors compile data from all six cycles of the NCES Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) and its supplemental Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS) (running from 1987-88 to 2007-08)—though they focus on the 2003-04 SASS and 2004-05 TFA. They find that the minority-teacher shortage does not arise from poor recruitment: Over the past two decades, the white teaching force has increased by 41 percent while the minority teaching force increased by 96 percent. (Interestingly, both the male and female minority teaching forces mushroomed in this manner.) Rather, our dearth of minority teachers comes from low rates of retention: For four of the six SASS cycles, minority-teacher turnover rates were significantly higher than those for white teachers. And this gap has widened in recent years. And don’t blame poverty rates for the turnovers. While minority teachers are more likely to work in low-income urban schools, neither factor (poverty rate or urban status) affected their mobility. Instead, Ingersoll and May find that minority educators in schools with the worst organizational conditions (lack of classroom autonomy, ineffectual administrations, and undisciplined students) were almost twice as likely to exit the profession as those in schools with the best organizational conditions. (Though white-teacher turnover was also influenced by these conditions, the affect was much less severe.) Can’t blame them.
|Click to listen to commentary on this UPenn paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Review: State Capacity for School Improvement: A First Look at Agency Resources
With the Obama/Duncan NCLB-waiver announcement
imminent and support for state-run accountability systems swelling, this
Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) report is especially timely.
Using “budget forensics” for eight states—including California, New York, and
Texas—analysts evaluated how these jurisdictions allocate funding, and inferred
each state’s capacity to spearhead school-improvement initiatives. The upshot:
State education agencies (SEAs) aren’t yet ready to take up the mantle of
school improvement in toto—on this
front, they lack both experience and funding. (Louisiana was the one outlier,
as the state oversees NOLA’s Recovery School District.) While CRPE’s report reaches
few actionable conclusions, it does raise a warning flag for policymakers
re-crafting state accountability systems: Before states can get very far with school
improvement, a solid foundation must be laid.
Review: Teaching America: The Case for Civics Education
America’s laser focus on reading, math, and
(recently) science blinds us to our current crisis of civic illiteracy.
STEM-proponent Norm Augustine makes
this point in the Wall Street Journal
this week. And an impressive roster of luminaries—including former Justice
Sandra Day O’Connor, former education secretary Rod Paige, and CMO founders
Seth Andrew and Mike Feinberg—does the same in this volume. Edited by WSJ assistant editor and wunderkind David
Feith, the book features twenty-two brief and wide-ranging essays articulating
the problems with civics education, explaining what works in the K-12 classroom—even
how to fight civics neglect in the ivory towers of universities. Unfortunately,
the number and diversity of authors yields a bit of a cacophony of policy
objectives: Don’t look here for consensus or clear conclusions. Instead, you’ll
find in this volume a worthy array of thoughtful observations and
recommendations. Which is a pretty good civics lesson in and of itself.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Go Bloo!
Mike and Rick raise the bar this week,
discussing high achievers, Duncan’s digital promise, and the textbook-company
oligarchy. (Oh, and Rick confesses he has a reform-crush on L.A. Mayor Antonio
Villaraigosa). Amber tackles minority-teacher retention and Chris dives head
first into an NCAA lawsuit.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: SBAC math specifications don’t add up
By W. Stephen Wilson
As part of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative, two state consortia have formed to create common assessments linked to the CCSS. Below is feedback on the draft math assessment plans of one—the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).
…The conceptualization of mathematical understanding on which SBAC will base its assessments is deeply flawed. The consortium focuses on the Mathematical Practices of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) at the expense of content, and they outline plans to assess communication skills that have nothing to do with mathematical understanding....
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Gentrification Generation staying home?
A new generation of affluent, educated, urban Americans is beginning to send its children to school. Their dissatisfaction with the lack of choice and the status quo of failure in urban education will be far more personal than their elders’—and it represents a golden opportunity for choice advocates able to mobilize these parents....
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Gadfly Studios: Reform School: Mike Miles
Mike Miles talks about student achievement and
the pay-for-performance system he’s implemented in Colorado Springs’s Harrison
School District, where he’s superintendent. Watch the video
Briefly Noted: On strike, shut it down
- Tacoma, WA students: Turn off the TV, sharpen
your pencils, and pack up your knapsack. After seven
days on strike, a court injunction to return to work, and day-long
negotiations brokered by the governor, teachers in the Evergreen State’s third
largest city may
head back to class tomorrow. Teachers are voting on the agreement today;
details about its specifics won’t be made available until
those results are tallied.
- Virtual, digital, online. Blended, hybrid,
supplemental. For those trying to piece together the jargon-filled arena that
is digital, this new
brief from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers will come
- Got some free time next week? NBC’s Education
Nation is back. Cross your fingers it
- How about some free time right now (especially
as you near the end of this very informative Gadfly)? The latest National Affairs is now available.
With pieces in it by our own Checker Finn
(on education governance), Rick
Hess (on the achievement gap), and Marcus
Winters (on special-ed vouchers), one could even dub it the “education
- Everyone’s a winner during National Child
Passenger Safety Week (for those not up on motor-safety trivia, that’s this
week)! Tuesday saw the announcement of the 2011
MacArthur Fellows (including Harvard economist Roland Fryer) and the 2011
Broad Prize (well deserved, Charlotte-Mecklenburg). The 2011
McGraw Prizes were awarded on Wednesday.
- Detroit Public Schools are leapfrogging the Slim
Fast diet and going straight to Biggest Loser: The district is set
to axe 40 percent of its teachers in the next four years in an attempt to
close the deficit. An admirable notion indeed. But it’s still unclear how DPS
will decide which teachers get sent to the chopping block—and that will make
all the difference.
- Senator Lamar Alexander announced yesterday
that in January he will step down from his no. 3-spot in the GOP Senate
hierarchy. Why? Alexander wants his “independence back,” and wants to be able
to push more initiatives through the Senate in a bipartisan fashion. A novel
and praiseworthy pursuit—especially in today’s political climate. Let’s hope he
starts with his recent set
of smart education bills.
Keep an eye on L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The
union boss come politician is not just a straight-shooter, but smart on school
spending too. Even Rick
Hess is smitten.
Announcement: Map it out
Common Core, which focuses on bringing rich,
content-rich instruction to every American classroom, has released their
English language arts K-12 Common Core State Standards curriculum maps—for now,
check out the online version.
Like what you see? The more robust print edition is available for
Announcement: Will you engage me?
When it comes to effective education reform,
it’s all in the delivery. Luckily, the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, which
provides delivery support to state leaders undertaking ambitious reform
agendas, is looking for an engagement manager to solve problems and manage
relations with senior leaders of participating systems. Sound great? Scroll to
the bottom of this page
to learn more.
Announcement: Feel the power of philanthropy
The D.C. Public Education Fund—a nonprofit that
links the District’s public schools with private funders to spur education
reform in the District—is hiring for an executive director. If you’re a person
with A-one communication, fundraising, and program-leadership skills, looking
to improve student learning in the nation’s capital, here’s
Featured Fordham Publication: High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind
This 2008 publication reports the results of two
different studies investigating the state of high-achieving students in the No
Child Left Behind (NCLB) era. Part I of the report, by Brookings scholar Tom
Loveless, examines achievement trends for high-achieving students (defined,
like low-achieving students, by their performance on the National Assessment of
Educational Progress, or NAEP) since the early 1990s and, in more detail, since
2000. Part II, authored by Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett of the FDR Group, reports
on teachers’ own views of how schools are serving high-achieving pupils in the