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NCLB’s unintended consequences

May 5, 2009

One of the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act appears to be that the highest achieving students are left to fend for themselves.

The intent of the No Child Left Behind Act was laudable – ensure that schools have incentives to educate the students who might otherwise get short-shrift (blacks, Hispanics, and low income kids) at least reach a minimal level of proficiency.  During the time NCLB has been in effect, the bottom 10% of students have shown solid progress, according to High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB, a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Essentially they are performing at one grade level higher than they used to before NCLB.  Although we can’t prove that NCLB caused that progress, at least progress is being made.

However, the highest achieving students are barely holding steady.

Why are gifted students “left behind”?

  • Heterogeneous groups of students require differentiation if all students are to make progress.  However, 84% of teachers say differentiated instruction is difficult to implement.
  • When the short-term incentives are based upon increasing the number of students reaching minimum proficiency, teachers are under pressure to focus on kids “on the bubble”.
  • Schools incur no consequences if high achieving students fail to make progress; they also do not earn any rewards if high achievers do make progress.

What progress are gifted students capable of?

Professor Karen Rogers, in her keynote speech at the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented convention in November, listed a number of programs that help gifted and high achieving students learn so fast that they can cover 1-1/2+ years of material in 1 year’s time:

  1. Full-time ability grouping
  2. Ability grouping for specific instruction
  3. Curriculum compacting
  4. Credit by exam
  5. Independent study
  6. Saturday programs
  7. Advanced Placement courses
  8. International Baccalaureate programs
  9. Online computer courses

So how can we change the incentive programs so that the gifted children are not left behind?

Here’s what teachers think would work:

  • 55% of teachers favor publicizing the test scores of academically advanced students, just as NCLB currently does for other subgroups.  As the adage goes, “what gets measured gets improved”.
  • 68% of teachers would open up more magnet programs and schools for advanced students.
  • 76% of teachers would like to see more homogeneous classes – e.g., classes specifically for the gifted.
  • 85% favor subject acceleration – for example, let a 5th grader move on to 6th grade math if she has proven her readiness.
  • Change the NCLB measures to report not just what % of a class meets the minimum proficiency but what % of individual students make “adequate yearly progress”.  In other words, if gifted student Sam did not increase his score results by a year’s worth of learning compared to where Sam scored the previous year, then the school failed to make “adequate yearly progress” for Sam.  In “The Gifted Children Left Behind“, Susan Goodkin, Executive Director of the California Learning Strategies Center, calls this approach “growth modeling”. It forces schools to focus on learning by all children, including the gifted, because each child must improve for the school to score well.

It’s time to make our measurements and our curriculum meaningful for gifted students.   Let’s make sure no child – including the gifted child – is left behind..

Statistics taken from High-Achieving Students in the era of NCLB, a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
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