Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Excellence Gap

Sol Stern has a piece in City Journal which highlights one of the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act and with educational thinking in general over the last twenty five years.

In a nutshell, Stern argues that we've become so concerned with educating the weakest students and bringing them up to "proficiency" that we've failed to do all we can for the elite students who will comprise the next generation of technological and scientific innovators and engineers.

Here's his lede:
If an out-of-control national debt weren’t reason enough to worry about America’s global competitiveness, here’s another. Virtually all education reformers recognize that America’s ability to remain an economic superpower depends to a significant degree on the number and quality of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians graduating from our colleges and universities — scientific innovation has generated as much as half of all U.S. economic growth over the past half-century, on some accounts. But the number of graduates in these fields has declined steadily for the past several decades.

A report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation concludes that “bachelor’s degrees in engineering granted to Americans peaked in 1985 and are now 23 percent below that level.” Further, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 6 percent of U.S. undergraduates currently major in engineering, compared with 12 percent in Europe and Israel and closer to 20 percent in Japan and South Korea.

In another recent study, conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, the U.S. scored near the bottom relative to major European countries, Canada, and Japan in the percentage of college graduates obtaining degrees in science, math, computer science, and engineering. It’s likely no coincidence that the World Economic Forum now ranks the U.S. fifth among industrialized countries in global competitiveness, down from first place in 2008.
As bleak as this sounds, it may not be as bad as Stern suggests. So many people go to college in the U.S. that a low percentage of engineers could still be a large number in absolute terms. Nevertheless, he's on the mark in the rest of his essay. For instance he notes this:
Making matters worse is mounting evidence that America’s best students — kids we’re counting on to become those engineers, scientists, and mathematicians — have had a drop-off in academic performance over the past decade. A recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study finds that the country’s highest-performing students in the early grades are losing some of that advantage as they move through elementary school and into high school.

Ironically, one reason for their slipping performance is almost certainly the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the most significant federal education-reform legislation of the past half-century....NCLB became law thanks to a rare bipartisan consensus that U.S. public schools were failing to turn out high school graduates who could flourish in a technology-based economy. Democrats and Republicans need to reunite and recognize that federal support for elite education — above all, in math and science — is essential for advancing America’s economic success.

No Child Left Behind was propelled by a moral imperative best expressed by President George W. Bush’s call to overcome the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The new law’s “civil rights” component shaped some of its unique features, including holding states and school districts accountable for their success in narrowing racial achievement gaps.

Before NCLB, the federal government had sought to achieve some degree of educational equity through the Title I compensatory funding program, which sent nearly $200 billion to the nation’s highest-poverty schools over four decades. Title I yielded meager results, however, and suffered from lack of accountability. With NCLB, the federal government took a new, interventionist approach to education reform, requiring states and school districts to meet certain goals and mandates in return for Title I funds.

The states henceforth had to conduct annual tests in reading and math for all children in grades three through eight, with the results—broken down by race, sex, and socioeconomic status—made public.
The results, though better, are still pathetic. It's a dogma among education bureaucrats that "every child can learn," and though the dogma may even in some sense be true, so much effort and resources are expended in a futile attempt to demonstrate its truth that those who manifestly can learn don't get the nurture that we could and should be giving them.

The rest of Stern's article explains how this happens and the disadvantage it's putting us at in our competition with the rest of the world. If you're an educator or have kids in school you should read it.

At some point we have to recognize that, for whatever reason, there are large numbers of students who simply don't, won't, and don't want to, benefit from the educational largesse that is showered upon them and that it's a pointless waste of resources to spend billions of dollars in a vain attempt to raise their test scores by a few meager and meaningless points.