One of my criticisms of NCLB is that it causes too many schools to focus all of their attention on the bottom 25% of a school’s population while ignoring the middle- and upper-level students. Some of the effects of this focus in my school are:
- fewer upper-level course choices in order to create more lower-level courses,
- larger class sizes for middle- and upper-level students because of smaller class sizes for low achievers,
- teacher time used to create new courses for lower-level students rather than refining other courses,
- school resources (support, supplies, etc.) diverted away from the majority to the minority,
- less teacher time for upper-level students because of the forced paperwork and attention on the lowest achieving students,
- curriculum cuts to lower the bar for students (to create higher passage rates), and
- the focus of the school’s efforts being on the teachers’ shoulders rather than placing a focus on the parents’ and students’ involvement as well.
Sam Dilon of the New York Times calls this “a Robin Hood effect.” His article highlights a study showing that one cost of pulling up the bottom 10% of students is the slowing of the upper 10% of students. Achievement rates slowed for the top students. Since “many schools organize instruction around helping low-performing students reach minimal proficiency,” one effect is that “little attention has been paid to the languid growth among high-achieving students, a trend with troubling implications for the nation’s economic competitiveness.” All of my school’s focus has had this same effect.
I call one other teacher and I Cassandras (after the Trojan princess who could foretell the future but was doomed to never be believed) because we said five years ago we would start cutting electives and stuffing kids into classes if they weren’t the lowest achievers. We were pooh-poohed but now no one scoffs because we’re doing it. Business classes are almost eliminated, the foreign language department is downsized, and upper-level offerings around the building are being squeezed.
Chester E. Finn, Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says this Robin Hood effect can be compared to sports:
If the only goal of a sports program is to get people over a three-foot hurdle, why would anybody be coached to get over a four-foot hurdle? They wouldn’t. So those who can already sail over a three-foot hurdle have no incentive to do anything except to sleep late.
While I don’t believe my school has completely abandoned the middle and upper students, I do believe we are sacrificing their challenges, their rigor, their progression, for the benefit of a minority of students. Obviously, I’d like to see us add rather than steal from Peter to pay Paul, but I don’t foresee the district providing the funds.
For me, the solution is not necessarily an entirely in-school one; it’s (again) a community problem as well. These lowest level students suffer from low reading levels, poor attendance, behavioral problems, and uninvolved parents (if the parents are present at all). Until legislators and district officials provide the means to create mandatory and consistent outreach programs (home visits, daily wake-up calls, traveling tutors, and the like), I don’t see a monumental change in the near future.
This is possible but ample support is needed. As Jim said at Washington Teachers, “there is no single panacea for education.” Teachers and the schools can’t do it alone.