No Child Left Behind

Dr. Sam Goldstein

The achievement of basic academic skills – reading, writing and mathematics, has become a national priority. Two years ago, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. Currently Congress is wrestling with re-structuring a second piece of legislation re-authorizing services for students with disabilities. These legislations are focused upon two goals. First, improving the literacy rate of American students and second, spending dollars mandated for education on sound programs demonstrated to facilitate the first goal. But might there be a price to pay if limited funds are diverted from some programs towards others? If the goal is a basic threshold of literacy for all, then an unspoken but perhaps acceptable outcome would be a decline in the literacy level of the most advanced students in our schools. In this month’s article, I will leave it to you to decide whether there is in fact going to be a cost to gifted students in our efforts to improve literacy for all students. Some of the statistics I review may surprise you.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, reporter Daniel Golden suggested that the push to make all public school students proficient in reading and math by 2014 may be leaving some of the strongest behind. The No Child Left Behind Act expands the federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education. It was designed to reinforce the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the main federal law regarding kindergarten through twelfth grade education. The No Child Left Behind Act emphasizes accountability by making federal dollars for schools conditional on meeting academic standards and abiding by policies set by the federal government. According to the No Child Left Behind legislation, schools face penalties if they do not continually raise their proportion of proficient students both overall and within various racial and other categories. Schools that miss milestones may be required to pay for outside tutors, change faculty and allow parents to transfer children to other “higher performing” schools. The No Child Left Behind Act set strict requirements and deadlines for states to expand the scope and frequency of student testing, revamp their accountability system and guarantee that every classroom is staffed by a teacher qualified to teach in his or her subject area. Schools are required to improve their student’s achievement from year to year. The percentage of students proficient in reading and mathematics must continue to grow and the test score gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students must narrow. The No Child Left Behind Act has four basic points. The first reflects accountability of states for all students in their public schools. The second emphasizes the use of research validated education programs and practices. The third expands local control and flexibility giving states and school districts greater flexibility in the use of federal education funds in exchange for meeting accountability requirements. Finally, the fourth expands parental options but possibly at the expense of school districts. Students attending Title One schools, for example, that fail to improve are given the opportunity to attend a school in which students perform better within their district. Students who attend a persistently failing school, for example, are permitted to use Title One funds to obtain supplemental educational services from the private sector. Keep in mind the Federal government provides only 8% of the cost of education to states and local school districts. Some school districts and states are and will consider refusing these funds because compliance with the Act may cost them much more.

Ironically schools face no penalties if top students decline in their level of functioning as long as they are above the predetermined proficiency threshold. Stanford University Education professor, Michael Kirst, suggests that to abide by this law schools may be shifting resources away from programs that help the most gifted students because “all the incentives in No Child Left Behind are to focus on the bottom or the middle.” For example, Illinois eliminated its nineteen million dollars in state funding for gifted-talented student programs this year. This led some school districts to reduce programs for top students. California reduced funding for similar initiatives by ten million or 18%. This represents a more significant cut than imposed on most other state funded education programs.

Connecticut does not provide state funding for gifted-talented students. However, 22% of Connecticut school districts reduced or abolished programs they have been funding on their own last year. Golden reports that in East Providence, Rhode Island where several schools have fallen short this year of goals mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, plans are in the works to drop a program for the most promising elementary and middle school students while increasing funds for reading initiatives. According to Golden, school officials repeatedly point out that the No Child Left Behind Act is a contributing factor, if not the cause of these cutbacks. Further, some have suggested that the effects may be felt even more so by gifted, low income, minority pupils whose parents do not have the discretionary income and therefore lack the options of shifting their children to private schools or providing community based enrichment.

National test scores also appear to reflect the shift in priorities. Low achieving public school fourth and eighth grade students have posted larger gains nationally since 2000 than top students. In fourth grade reading, for example, the bottom 10% of students jumped ten points on a 500 point scale. The top 10% of students showed only a two point gain. In eighth grade math the bottom 10% of students rose seven points on a similar scale compared with just one point for the top 10%! Golden reports that U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, Eugene Hickcok, suggests that top students made smaller gains because “it’s easier to bring a student up from an F to a C than it is from a B+ to an A.” From a scientific and statistical perspective, such a statement is pure nonsense. It is clear that the Bush administration’s highest education priority is to narrow the achievement gap between minority and other students.

One of the primary reasons gifted-talented education is vulnerable to cutbacks is a lack of legislative mandates to provide service for these students. From my perspective, it has typically been the education system’s perception that good students will thrive and survive despite, not necessarily because of their educational experiences. Thus, there has been limited interest and support in legislating mandatory programs for gifted students. Yet, as has been pointed out time and time again, this group of students is over-represented in their ability to successfully progress through advanced post-high school education and ultimately make important and significant contributions in our community. This is not to suggest, as authors Hernstein and Murray recommended in their controversial book, The Bell Curve, that social policy should be based on student standing but rather acknowledging that gifted-talented students often have illustrious academic and vocational careers.

Believe it or not, the federal contribution for the approximately three million students meeting gifted-talented educational criteria is just 11.2 million a year for research and state grants! More than twenty-five states require school districts to offer gifted-talented student programs but few provide more than cursory funding to cover the cost of these programs. In addition to eliminating last year’s grants for gifted-talented education, Illinois has stopped requiring school districts to identify top students or to develop programs for them. Instead, an additional twenty-nine million dollars was ear marked for identifying preschoolers at risk for educational failure. Perhaps the most dramatic representation of shifts in funding initiated by states in an effort to meet the No Child Left Behind Act reflects choices made by the Illinois legislature. In 2003, nineteen million was earmarked in Illinois for gifted children. This has been reduced to zero in 2004. In contrast, as noted, aid for at risk preschoolers increased from 184 million to 213 million. Keep in mind that in addition to IDEA, the Americans for Disabilities Act also protects disabled and disadvantaged students within the school system, however, there is no equal legislation to protect and nurture the educational needs and rights of gifted-talented students.

As I noted, minority students may be even at greater risk because statistics suggest they are already under-represented in gifted-talented programs. A federal survey in 2000 found that African Americans made up 17% of public school students but only 8.2% of those in programs for the gifted. Hispanics made up 16% of the public school population but only 9.6% of those in programs for the gifted.

I do not profess to be an expert in gifted-talented education. From my perspective, the best of these programs do not necessarily set their goal on accelerating students’ achievement vertically but rather, exposing students to a broad diversity of educational experiences. It means little if a sixth grader can read at a twelfth grade level but is not provided with a diversity of science and humanities course work to begin developing an understanding of our complex world. From my work with thousands of children and families during my career, this model of gifted-talented education can benefit many more students than just the top 10%.

What do you think? What direction are we headed in American education for all students? Those with disabilities and those fitting the gifted-talented threshold? Developing an educational system that allows all of our students to attain basic proficiency and reach their academic and cognitive potential is a noble and essential goal for this millenium. Yet as I have learned in my clinical and scientific work, it is naive to assume that our efforts to meet this important goal may not create new risks and liabilities.