December 23, 2011

As Michael J. Petrilli and Frederick M. Hess noted [“At what cost academic parity? ,”Washington Forum, Dec. 16], emphasizing one policy lever for all students, no matter their circumstances, is ineffective in closing the achievement gap.

Increasing the number of minority students performing at the highest levels is a crucial goal, but it requires a systemic approach in identifying and serving all high-ability students, particularly those living in disadvantaged and underserved communities that have historically been devoid of quality gifted-education services.

The Obama administration’s one-size-fits-all approach fails to recognize that students will not be prepared to succeed in advanced and other demanding high school courses if they have not had challenging curriculums and teachers trained to recognize latent talent before they reach high school.

Failure to encourage all schools — particularly those with a high proportion of disadvantaged students — to focus on students with high potential exacerbates the challenges that impede success in gifted-education courses.

Academic giftedness is color- and economic-status blind. It’s time for those who create our education policy to recognize this reality so we stop wasting untold amounts of talent.

Jane Clarenbach, Washington

The writer is director of public education at the National Association for Gifted Children.

Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess set up a false set of choices for educators when they suggested that what’s best for our worst-off students is bad for high achievers. Should we then pursue policies that are best for high achievers yet bad for the worst-off students? The nation needs education policies that meet the needs of all students; that fully challenge and prepare students at both ends of the achievement spectrum. That’s why advocates have pushed to create opportunities for students of color and low-income students to access Advanced Placement courses. It is where they are most likely to get the qualified teachers, innovative materials and challenges they have missed in general-education courses. We cannot set up the expectation — or excuse — that these students cannot be prepared for tougher work.

Eric Cooper, Syosset, N.Y.

The writer is president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education.

Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess made the broad claim that “our single-minded focus on the closing of the achievement gap has almost certainly hurt our top students.” While our higher-achieving students deserve as much attention as others get, the data simply do not bear out the authors’ claim.

The authors cited two reports released by the Fordham Institute that show high achievers were being left behind. However, the reports really show that both high and low performers have seen academic gains but that low performers made gains at a greater rate. Isn’t this the improvement we’d like to see — high performers keep improving while low performers’ gains accelerate?

Mr. Petrilli and Mr. Hess also neglected to mention the fact that low-performing students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not typically receive the same resources as their higher-performing peers. For example, they have less access to highly effective teachers or high-level math. The data show progress is being made, but there is more work to be done before all students have an opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills they need to compete in the global economy.

Less focus on low-performing students would undermine the progress schools have been making. Mr. Petrilli and Mr. Hess were right to point out that extending these opportunities should not come at the expense of our high-performing students. Fortunately, the data show it has not.

Jim Hull, Burke

The writer is senior policy analyst for the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education.