This was written by Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina. A version of this was published on Daily Kos.
By Paul Thomas
One aspect of the education reform debate that persistently gives me pause is the claim that top students are being short-changed in U.S. public education — specifically due to disproportionate time and money spent on struggling students. I have attempted to address this argument both seriously and satirically, but each approach has brought primarily defense of those neglected top students.
In their work on think tanks, “Think Tank Research Quality: Lessons for Policy Makers, the Media, and the Public,” the National Education Policy Center [NEPC] at the University of Colorado at Boulder has raised a strong caution concerning the poor quality of think-tank research:
“Unfortunately, according to Think Tank Review Project co-director Kevin Welner, professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, ‘Across the nation, think tanks are churning out a steady stream of often low-quality reports that use weak research methods, offer biased analyses, and make recommendations that do not fit the data.’ ‘Moreover,’ explains co-director Alex Molnar, professor at Arizona State University, ‘in the political process, the influence of a report often has little relation to its quality. As a result, new school policies and reform proposals frequently are based on research of questionable value.’”
The recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute report claiming yet again a crisis for top students illustrates the caution offered by NEPC as well as the cavalier ways in which the media perpetuate flawed studies that offer more ideology that evidence.
In his Room for Debate commentary for The New York Times, Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, established his argument about deprived top students with the following:
“Over the past two decades, ‘tracking’ as traditionally practiced has been virtually eliminated from the vast majority of America’s schools — with the exception of mathematics at the middle and high school levels. Whereas a typical middle school might once have had three tracks (remedial, regular and honors) for almost every academic subject, most schools have collapsed all this into one class. At the high school level, Advanced Placement courses — once reserved for the academic elite — have now been democratized through open-admissions policies. It’s ‘all together now,’ in a very real way.”
So let’s consider more fully the logical and evidence-based elements behind claims that U.S. public education is cheating the top 10% of students, specifically in order to meet the needs of the lowest achieving students.
First, as a point of fact, the top 10% of any identifiable group — income earners, students, professional athletes — are not disadvantaged. They are the elite, the advantaged, and the privileged. To focus obsessively about the plight of the top 10% is to bend to an idealism of elites that blinds.
Next, as another point of fact, we tend to identify the top 10% of students by test scores — standardized test scores that remain overwhelmingly correlated with the home characteristics of those students. Our top students are labeled as the best because of their privilege of birth far more than by their merit.
Now let’s consider a nuanced part of the recent claims that top students are being cheated. Are our top students being negatively impacted by the past 30 years of accountability, standards, and testing? Absolutely.
The accountability era has narrowed and reduced the quality of education in the United States for all students. But does the claim that top students are being under-served mean that other students are benefiting from that outcome? Absolutely not.
In fact, since educational attainment is most strongly correlated with out-of-school factors, the corrosive consequences of the accountability era have disproportionately, again, cheated average and low achieving students since they are less likely to have lives outside of school that can overcome any weaknesses in formal schooling.
Now, more narrowly, let’s consider Petrilli’s cavalier comment about tracking. Here, we are confronting one of the most troubling aspects of how we view schools as well as the reforms we seem to endorse.
Two facts about U.S. public education are rarely acknowledged and never addressed fully in any reform efforts coming from corporate reformers or politicians: (1) student outcomes in public schools reflect primarily the privilege and inequity that exist in our wider society, and (2) U.S. public education’s greatest failure is that schools tend to perpetuate those social privileges and inequities through the stratifying policies and structures of those schools.
Here are some facts against the claim that “[o]ver the past two decades, ‘tracking’ as traditionally practiced has been virtually eliminated from the vast majority of America’s schools”:
• Privileged children, who constitute the top 10% of high achieving students, have the advantage of higher teacher quality once they enter school:
“Every year, a large number of children enter school substantially behind. Sometimes that’s because of poverty. Sometimes it’s because they speak a language other than English. Sometimes there are other issues. But regardless of the reason, many children – especially low-income and minority children – are entering the classroom without the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.
“Unfortunately, rather than organizing our educational system to pair these children with our most expert teachers, who can help ‘catch them up’ with their more advantaged peers, we actually do just the opposite. The very children who most need strong teachers are assigned, on average, to teachers with less experience, less education, and less skill than those who teach other children.” 
• Despite Petrilli’s passing comment about lax Advanced Placement [AP] enrollment standards, the reality of U.S. public education is that tracking still exists, primarily in the formation of AP and International Baccalaureate [IB] courses that create stratified schools-within-schools where mostly white and affluent students sit in disproportionately smaller classes with experienced and elite teachers — while average and struggling students sit in large classes with beginning and un-/under-certified teachers.
• Top students often come from affluent homes that sit in affluent neighborhoods that feed affluent schools (or through their privilege, the parents choose to send the children to elite private schools); whereas, children living in poverty live in impoverished neighborhood feeding failing schools. When Petrilli refers to “‘tracking’ as traditionally practiced,” the irony is that we have been moving for some years toward re-segregating entire schools — most notably through the rise of the charter school movement. 
The harsh truth about U.S. public education and the 30 years of high-stakes accountability is that our schools are cheating all students. But that reality also reveals that students who come to school from poverty, speaking home languages other than English, and living with special needs, remain the populations failed most profoundly by our failure to address social inequity and educational equity. Why? Because we remained blinded by an idealism that privileges the privileged.
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