Leaving the gifted behind

One of the biggest problems of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is its unrelenting emphasis on the underachievers in American schools. Because educators are forced to stress a minimum level of proficiency for all students, rather than challenge all children to meet their scholarship potential, kids who struggle with certain subjects command the lion’s share of classroom time and resources.

The most gifted students, meanwhile, suffer the boredom of repeating the lessons they mastered months or years ago. Principals can count on these kids to deliver solid test scores; whether the school is labeled a success or failure depends on the other students.

The cost of this policy is a tragic amount of untapped intellect, and it’s finally gaining the attention it deserves. The story of how American schools and No Child Left Behind are failing the country’s smartest kids is on the cover of the Aug. 27 edition of Time.

“American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn’t even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs,” John Cloud wrote for the magazine. “But it can’t make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.”

In his search for answers to the challenge of schooling super-smart kids, Mr. Cloud found a model right here in Nevada. The focus of his report is the Davidson Academy of Nevada, on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno. The academy is a tuition-free public school that has attracted profoundly gifted children from across the world who desperately want to kick their studies into overdrive.

The school, which opened last year, has only 45 students between the ages of 11 and 16. That most of them moved to the Reno area to pursue their dreams is a feather in the cap of the Silver State.

But this hub of achievement was not created by the state’s public education system. The school was conceived, funded and opened thanks to the considerable generosity of Lake Tahoe residents Janice and Robert Davidson, the developers of “Math Blaster” and “Reading Blaster” educational software and the co-authors of “Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds.”

Rather than attend classes by age or grade, students follow one of three tracks: “core,” “college prep” or “college prep with research.” Each student gets a custom-created curriculum.

Students must score in the 99.9th percentile on standardized tests and demonstrate the maturity required to handle challenging course work. Kids must prove themselves worthy of the opportunity. There are no enrollment quotas or caps for boys and girls, whites and minorities. If you’re smart enough, you get in.

Such a philosophy is criticized as elitist by many politically correct educators, who believe “that if most just try hard enough, we could all be talented,” according to Mr. Cloud. Just this month, Nevada’s higher education system wrung its collective hands over plans to mandate next year that incoming university freshmen achieve a minimum high school GPA of 3.0.

The Clark County School District has several magnet programs that offer more substantive academic programs, but they determine their enrollment largely through lotteries and quotas.

Some public schools recognize their brightest pupils through “cooperative learning,” which team smart kids with slower ones on group projects. A handful of local schools have found this effective in raising the floor on test scores. But whether it raises the ceiling, too, isn’t a concern.

Overall, the amount of resources the district puts into Gifted and Talented programs and Advanced Placement high school courses pales in comparison with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on remedial courses and test preparation for “special education” students.

It’s good news that Nevada, which has a notoriously weak charter school law, nevertheless has two of the country’s great success stories in the Davidson Academy and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. And if the Nevada Legislature embraced school choice and rejected the core beliefs of teachers unions, more alternative campuses might sprout up and apply greater pressure on public education systems to emphasize excellence, rather than 9th-grade proficiency.

If the U.S. economy is to remain competitive with those of other developed nations, it must follow the lead of European and Asian countries and do more to identify and challenge its most gifted children. School systems must create academies for advanced studies, and make students compete to get in.

Otherwise, the lasting legacy of No Child Left Behind will be the nickname advocates for the gifted have given the law: No Child Gets Ahead.

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