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No genius held back?

Glaskowsky reviews Time Magazine's recent article, "Are we failing our geniuses?"

I agree with the nominal goals of the No Child Left Behind Act (badly organized official site here; slightly more accessible Wikipedia article here):

• Teachers should be highly qualified

• Teaching methods should be wisely chosen

• Student progress should be tested

Unfortunately it appears that the Act isn't really achieving all of these goals, and that in pursuit of these goals, other important purposes of the public education system are being neglected.

This isn't the place for a full overview of the Act and its consequences, but I would like to plug an important article that appeared on Time Magazine's website on Thursday. The article, titled "Are we failing our geniuses?" and written by John Cloud, describes how the Act is causing the public education system to neglect a small but important minority: the "gifted."

Cloud makes some useful observations, and I generally agree that gifted students also deserve the chance to achieve their full potential, but I think he's drawing the wrong specific conclusions from the data. The essence of the article is summed up in three sentences from the sixth paragraph:

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. 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.

Is this fair? Of course, that depends on what you mean by "fair." Some people believe that fairness comes from equal results. Others believe in equal opportunity or equal spending. There's also the question of what's most fair to the taxpayers who fund the program; perhaps the most fair result is the one that achieves the best results for the money.

If you believe that the educational system should be designed to give all students an equal education, all I can do is say "good luck." There's only one way such a plan can end: in the world of the late Kurt Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron," which is well worth looking up if it doesn't ring any bells for you.

If you believe in equal spending per pupil, I can understand your position, but I think that plan also isn't going to achieve the results you want. Some students are eager to learn and have good study habits; what they need most is for the educational system to just stay out of their way. Some other students resist learning; overcoming this resistance is certainly worthwhile in principle, but in practice it can be arbitrarily difficult.

So I think we shouldn't devote extra educational effort to "gifted" students, or to those whose intelligence is well below average (commonly referred to as "other people's kids"), for those reasons alone. Intelligence should have nothing to do with it, and we shouldn't use standardized tests that impose arbitrary minimum standards that some students simply won't meet.

The greatest return on the educational investment comes from spending time and money on students in proportion to the benefit they can derive from it. Expending substantial resources for a large benefit to a 80th-percentile student is more worthwhile than using the same effort to yield a small benefit to a 20th-percentile student. And that observation is just as true the other way around: it's better to make substantial progress with a 20th-percentile student than to put in the same amount of work to deliver only a small benefit to a 80th-percentile student.

This approach makes it clear that students who at risk of being a net drain on society-- those who make it to secondary schools without being literate, for example, or who are involved in criminal activities or drug abuse-- deserve extraordinary effort as a matter of simple economics. There is no net cost to saving a child from a life of crime or unemployment.

While well-intentioned, the No Child Left Behind Act isn't having the results we were promised. But the best plan, at least in my opinion, isn't much more complicated. It just requires understanding the potential of each student and investing our limited educational resources where they'll do the most good. That policy may not lend itself to dramatic sound bites or appeal to specific constituencies such as parents of the "gifted" or the "developmentally disabled," but it's bound to achieve better results for society as a whole.