Why do we penalize our best and brightest?

An open letter to the ANESU school district

I am a parent in this district. I am also an engineer, and in my career I've had the experience of dealing first-hand with the declining technical abilities of our college graduates. Since I believe this problem begins well before college, I've long been active in education and curriculum issues. In addition to winning a federal grant to develop high school math and science curricula and materials, I've been active at the district level in the 'Action Planning' process.

While much progress has been made in the lower grades, there is a large gap between the performance of American high school students and their peers in other countries1. What is interesting in the context of this discussion is that the gap is far larger if you compare our top students to the top students of other countries. It's simple - our average students perform somewhat more poorly than average students across the world. Our best students perform much more poorly than the best students in other countries.

What does this have to do with our district? Do we have educational policies and practices that might contribute to this problem? Our own data indicate that this may be the case. Historically, children in the ANESU district enter middle school with math scores far above their peers nationwide. By the time they leave high school, they've dropped to barely above average.

Perhaps in response to this problem, there have been many attempts to change the mathematics programs in grades seven through twelve. Unfortunately, these programs end up shortchanging the very students who have the potential and the motivation to make the greatest gains. Limitations with staff and scheduling exacerbate the problem, but in the end it is the students who are leaving the system without reaching their full potential.

If an elementary student does well in math, they may be nominated by their sixth grade teacher for advanced math in middle school. They must also take a test. If they do well enough on the test, they have the option to take a more advanced math course, currently known as 'Integrated Math'. Since there are few students who qualify, and fewer still who elect to take the more challenging course, there are inevitable difficulties with scheduling.

Unfortunately, many excellent students are also deeply interested in music. Participation in Band eliminates the possibility of any other 'exploratory' course, completely consuming the elective block in their schedule, which could otherwise be used to gain exposure to a range of other topics.

Those children who also elect to take Integrated Math must then give up half of their band periods. In Band, the result is that they are playing along with and graded on the same basis as students who are receiving twice the instructional time. There can be no question that this reduces the quality of instruction. These students must make substantial additional efforts outside class if they are to keep up, and there's little doubt that they fail to reach the same level of skill that they would have attained with daily instruction.

Additionally, seventh grade students receive only half the normal instructional time in Integrated Math. Just as with Band, this means the students must devote additional time and effort outside class to make up for the missing instructional time. This year, these students are also required to participate in the normal seventh grade math course, where they are tested and graded. In essence, they are required to take two simultaneous math courses.

My sense from the parent informational was that Integrated Math was being offered, but that it wasn't really encouraged. Just because a student had the ability, it didn't mean that it was a good idea to take the course.

It is no wonder under these circumstances that many students who are capable of the more advanced math decide not to accept the challenge. To me, this is an educational tragedy. I cannot imagine that we would treat a student with a real gift in any other area the same way. A gifted athlete is encouraged, cheered, and praised - we all want them to 'go for it' - to be the best that they can be. Enormous time and effort is devoted by the school and community to provide opportunities for students in sports, art, drama, and other areas.

The core mission of the school, however, is the education of our children. This means providing each child with the opportunity and resources to reach their full potential. For the child with academic gifts, what options do we provide?

Here is the package that we offer to our best and brightest in middle school:

It is a credit to the strength and ability of these students that most of them succeed despite these obstacles. The great pity is that we'll never know what they might have accomplished if they had received the same level of instructional support as their peers.

Bill Kuhns
September 2001