Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Are We Pushing for Greatness? School Improvement Is about More Than Closing Achievement Gaps. Schools Also Must Balance Equity and Excellence

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Are We Pushing for Greatness? School Improvement Is about More Than Closing Achievement Gaps. Schools Also Must Balance Equity and Excellence

Article excerpt

An annual ritual for public schools involves developing or updating a school improvement plan (SIP)--usually over the summer, with the intent of starting the new school year with a clear sense of direction and a set of goals and objectives that can be measured. Sometimes, school administrators craft the plans; in other cases, cross-functional teams tackle the task.

School improvement planning has been around for decades, and, for decades, the plans have wound up on a shelf in the principal's office. But the overall push for education reform, including No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and state educational accountability systems, has ushered SIPs into a central role, especially in schools whose students consistently fail to meet benchmarks. These schools are required to submit their SIPs to state authorities and district offices. Principals and sometimes faculties increasingly are evaluated on the extent to which they accomplish SIP goals and objectives.

Yet, are educators addressing the right set of goals when they develop SIPs--all of which have goals calling for raising achievement of all students and narrowing achievement gaps. And what about goals related to educational excellence? Have efforts to improve schools neglected high achievers?

Concern over mediocrity

A growing chorus of critics is voicing concern about the achievement gap, but not the gap between well-to-do and poor students, or white and nonwhite students. The gap that most worries them is the one between U.S. students and students in other industrialized nations. Among the 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, the United States ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics. And the U.S. high school graduation rate of 76% falls below the OECD average of 80% (Schleicher, 2011).

Educators used to acknowledge that American public schools struggled with low achievers, but they insisted that high achievers held their own with high achievers anywhere in the world. But support for this confidence in the brightest American students is beginning to erode (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2011). There is recent evidence that many U.S. students who start out as high achievers slip back over the course of their schooling (Xiang et al., 2011). A report by the Center on Education Policy found that one-third of the states in its study saw declines in the numbers of high school students scoring at "advanced" levels between 2002 and 2009 (2011). Moreover, achievement by top students in 4th- and 8th-grade math and 4th-grade reading between 2000 and 2007 remained stagnant, while low achievers made significant progress (Hess, 2011).

No single factor can account for these disturbing developments, but many have blamed the heavy emphasis on preparing students to pass state standardized tests. For the most part, the tests focus on the basic knowledge not the advanced learning necessary to stretch top achievers to the boundaries of their abilities. That's why students who perform well on state tests frequently do less well on international assessments, such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Focusing on basic knowledge, of course, is not a problem unless the preoccupation with getting all students to pass these tests of basic knowledge precludes efforts to move more capable students beyond the basics.

Frederick Hess argues that NCLB fostered a "universal and exclusive focus on low-achieving kids that ignores the fact that different education strategies work best for different kinds of students" (2011, p. 3). He goes on to observe that Advanced Placement courses, once the refuge for high achievers seeking greater challenges, increasingly have been compelled to admit disadvantaged students, citing results from a survey of Advanced Placement teachers in which 56% of the respondents believed that too many of these students "were in over their heads. …

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