High Achieving Kids Need Options, Too

By 09/01/2009

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On Friday, Tom Loveless and I published an op-ed in the New York Times that argued that our nation’s highest-achieving students are only making minimal gains in the era of NCLB, while low-achieving students have made huge strides since 2000. Much of the feedback has latched onto this latter point, with NCLB haters decrying our implication that the law has been successful at all. (And they have a point that we shouldn’t have implied causation by writing that “It is clear that No Child Left Behind is helping low-achieving students.” Our original wording was more careful, but alas, we goofed. NAEP can never prove causation of anything, one way or the other. Still, the thrust of our article was to criticize a Center on Education Policy report for being too kind to NCLB! So the reaction is a little ironic.)

But we’ve also heard from quite a few parents of high-achieving children, desperate for good options for their kids. Here’s a note from one such parent; it’s well worth reading.


Thank you for your NYTimes Op-Ed piece “Smart Child Left Behind” and your questioning of how well we are doing to educate the gifted.

Certainly in these uncertain economic times, encouraging the full potential of all our children should be the highest priority, if only for the sake of our national competitiveness. But as you noted, many advocates of education seem to be overly concerned with narrowing the achievement gap by improving the scores at the bottom while neglecting the high achievers, as if making a bright child less competitive will make up for those at the lowest achievement levels. It is most odd.

But there are positive trends. A few community colleges in California such as Ohlone College in Fremont offer a K-12 program for motivated students. When my 7th grade daughter in middle school expressed frustration at not being allowed to progress more rapidly in science and math so she could do more in-depth science fair research (she had many great ideas, but lacked the pedagogical disciplines to implement them), we found all doors in the public school system closed to her. She then tested into Ohlone College and has been doing a full-time class load ever since.

The upshot—she is now 14, has completed with distinction courses in freshman college chemistry, calculus, biology, and English literature and composition, and is currently beginning physics. Perhaps more importantly, spending her “8th grade” year at Ohlone focused on chemistry, mathematics and English gave her the scientific skills to engage in a research project and paper the following year under the supervision of her biology professor on the formation of melamine crystals in a simulated kidney environment. This work and other projects allowed her to land a NASA internship this summer in the planetary sciences group (developing and writing a Python simulation on light scattering to predict bacterial growth profiles). She will be applying to universities this fall and graduating in spring.

Rebecca has also found a supportive group of “home school” gifted students who attend Ohlone, one of whom has just graduated from UC Berkeley in physics after two years and is on to graduate school.

Sadly, due to the state budget crisis, Rebecca may be one of the last gifted middle schoolers able to take advantage of this program. Ohlone has been forced to limit admission to most courses severely for K-9, and while 10-12 graders have much more latitude in course selection, they are at such a disadvantage in terms of priority that they have no likelihood of admission to core courses such as chemistry or calculus.

While the risks of taking such a course of action has been high (e.g. one establishes a college record, the student is expected to handle workload and discussions with professors and students directly without parental facilitation), the sense of accomplishment and dedication to her goals have resulted in an enormous amount of personal growth and self-confidence.

Since the regular K-12 public school system seems unable or unwilling to build the skills of our gifted students, perhaps the Ohlone College model of accelerated combined high school / college might be an appropriate alternative path. The breadth of courses is wider than any high school can offer, the classroom is much less subject to disruption and more conducive to study, and the material is taught at a more rapid pace, thus benefiting the gifted student. Finally, since the subjects are taught by subject matter experts (most with Ph.D’s), endeavors such as independent research projects are more feasible.

It is clear that in the rush to pull up the lowest performing students, the gifted students have been neglected, in violation of the essential educational policy that each student must be taught at their level of capability. However, unless there is “competition” for this valuable student population (after all, these are the students that pull up the average for everyone else), I fear that the public K-12 school system will continue to neglect them. The community college system could provide the level of competition for the best and brightest that would motivate the K-12 system to properly assess, promote and educate the gifted at the level they need, thus allowing all to benefit.


Lynne Greer Jolitz

Los Gatos, CA

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