Book of the Month

Back to June 2016 Ed Reporter

Book of the Month

Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Brandon L. Wright, Harvard Education Press, 2015, $32

Most schools ignore high-ability students. What used to be called gifted education has all but disappeared from public schools. The authors of this book say that the nation is “preoccupied with equalizing opportunity.” Careful attention is not given to educating the most intellectually capable students. To identify, track, or group them is often considered “archaic and unfair.”

“Regardless of subject, U.S. schools are doing a lamentable job of producing high achievers,” according to Finn and Wright. They examined the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) scores in Math, Reading, and Science among 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-graders. They found, “Since 1996 there has been no point when U.S. students in any of the grades tested, in any of these subjects, recorded more than nine Advanced scorers for every hundred test takers.”

Certainly a greater percentage of the population is capable of excelling than is currently doing so. The authors point out that if special education or disabled students were failing to get the services they need, “all hell would break loose.” Yet for exceptional kids, “there’s no powerful organized constituency, and no legal basis by which parents can push on behalf of their child.”

There’s a canard that smart students will succeed despite the fact that no one pays any attention to their needs, but that’s often not the case. When schools fail to stimulate intellectually talented students, they often tune out, give up, or even drop out.

The authors examined U.S. and worldwide programs to find what works. The best solution is entirely separate schools for high ability students; next best are pull out programs; and last comes differentiated learning, which falls squarely on teachers already stretched thin dealing with lack of discipline, the all-encompassing focus on raising up the lowest achievers, and focus on standardized test scores.

Can the system be fixed? The authors say, “We surely have it it within us to also push upward at the top — and to bounce more children into that territory.”

They offer ten hopeful steps that include prizing excellence, doing universal screenings, instituting progress based on mastery, allowing acceleration, and hiring staff knowledgable about high-ability learners.

While their suggestions are laudable, realistic readers might remain discouraged. In the current climate where social justice, fairness, and equity trumps excellence in most instances, parents of highly capable children might be wise to remove them from government schools.