My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
You can feel it in the air. The leaves on a few trees are starting to turn and the temperatures dipped down into the 50s this weekend. There is no mistaking it — we are in the waning weeks of summer. In case you had any doubt, over the next few weeks social media will be filled with back-to-school pictures and the giant yellow buses will once again rove the streets.
As kids head back to school, we also turn our thoughts again to the schools to which they are returning and whether or not they are providing the education our kids need, expect and deserve. Much of the educational debate in the past few decades has been focused on making sure our schools work for the kids on the bottom rungs. Educational agendas like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are designed to push education from the bottom up so every kid has the opportunity to get an education.
While pushing from the bottom is laudable, much of America’s education system has failed to pull up from the top because of the structure of age-based curriculum. That is the conclusion of a study co-authored by University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Associate Professor of Educational Foundations Scott Peters titled, “How Can So Many Students Be Invisible? Large Percentages of American Students Perform Above Grade Level” and published by the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Educational Policy.
According to the study, an estimated 20-40 percent of K-12 kids perform above their grade level in reading and 11-30 percent perform at least one grade level above in math. And it is not just one grade level. A large percentage of those kids score several grade levels higher than the grade they are in. The data suggests that 8-10 percent of fourth-graders perform at the eighth-grade level in reading and 10 percent of fifth-graders perform at the high school level for reading. The percentages are slightly less for math but the study suggests fifth- and sixth-graders are rarely given access to algebra, geometry, statistics or calculus, creating an artificial barrier to kids excelling further in math.
Specifically in Wisconsin, 45 percent of eighth-graders score at least one year above their grade level in reading and 26 percent do the same in math. In real numbers, “somewhere between 278,000 and 330,000 public-school Wisconsin students across grades K-12 are performing more than a full grade above where they are placed in school.” That is a tremendous number of underserved Wisconsin kids.
What does this study tell us and what are the implications? The study confirms what every parent knows: Kids are all unique. Some sixth-graders struggle and need a lot of support to meet the minimum educational expectations. Some third-graders are bookworms and are reading at an eighth-grade level. This makes it exceedingly difficult to create an educational system that perfectly serves the needs of everyone.
In an ideal world with unlimited resources, every kid would have a team of tutors who would instruct, support and push them as necessary to suit their educational capacities. We do not live in that world, so we must create an educational system that pools resources to provide a quality education to the most kids possible. The study posits most of the kids our current public education system is leaving behind are not at the bottom of the educational spectrum, but at the top.
Our public education policy leaders need to immediately look for ways to provide accelerated learning opportunities to kids performing above their grade levels. This means more flexible scheduling and movement between grades. Also, public schools should aggressively adopt the various distance-learning tools that allow kids greater access to diverse learning opportunities. Long term, this may necessitate a movement away from neighborhood schools to central campuses that can include access to more opportunities for kids of all grade levels.
But while progress can be made in our public schools, no single system can serve everyone. This is why support for school choice, which encourages a broader education ecosystem capable of meeting the increasingly diverse needs of our kids, is vital for providing an education suitably supportive and challenging for all kids.
Our educational system has come a long way in the past few decades in meeting the needs of lower-performing kids. We have a lot more work to do to push the kids who are already performing above expectations.