Mike Petrilli, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, discusses education policy, including the impact of No Child Left Behind on high-achieving students
Mike Petrilli is Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the
Thomas B. Fordham institute and they have a provocative new study that
suggests that high achieving students might be victims of the drive to
help low performing students. I’m pleased to have him as my guest today
to help us understand this important issue. Thanks for joining us,
Thanks for having me, Chip.
So, I guess if you can first start by identifying the problem that you guys have focused on.
Sure. So, in this report we have two separate studies. The first one by
Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution looks at how high achieving
students are performing on a national assessment of educational
progress – otherwise known as the nation’s report card.
looked at how they were doing really since the 1990s, and then more
specifically since 2000. As you know, the “No Child Left Behind Act”
was enacted in 2002. We wanted to see in this era of “No Child Left
Behind” how those best and brightest students are performing. The bad
news is that they are not making much progress. Their progress is
languid, according to Tom Loveless.
Meanwhile, low performing
students – those that score in the bottom 10% of the national
assessment – have made quite dramatic progress since 2000, in almost
every subject and grade. Now that’s great news and it’s something
that’s certainly worth celebrating, and that’s where the focus of our
education systems has been in recent years – is on getting the
achievement of kids who have been left behind up to better levels. But
it looks like it’s pretty likely that other students are not getting
the attention that they need in order to make the same sort of progress
So, how do we address this problem? Does the “No Child Left Behind”
need to be changed? Is this something just that schools at the local
level need to adjust to? How do you see us solving this?
Well, there’s a couple things that need to happen. It is true that we
need to make some changes to “No Child Left Behind.” Now, we can’t say
that that law is causing this dynamic to happen, it looks like some of
this was happening back in the 1990s before “No Child Left Behind” – at
least in the states that also adopted accountability systems.
because these accountability systems that we have in place today in
public education are focused on getting students over a very low bar,
trying to get all students to the proficient level which tends to be
set at a pretty low level. But there aren’t any incentives in the
accountability systems to move average or top students over the course
of the year.
So, the first job is make changes to “No Child Left
Behind” to put pressure on schools to pay attention to all of their
students, not just the ones at the bottom. But that can only go so far,
the other thing that needs to happen is some change in practice in
Now, part of our study was a national teachers
survey, and we asked teachers what do they see happening in their
schools, particularly how are high achieving students being treated.
And they report that in their own classrooms, in their own schools they
do see high achieving students being ignored, because of this pressure
from “No Child Left Behind.”
But they are also frustrated that
they are expected to teach students who are really all over the map in
terms of achievement all at the same time. So, you might be a fifth
grade teacher and you’re expected to teach students who are reading at
third grade level, the fourth grade level, the fifth grade level, the
sixth grade level, and the seventh grade level all in one class. They
are telling us they don’t think that’s possible.
They would at
least like to be able to group students together by ability instead of
maybe by age, so you have all the students who are reading at a third
grade level learning together, and all the students learning at a fifth
grade level learning together. That seems to make a lot of sense to us.
believe that every child has the right to be challenged, to be
stretched, and that’s not going to happen if we try and teach kids all
together just because they’re the same age, even if they’re not at the
same place in terms of education.
Now, obviously this is an area where there’s a lot of debate over how
you do it, right? I know from my own kids who are in school that some
schools really focus on trying to keep the kids together by age so that
nobody feels like they’re being left behind or left out. Is this
something that’s realistic? Can we convince schools to group kids more
by ability, particularly in the early years where I think your study
was probably more focused?
Yes, I think it is realistic. In part because teachers overwhelmingly
support it. Back in the day, back in the 50s and 60s this was standard
practice. The red birds and the blue birds read together. The red birds
might have been more advanced than the blue birds.
back in 80s and 90s there was a big movement to try to move against
what was considered to be tracking. There was a worry that some kids,
particularly poor kids, were going to be tracked into these groups that
didn’t have the same level of challenge.
And so, the idea was
that every kid should learn together and every kid should be challenged
in the same way. Well, we certainly agree that every child should be
challenged and that nobody should be tracked into a track where they
are expected not to learn at high levels, but that still doesn’t mean
that day-by-day we shouldn’t be putting students in reading or math
groups according to their achievement level.
So, I think there
is a hunger for this out there. It’s not considered politically correct
in some communities, but it’s really wrecking havoc on the achievement
of the top students and the teachers know that and they would like to
see these changes too.
Is there a better way to create accountability so that it doesn’t have
this effect? Should we look beyond the standardized tests? I know that
everybody wants something that’s truly objective, but do we need to
allow more subjectivity in the assessment?
Well, I think it’s still important to use standardized tests because
they are standard. Every other method people have experimented with is
a problem because there is so much subjectivity, and you’ve got
different standards in different places. But once we have a
standardized test there’s a lot of flexibility in how you interpret the
right now “No Child Left Behind” is just whether or not you’re getting
enough students to the so-called proficient level. What you could do
instead is look at how students are making progress over time. And you
want to hold schools accountable for making sure that all of their
students make at least a year’s worth of progress from September
through June. If they haven’t done that then they’re not getting the
And that they should be held accountable for doing
that for top students too, which means that if a child comes in two
grade levels above at the beginning of the year they should be at least
two grade levels above by the end of the year. There are now ways to do
that with more sophisticated testing systems.
Apart from the impact on high achieving students in general, was there
anything that really stood out to you in this study that perhaps has
been overlooked to this point?
Well, a couple of things. First, there is this very good news that our
lowest performing students are making dramatic gains, and you can’t
claim that that’s necessarily because of “No Child Left Behind,” but it
seems like this pressure from testing and accountability is getting our
schools to do a better job focusing on those students. And again,
that’s worth celebrating.
thing that was very interesting was we asked teachers, we said, “When
you think about equity and justice in our education system, what does
that mean to you? Does that mean focusing on disadvantaged kids have
been left behind and focusing most of our efforts on them, or does it
mean focusing on all kids equally no matter where their achievement
level is, no matter what their race or income?”
And it was very
interesting; teachers believe that to be just and equitable means to
pay attention to all kids equally, and not just focus on closing the
achievement gap, focusing on the disadvantaged kids. That was very much
at odds with the whole idea of “No Child Left Behind,” which again,
focused almost exclusively on kids at the bottom end of the spectrum.
suspect that probably most Americans are with the teachers on this one,
that they believe that all kids deserve to be pushed and challenged.
While we have a special obligation to help kids who are behind and kids
who are disadvantaged, that can’t be our only objective in our
So, in this issue the teachers seem very much to me to be an ally,
right? I mean you see them as – obviously they’re critical to the whole
process, but sometimes teachers unions get the rap that they stand in
the way of change and that sort of thing – but here you’re seeing them
as the allies.
Yeah, no. Individual teachers absolutely express frustration with what
they’re seeing. They know that their top students aren’t getting the
attention they need and they feel guilty about it, and they would like
to see some changes on this front.
do think this is one of these issues that’s not so much a teacher
versus parent issue – this is something that is a core question for our
democracy. Is it enough to focus on the kids who have been left behind
– as important as that is – or should we have other objectives too?
there’s been some debate in our country, a lot of people will say,
“Hey, look. These gifted kids, these high achieving kids; they’ll be
fine no matter what. We don’t need to worry about them. Their parents
will take care of them.” What people are saying in these surveys when
we see the numbers is that’s not necessarily true.
be OK for this group of students to come to school and not learn very
much. Just like it wouldn’t be OK for poor and disadvantaged kids to
come to school and not learn very much. And by the way, there are lots
of kids out there who are both poor and disadvantaged, and high
achieving and we’re not doing a very good job capping their potential
Well I know I’ve learned a lot from this conversation and I appreciate
your taking time to explain it all to us. Again, my guest today has
been Mike Petrilli, the Vice President for National Programs and Policy
at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington D.C.