Administrator Magazine: Curriculum
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Smart and Bored?

What Do High Achievers Need?

Bright Girl Dimming?
Bright Girl Dimming?

One 6-year-old struggles to master her letters, while the classmate directly next to her is already reading fluently
and thinking analytically. Such discrepancies are ubiquitous in today’s schools—and the kids who have already attained mastery beyond their grade level are often ending up bored, depressed, and underchallenged. The average first-grade classroom, says Deborah Ruf, author of Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind, can have as many as 12 grade-equivalencies and an IQ range of up to 80 points.

Every child in your district should be achieving at his or her highest level, all the time. Of course, that’s easier said than done. “We need to figure out a way to challenge kids, not just move them along because they’re at grade level,” says Mary Kay Sommers, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and principal at Shepardson Elementary in Fort Collins, Colorado. But research shows that our schools are consistently failing to provide that challenge to the top students, with perhaps devastating ramifications. Educators are now rethinking their methods for reaching high achievers.

another sputnik era
This isn’t the first time that this has been a priority. During the space race, in a rush to put a man on the moon, we increased the focus on math, science, and gifted education. Today, says Jean Peterson, associate professor at Indiana’s Purdue University, “we’re entering another Sputnik Era and are belatedly realizing that we haven’t been paying attention to the best and the brightest.” In December 2007, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the New York Times reported that students in the U.S. scored lower than students in 16 other countries in science and lower than 23 others in math. This kicked STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs into gear. 

We also can’t forget our high-achieving students who are talented in literature and the arts, or who are great leaders or collaborators, says Don Ambrose, a professor of education at Rider University in New Jersey. By not looking at the entire spectrum of achievement, says Ambrose, we’re also losing tomorrow’s political leaders, great authors, and more.
higher standards, lower scores
No Child Left Behind has brought higher standards and more accountability, but with the emphasis on getting students to the same proficient testing level, high-achieving students slide by and “schools have hit a test barrier,” says Barbara Radner, director for the Center for Urban Education in Chicago. “Scores did go up, but then they flattened out.”

Along the way, she says, we have limited our gifted population, offering fewer programs that enable these kids to excel. This shows up in the small percentage of students exceeding the standards on tests.

To get test scores up, from proficient to exceeding and beyond, we have to focus on both high achievers and underachievers who are currently slipping through the cracks.

tapping into the future
In the current rush to get every student on the same “proficient” page, those who could excel are bored or worse, and we are losing high-potential students from day one. According to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s September 2007 report “Achievement Trap: How America Is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Low-Income Families,” while 28 percent of students from low-income families are in the top quartile in first-grade classes, by fifth grade, nearly half of those students have fallen from that rank in reading achievement. And it’s not just students from low-income families.

“Seventy percent of the kids who are high ability are underachieving,” says Rider University professor Ambrose. When only 30 percent of high achievers are engaged, the vast majority are sliding through school, unchallenged and unengaged. “Every child should be learning something new every day,” says Betsy McCoach, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

In the long run, high-achieving students may end up frustrated, disciplined for bad behavior, or even depressed. At best, they’re bored; at worst, they won’t make it to graduation. If high-achieving kids aren’t challenged in elementary school, they turn off when they hit challenges in middle or high school, says McCoach.

This is often more of a risk for low-income students. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that while 90 percent of high-achieving high school students attend college, regardless of income level, lower-income high achievers are less likely to graduate. “We’re losing an enormous pool of talent,” says Josh Wyner, executive vice president of the Foundation and lead author of the “Achievement Trap” study. “And these are students who are poised to be leaders.” Many students from low-income families have the potential to help bridge the gap between rich and poor through education. “As a society,” says Wyner, “we should always care when a pool of students obviously prepared to lead loses ground and doesn’t get that opportunity.”

The good news from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation study: Students who enter high school as high achievers are likely to graduate. “If they have a well-established habit of achievement,” says Purdue professor Peterson, “even if the bottom falls out, many times those habits will support them.” So, how do we get these high achievers on the right track from day one?

the administrator’s role
As an administrator, you can facilitate high achievers’ learning. “I think it’s important to empower teachers to look for the strategies and methodologies that will help kids achieve at high levels,” says NAESP’s Sommers.

Articulate Achievement: First, make sure that your school’s mission and expectations are clear, and that all the teachers are on board. Within that mission and expectations should be that everyone, staff and students, work to their highest ability and potential. Exceeding the standards, not just testing at proficient, should be the ultimate goal.

Keep an Open Mind: Recognize that underachievers may exist in your school. Make sure that all the students in your school are properly identified—could any do better than they are? Set up plans with those students for independent study, or contracts that encourage them to increase their participation and learning in class.

Up the Challenge: Make sure that kids who are high achievers are on the track for success. In middle school, that means that you’re preparing them for AP classes, and helping them get into a high school that will challenge them. In high school, it’s making sure that those students are on a clear path to higher education. At the district level: Do you have a track for high-achieving students? Are AP classes available and are middle school teachers helping prep their high achievers for success in high school?

Direct Resources: Often, the younger classrooms need more help with differentiation because those students can’t work independently. Sommers directs volunteers into her youngest classrooms to spread resources and help throughout the class.

Create a Trickle-Down Culture of Learning: Set a tone of constant inquiry and learning. One way to encourage this is by starting a school blog or wiki and having the entire school—teachers, students, and staff—research and write about a topic.

Maximize the Home-School Connection: Work with the parents of your high-achieving students to maximize their potential in and out of school. “Top achievers in any school are likely to have parents who are creating a strong family and community background for those kids,” says Wyner. Make use of that by working with parents to get kids involved in after-school activities that will really enhance their strengths, such as a tutoring program at a local university.

Leave It Open-Ended: The Center for Urban Education’s Barbara Radner recommends giving students open-ended questions and assignments. Allow high achievers to grapple with more difficult questions or assignments based on the concept that the class is learning.

Create Cross-Classroom Collaboration: Encourage teachers to team up and even let kids move into different classes or grade levels. When teachers identify a student with a strong ability, they may find an ideal partner in another grade, says author Deborah Ruf. 

Make School Matter: Don’t let students think school is easy no matter what. “One of the most important reasons that we should differentiate for high achievers,” says University of Connecticut’s McCoach, “is because if they aren’t challenged early on, they get the impression that school is something that is not worth the effort.”

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