The War on Academic Achievement

Judged by all the billions of dollars now flowing into "education reform," it appears that Washington, and especially the Obama administration, is obsessed with improving academic achievement (see, for example, here). The billions are certainly real enough, but the intent is just the opposite. Rhetoric aside, the Obama administration, like Bush II's before it, is profoundly opposed to brainpower. Our "commitment" to academic excellence is a cruel joke -- we love stupidity and hate smart kids. Tellingly, not even "conservatives" who bemoan America's educational decline will admit this awkward reality -- they, too, are passengers on this reform gravy train heading to the bottom.

Consider a small item that appeared in a blog regarding the Jacob Javits Talented and Education Act, an Act whose title suggests helping young Einsteins and junior Keplers become America's future scientists and engineers. The program has always been financially uncertain, even occasionally canceled, and the current plan was to roll its $7.5-million annual appropriation into the Institute for Education Sciences, where no guarantee exists that the funds would go for high achievers.

Still, it might be argued that since super-smart kids are few in number and hardly require lavish facilities, even $7.5 million would help. This is a truly embarrassing lie that sheds enormous light on how Washington regards America's brainpower.

First, compare the proposed $7.5 million to the $11.5 billion that the national government spent in fiscal 2010 for disabled school-aged children. Given this staggering ratio, a visiting Martian might conclude that American schools consisted of a huge mass of disabled youngsters and an infinitesimal handful of smart ones. If we include all the other multi-billion-dollar programs targeting the least able, e.g., Head Start ($7.23 billion in 2010) and Title 1 ($13 billion that is now part of No Child Left Behind), one would never guess that the intellectually gifted actually exist (by definition 5% of all students). Imagine if a private firm embraced this grossly upside-down investment strategy. Our overseas rivals are probably convulsing with laughter.

Second, the Javits program, title aside, is not targeting smart kids -- just the reverse. It attempts to uncover gifted children among minorities conspicuously absent in traditional, test-driven gifted programs. This uplift-the-bottom mission is explicit:

The major emphasis of the program is on serving students traditionally underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, particularly economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient (LEP), and disabled students, to help reduce the serious gap in achievement among certain groups of students at the highest levels of achievement.

This needle-in-a-haystack commitment is taken seriously, though evidence of any successes is scarce or nonexistent. In 2006, for example, Page, AZ received $340,000 for "Buried Treasure," a project that sought to uncover gifted children equally across the school district's demography -- i.e., gifted quotas. Meanwhile, Denver, CO got $123,000 for "Take Five," which involves coordinating efforts among multiple government agencies and university faculty to increase the number of gifted children from low-income and/or minority groups. Iowa educators received $319,000 to help the "twice exceptional child" -- that is, the youngster who is both intellectually talented and learning disabled. Countless similar grants to uncover disadvantaged students who might be gifted have been awarded to schools in Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, and Wyoming.

Third, not content to deprive smart kids of federal money, Washington, beginning with George W. Bush but continuing with Obama, is forcing states to starve their already puny gifted programs. This is accomplished not by outright prohibitions on helping smart kids; that would be too obvious. Rather, Washington's mega-billion-dollar bribes coerce states to uplift the bottom, including closing racial gaps, if they want to keep the money flowing, and since Washington provides no financial incentives to help brainy kids, gifted programs are cannibalized (documented here). So putting Young Einstein back into Math 1 is perfectly rational for cash-starved school districts. The only losers are the poor (and probably white or Asian) parents of intellectually talented kids, a constituency with no heft in today's political battles.

This carnage began with Bush's No Child Left Behind and continues unabated. In 2002, Michigan aid for the gifted fell from $4 million a year to $250,000. In Illinois, funding collapsed from $19 million per year to zero, while New York also dropped to zero from $14 million. Oregon's commitment likewise dropped to zero after years of funding. In Connecticut, one in four school districts abandoned gifted programs altogether. In Missouri, the state subsidy for gifted went from 75% to 58% of local outlays. By 2006, eight states offered nothing, while another six states spend less than $500,000 -- not even a pittance in today's educational world.

Finally, the education establishment loathes programs for the gifted (see, for example, here). These classes are uniformly attacked as elitist, exclusionary, racially segregated, and, oddly, subverting the education of less talented students -- as if education were a zero-sum game, so if a smart student advances, a less able student necessarily falls behind. Many professional educators even dispute the very idea of some people being smarter than others.

Others flat-out lie. Carolyn Callahan, who heads up the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, claims that blacks and Hispanics are excluded from gifted programs since they lack adequate pre-schooling and decent nutrition (somebody should tell her about Head Start, food stamps, and subsidized school meals). Even erstwhile champions of gifted education embrace the egalitarian fantasy. Del Siegle, the president of the National Association for Gifted Children, called for modifying No Child Left Behind at the group's national convention so as to provide more help for minority gifted children. If we include ACLU lawsuits attacking gifted programs for their lack of diversity, it's a miracle that any still exist.

What permits the U.S. to maintain its current intellectual edge is that it imports brains almost as heavily as it imports oil. Visit any top research university (or Silicon Valley) and observe students in the hard sciences who are disproportionally Asian, Russian, or Indian immigrants, or the children of those recently arrived (for example, see here). In 2006, 35% of all Ph.D.s went to foreign-born researchers, but non-citizens earned 43% of the doctorates in science and engineering and 70% of the Ph.D.s in electrical, civil, and industrial/mechanical engineering. In other engineering fields plus math, computer science, and physics, the figure was "only" 50%. Among university science and engineering faculty, 19% are born overseas; in engineering, this figure was a little more than a third. The Kaufman Foundation tracks this "foreign" contribution to American industry, and it is indisputable that we survive thanks to imported brains (here).  

Like foreign oil, this cannot last. China and Japan now try to keep top scientific talent home, and our European rivals, Australia and New Zeeland, are actively recruiting those who once automatically came to the U.S. In a decade or so, the homegrown talent may have to suffice, and all the wages of neglect will come due. Will today's low achievers save us in 2030? Perhaps only a miracle, such as civil strife in China, will restore the flow of brains, much as German refugees in the late 1930s reinvigorated American science.

To invoke an old cliché, with friends of academic excellence like Bush II and Obama, who needs enemies?

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools.
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