I should have realized that by focusing almost exclusively on the educationally disadvantaged, yet ignoring the country’s future scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, NCLB—despite its framers’ best intentions—would damage America’s competitiveness. As noble as combating “the soft bigotry of low expectations” is, America’s global standing and economic well-being are more likely to be improved by nurturing a culture of academic excellence and creating programs that support elite education in math and the sciences.Government failure does not prevent some children from getting ahead, but the market's response is a bundle of a good school and a granite countertop.
NCLB could easily have included reforms to benefit academically gifted students—for example, using financial incentives to encourage states and school districts to expand programs for gifted kids in the early grades and to create more merit-based science and mathematics high schools. The idea of strengthening elite education never entered the NCLB conversation, however; the civil rights agenda pushed everything else off the table. With Republicans trying to establish their civil rights bona fides, a bipartisan consensus formed to focus the new legislation almost exclusively on shrinking the racial achievement gap.
A decade later, despite indications of academic decline among the country’s top students, education policymakers still haven’t expressed much interest in improving instruction for high achievers. Look on the website of the U.S. Department of Education, and you’ll find the usual impossibly optimistic boilerplate about bridging achievement gaps.
Yes, there are lots of good comprehensive high schools, primarily in wealthy suburbs, that provide top science and math students with opportunities to excel, to take college-level courses, and to compete in contests like the Intel Science Talent Search. But as the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report points out, graduates of dedicated science and math high schools are, on average, better prepared for advanced college-level academics and far more likely to pursue undergraduate and advanced degrees in “STEM studies,” as educators have dubbed the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.Yes, but recognizing and protecting talent, unless it's sports talent, is an alien concept to the education establishment.