Good students in bad schools

On the Adam Smith Institute’s blog:

Madsen Pirie doesn’t believe that bright students improve bad schools.

The idea that academically gifted children, if they attended sub-standard state schools, would somehow inspire and motivate the others, is strange. It seems to belong to the fairy tales which social engineers tell each other round the camp-fires. In the real world such children are often bullied and demotivated, and scorned because study lacks any street-cred. Educated with others of their kind, however, they can become high achievers.

More offensive is the notion that bright children are a precious resource, owned by the state, to be shared out equally. Their own hopes and aspirations, and those of their parents, apparently don’t count.

Also, Brits are impressed by a Milwaukee principal who educates voucher students in a tough neighborhood.

About Joanne


  1. A “fairy tale” that was told by a prominent sociologist to begin busing in northern Delaware back in 1978, but he shortly thereafter did a 180. Check it out:

  2. I agree with Pirie. When I went through my emergency teacher credential training last summer, we were taught that academically gifted children were to be used as a resource — i.e., to help and tutor the slower kids. There was no thought given to teaching at the level of ability of the gifted kids; it was assumed to be impossible.

    One “credentialed” teacher told me the following. If you teach for the gifted or motivated kids, the other kids will get bored and cause trouble. If you teach for the “slow” kids, the gifted and/or motivated kids will be bored, but won’t cause problems. Therefore, the safest thing to do is teach for the slow, unmotivated kids.
    “Please pass the collection plate I need to buy more smokes”
    “Smoke breaks and stolen pens”

  3. Speaking from personal experience, sometimes the bright kids wind up purposely being intellectually intimidating so that the teacher (usually a new one) will leave them alone. It may keep them from being used as resources to help the slow kids (indeed, they’re left completely to their own devices), but it also reduces the teacher’s effectiveness. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I’m sorry I did that.

  4. Rita C. says:

    I just give different assignments to different kids. It’s pretty interesting how much teaching you can do through essay assignments. I’ve also given different tests. You’d think the smarty-pants students would complain that they’re doing harder work, etc., but they haven’t yet.

  5. Rita: So you are working harder twice (thinking up different assignments and grading essays). Good for you – but in a unionized public school district, there’s no way that other teachers will be expected to do the same. And of course, just like the smarter students, you are working harder for the identical reward. In all my education, there was only one teacher who did anything resembling this, a high-school math teacher who let honors math students study independently. (I ran through the whole last two years of the high school math curriculum and then some in my Junior year and started college calculus during my senior year.)

  6. “…you are working harder for the identical reward.”

    This is true only if Rita is rewarded solely by her paycheck. I suspect she is not.

  7. Come to think of it that’s not true of the kids either – they are learning more than they would be otherwise. The reward for doing the work is not only a grade, is it? Or keeping the teacher off their backs?

  8. Randall Carpenter says:

    As a gifted student who went to a school that ranked in the bottom of the entire state I was bored to tears. The teachers taught to the lowest and I was left in the corner to read. Many classes I sat in the library reading rather than go to class. There were only two teachers that I was aware of who used gifted students to help slower students.

  9. I really think the term “gifted student” is harmful to everyone. It implies that academic success is about something you *are* rather than about something you *do*.

    Peter Drucker remarked that managers should never attempt to reward employees for “potential”, only for performance. The principle here is the same.

  10. David:
    Many gifted programs are an attempt to turn potential into performance.

  11. Yeah, I remember a teacher trying to use me for tutoring tasks (esp. as I tested out of math at the beginning of the year, and had no math to do in school for the rest of the time) – maybe I did it =once=. Most of the time, she just let me read my books and do my logic puzzles.

    But back to the discussion. I’ve been in gifted programs from 2nd grade on, and I’ve taught (and been part of the administration of) special summer programs for the gifted. In elementary school, it was pointless to a certain extent — it seemed that, up until 6th grade, the gifted classes were there not to teach us more but to soak up our excess intellectual energy. There was little structure – we did a lot of brainy-type fun stuff, like chess, logic problems, making super 8 animations, etc. You got in by some kind of IQ test, and you got to stay as long as your regular classwork was very good. So the potential was by IQ and the performance was regular class stuff. Most of us finished our classwork before anybody else would. And yes, the gifted kids =can= make trouble — mainly the boys were trouble if they weren’t given stuff to do. I always had books with me, and was the typical quiet, good student.

    In 6th grade, the teacher had us go through more structured units, kind of a high school level treatment of topics: medieval history and salt production are the two I remember. After that, the gifted classes were solely subject-based, so they were performance-based in that sense. You got into these classes by scoring certain percentiles on subject achievement tests.

    However, there is some difference in performance and potential. In one of the gifted programs I taught (TIP at Duke), there were lots of kids who had achieved pretty well in subjects – good grades, had taken algebra in 7th grade, etc. You get into TIP by SAT scores, teacher recs, and transcript. However, many of these kids had superior educations at private schools, not necessarily high IQs. One could tell which students really could learn in an accelerated manner, but most were just average students and didn’t seem to get anything from the accelerated classes we had.

    I agree with the original author that gifted kids at the lower grades do not add to the education of other kids, other than to let them know they’re not the best. Gifted kids need this exposure to peers smarter than they are, too, to keep them from becoming complacent and lazy. You don’t actually need people to do this – standardized tests can show this as well. I remember the saddest thing from my past – “competing” against DC public school kids who were the best there (this was 1989)… they were hopelessly outclassed, and had never been shown how inadequate their education was. It’s not like they were given any opportunity to have a better education, but there’s hope for the future.

  12. Rita C. says:

    Interestingly, I do work in a unionized public school district (although I choose not to be a member of the union).

    It’s actually not that much work to come up with a hard essay question or swap out some test questions. I know the material pretty well, and it is fun to see the smarties reach for difficult concepts.

    Lest I be accused of being altruistic, pissing off parents is a bad idea in my district, so the tangible reward is some job security.

  13. Walter Wallis says:

    Busing and homogenizing and diversity and zero tolerance. Now if we could just send all our enemies to Ed School, we might stand a chance in this war.

  14. Strangely enough, I have seen that sort of thing actually happen, even though I don’t believe that it is any guarantee.

    When I was tested for entrance to elementary school, I apparently flopped and was placed in the “dummies” class. I so utterly didn’t belong there. We’re talking kids being taught almost from scratch to read, and me having learned to read so early that it seemed I always knew.

    Anyway, I inspired the other kids in the class to try harder by my presence, and changed the whole dynamic. That led the school to decide in later years to stop separating the classes that way.

  15. Jenny Fuchs says:

    I fully agree with Pirie. The sad thing is, though, that most bureaucrats in charge of the America’s education system don’t share my view. For instance, in New York right now: with the new high school applications process, somehow classes and classes of excellent, 95-average accelerated math students were forced to go to their zoned schools- no special program, nothing- and they applied to up to 12 schools. On the other hand, students with poorer academic records received coveted spots in the better schools, even ones with “screened” admissions. The only students that escaped this were those that got accepted to the Specialized Science High Schools (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, etc.) So, putting bad students in good schools does not make them learn better, just as placing excelling students into bad schools simply ruins their learning experience.

  16. peter britten says:

    i’m gettin sadder .. i need help .. i bought a gun

  17. i got one foot in da grave