At Lillian Larsen School here in San Miguel, we recently had applicants for new teaching jobs teach a demo math lesson to a group of first-graders.
One of the children is very advanced in arithmetic and knew every answer before the teacher applicants could even complete the question and demonstrate how to solve the problem. The student next to the bright student — let’s call him Ronnie — conversely struggled mightily with both language and computational skills.
Each of the teacher applicants valiantly tried to engage the slower learner and not allow Ronnie to dominate the class. The less-advanced child was totally lost, apparently due both to language and learning disability issues.
After some time, Ronnie began blurting out erroneous answers. When asked he said, “I’m just being silly. I knew you wouldn’t call on me if I kept getting every question right.”
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This, in a microcosm, is the “achievement gap” our country has spent the last several decades, and many billions of dollars, trying to close. We spend an extraordinary amount of time and money on a highly admirable, extremely well-intentioned effort to address the needs of the less blessed child, who, by law, is afforded certificated specialists in very low class sizes and instructional aides for both language and learning issues in the “least restrictive environment.”
Juxtaposed to this commitment is the relative dearth of services and opportunities afforded to the accelerated child. Advanced and average students, in many cases, face large class sizes, cuts to enrichment and Gifted and Talented Education programs, and slashing of art, music and technology. Libraries are closing, and field trips are being eliminated. Advanced placement and honors classes are often the first courses to be eliminated, the justification being that services to these students are not mandated and that they will “be OK on their own,” or with support from home. Bright children are in fact at great risk and often become disruptive or withdrawn when not challenged, as Ronnie demonstrated with his intentionally wrong responses.
At the same time, in China and India alone there are approximately 1 billion students in school today taking an advanced curriculum in English. At least 10 percent of them, or roughly 100 million students, are in highly competitive, highly rigorous accelerated courses of study including calculus and physics by the ninth grade. These are the students against whom Ronnie will have to compete for good paying jobs in the global economy, and this is the real achievement gap our country had better start addressing. Who knows, with the right support Ronnie might even be able to find a cure for cancer or even balance California’s budget! Curt Dubost is superintendent of the San Miguel Joint Union School District.