Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, written by Jason L. Riley.

All of us understand why so many discussions about K-12 education center on bringing low-achieving students up to speed. How could they not? Despite massive increases in school spending over the past half-century, the U.S. Department of Education reports that nearly two-thirds of our youngsters score below the proficient level on national reading tests, and large socioeconomic disparities persist. Obviously, this is a problem.

But according to Chester Finn, it is not a problem we should be focused on to the neglect of our high-achieving students. Mr. Finn is something of a school-reform guru. He was an assistant secretary of education during the Reagan administration. Later, he headed the Fordham Institute, a think tank that specializes in education policy. His new book, “Learning in the Fast Lane,” which he wrote with Andrew Scanlan, is both a history and full-throated defense of the Advanced Placement program, which allows smart students to take college-level courses in high school. It’s a follow-up to a book on selective public schools that he and Jessica Hockett published in 2012.

Mr. Finn’s focus on academic overachievers stands out at a time when gifted-and-talented programs, honors tracks and exam schools are increasingly under fire for their elitism and lack of diversity. Mr. Finn considers that criticism misplaced. Our education system should be able simultaneously to “raise the ceiling” for those who are exceptionally able and “lift the floor” for others who are struggling.

“I’m of the view that we have this huge wasted resource in the United States, which is smart kids, and particularly poor smart kids, the kind that don’t necessarily have the resources or the navigators to get into Dalton or Exeter,” he told me recently. “The system is doing on the whole a lousy job of finding and educating those kids.”

States and local school districts say that they are committed to making sure their high achievers are challenged, but this subset of students isn’t a priority. How come? For starters, “there’s a lot of resistance to gifted education from people who think these kids are going to be fine anyway, so all available time and energy and resources should be put into low-achievers,” Mr. Finn said.

Another problem has to do with incentives. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush nearly 20 years ago, and the Race to the Top initiative, championed by President Obama, weren’t overly concerned with students who occupied the loftiest parts of the achievement spectrum. Schools were rewarded “for helping struggling kids meet proficiency standards but not for dealing with those already well beyond proficiency,” Mr. Finn said. Education policy makers respond to incentives like everyone else.

One bright spot is the Advanced Placement program, which got its start during the Eisenhower administration. Spooked by Sputnik, the government worried about the intellectual rigor of our schools. The country was trying to win a Cold War against communism, and the thinking was that a better-educated public would help ensure victory. After World War II, states made high school mandatory, and the GI Bill gave returning soldiers access to college. The goal was to locate and then nurture the nation’s best and brightest.

The AP program initially was funded by the Ford Foundation but today is run by the College Board, the same nonprofit entity that administers the SAT. Early on, fewer than a dozen AP courses existed, mainly in private schools or affluent suburban districts. By 2018, nearly 40 subjects were available to some 2.8 million students enrolled in more than 22,000 high schools. Students who complete the courses take a final exam, which is graded on a 5-point scale. Those who score 3 or higher are often eligible for college credit.

The downside of this expansion is that many low-income and minority students who complete the courses don’t score well enough on the exams to receive college credit. The College Board has been criticized for this so-called excellence gap, but Mr. Finn hopes that the outreach continues.

He said the proper response to underwhelming test scores is better preparation for disadvantaged students who enroll, and he commends the AP program for maintaining high standards. “Smart poor kids deserve a good education, too,” he added. They also deserve to be academically challenged, whether it’s in gifted programs or selective schools or AP courses.

“If we care about upward mobility, these are the kids we should be trying to help,” said Mr. Finn. “Who’s going to be the scientists and inventors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow? Are they just going to come from the already privileged, or are they going to incorporate the equally smart kids who didn’t start off with so many advantages?” With the new school year under way, those are questions worth pondering.


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