Good teachers are warm and compassionate people, and like parents, they tend to love all their kids equally. Nevertheless, it is my experience that teachers have a special tenderness for the students who struggle in their classrooms and, in their planning and instruction, feel a particular urgency about meeting their needs. I would like to make the case that high-flyers—those who always excel, significantly outperforming their classmates—deserve a similar degree of compassion and urgency.
When it comes to high-flyers, educators tend not to feel much concern. They assume they will be fine and rarely make them the objects of special attention. But in fact, high-flyers are their own “high-need” sub-group: They are the students who are at the greatest risk for extreme boredom.
It’s not simply that high-flyers can master even more rigorous content and curriculum, it’s that they have a significantly faster rate of learning. They grasp new ideas, texts, and problems quickly and are ready for more. But instead of getting more, they are asked to help their classmates or to sit quietly until the rest of their peers figure it out. Since they’ve already had their “aha!” moment, they look for other avenues of amusement—and can be disruptive to the class. At worse, they end up disengaging from school completely.
I have some personal experience with this phenomenon. One of my three children was an accelerated learner, and a typical evening conversation in our household went like this: “How was school today?” “Boring.” “What did you learn?” “Nothing.” Next would come the calls from the teacher: “Your child is daydreaming in class.” And when I would explain that my child was “daydreaming” (in fact, he was thinking about how gravity worked) because he had already done the work or figured out the math problem, the response was frosty. Teachers do not like to hear that they are low-balling kids.
This experience was all the more frustrating because it was happening at my own school, Success Academy, which my son has attended since Kindergarten (he’s now a sophomore in high school!). Having to listen to his griping about boredom when he was young kept me intensely focused on ensuring that our schools were designed to meet the needs of quick learners as well as the needs of kids who struggle.
We have done this in several ways. First off, we pitch high. I firmly believe that if you pitch your curriculum and instruction to the top quartile of the class, everyone learns more. The reality is that some proportion of students in any given class are above grade level and teachers regularly underestimate them. At Success, we constantly test the ceiling of our scholars’ capacities: making problems more challenging; pushing them to grapple with more complex questions. While strugglers may learn only half the material when first presented in a lesson geared toward the top students, that 50 percent contains more learning than 100 percent of a lesson pitched to the bottom. And by grouping students throughout the day with others at their level, we are able to provide the customized support each student needs for mastery.
To gauge intellectual growth among the high-flyers, we include a subset of questions on assessments that we know will challenge them. If they answer them correctly, they receive an “Exceeds Expectations” score. If they don’t, we know their growth has been neglected. “Exceeds Expectations” is also an accountability metric for school leader bonuses, giving them a concrete incentive to work with teachers on moving kids beyond proficiency and into the realm of exceeding.
Even these measures are not enough for some kids. Each year, we skip ahead approximately 5 percent of scholars in Kindergarten through second grade who consistently get perfect marks across subjects and show signs of growing bored or impatient with the pace of learning. In elementary and middle school, for students who are exceeding but are not quite ready to go to the next grade entirely, we do special book club groups in literacy and advanced mathematics groups. At our high school, we have a STEM Honors Academy, where, in addition to the traditional courses, students take electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering and computer science; and we have a Humanities Academy where students take advanced poetry, art history, and writing courses.
Making sure that the most capable students are continually challenged and engaged ultimately helps all students because it gives them access to engaging, rigorous content that will stretch them to reach their fullest potential. Unfortunately, across the country, we are failing at this goal. Most schools have halted the policy of skipping accelerated learners ahead and a recent report found that even when schools and districts give a nod to accelerated learners with so-called “gifted” classes and schools, the materials taught are no more accelerated than those in regular classrooms.
This neglect of exceptionally bright learners is an egregious oversight: International tests demonstrate again and again that compared to many other countries, a far smaller percentage of U.S. students reach the most advanced levels of achievement. And like everything else in education, low-income children are the ones who suffer most from our failings: Their parents are less able to afford extra classes to supplement their learning or to move them to a more rigorous school. Principals and system leaders constantly insist that their teachers “differentiate” to serve every learner, but the evidence speaks for itself: We are systematically neglecting high-flyers. It is the responsibility of educational leaders to put in place countermeasures that ensure we are delivering a schooling experience that challenges and engages every child, no matter their skills, talents, and abilities.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Linkedin.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.