The Neglect of "High Flyers"

The Thomas Fordham Institute released the results of a study September 19, entitled “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students.” This is among the first studies to examine the performance of America’s highest achieving children over time and at the individual student level. Produced in partnership with the Northwest Evaluation Association, this study’s results indicate that many high-achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over their school years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below average cohorts.

The study raises a troubling but predictable question: Is the U.S. preoccupation with closing achievement gaps and “leaving no child behind” coming at the expense of our “talented tenth”?

Although this study was done at the elementary school level, it has a direct bearing on higher education. So focused are academics on an egalitarian ethos, that distinctions, once critical in the Academy, have virtually disappeared.

With grade-inflation endemic, the honor roll is little more than a roster of enrolled students. Even Phi Beta Kappa status has been diluted by undifferentiated grading.

To suggest that there is a talented tenth that deserves special treatment would be regarded as a form of “elitism,” a pejorative, widely used on campus.

It is hardly surprising that the U.S. does so poorly on international tests. What we have encouraged at every stage of formal education is “compression at the mean”: the performers at the bottom move up, and those high flyers at the top move down, meeting somewhere at the mean. That translates into a modest improvement at the bottom quartile and neglect at ]the upper quartile. Excellence is simply seen as less important than “access” — to a place in college.

Unfortunately this condition has an influence on national competitiveness: This is an America where everyone is believed to be above average, even though the net result of our education systems is mediocrity.