Best students tied down by busy work

September 15, 2005|By Thomas Sowell

DURING MY first semester of teaching many years ago, I was surprised to encounter the philosophy that the brightest students did not need much help from the teacher because "they can get it anyway" and that my efforts should be directed toward the slower or low-performing students.

This advice came from my department chairman, who said that if the brighter or more serious students "get restless" while I was directing my efforts toward the slower students, then I should "give them some extra work to do to keep them quiet."

A few days later, I resigned. It was only the first in a series of my resignations from academic institutions over the years.

Unfortunately, the idea of treating the brighter or more serious students as a problem to be dealt with by keeping them busy is not uncommon and is pervasive in the public schools. One fashionable solution for such "problem" students is to assign them to help the less able or less conscientious students who are having trouble keeping up.

High potential will remain only potential unless it is developed. But the thought that high potential should be developed more fully never seems to occur to many of our educators, and some are absolutely hostile to the idea.

It violates their notions of equality or "social justice" and it threatens the "self-esteem" of other students. As a result, too often a student with the potential to become a future scientist, inventor or a discoverer of a cure for cancer will instead have his time tied up doing busy work for the teacher.

Even so-called "gifted-and-talented" programs often turn out to be simply a bigger load of the same level of work that other students are doing - keeping the brighter students busy in a separate room.

My old department chairman's notion that the better students "can pretty much get it without our help" assumes that there is some "it" - some minimum competence - which is all that matters.

People like this would apparently be satisfied if Albert Einstein had remained a competent clerk in the Swiss patent office and if Jonas Salk, instead of discovering a cure for polio, had spent his career puttering around in a laboratory and turning out an occasional research paper of moderate interest to his academic colleagues.

If developing the high potential of some students wounds the "self-esteem" of other students, one obvious answer is for them to go their separate ways in different classrooms or different schools.

There was a time when students of different ability or performance levels were assigned to different classes in the same grade or to different schools, and no one else collapsed because of wounded self-esteem.

Let's face it: Most of the teachers in our public schools do not have what it takes to develop high intellectual potential in students. They cannot give students what they don't have themselves.

Test scores going back more than half a century have repeatedly shown people who are studying to be teachers to be at or near the bottom among college students studying in various fields. It is amazing how often this plain reality gets ignored in discussions of what to do about our public schools.

Lack of competence is only part of the problem. Too often there is not only a lack of appreciation of outstanding intellectual development but a hostility toward it by teachers who are preoccupied with the "self-esteem" of mediocre students, who may remind them of what they were once like as students.

Maybe the advancement of science, of the economy and of finding a cure for cancer can wait while we take care of self-esteem.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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