To help the poor rise, the education system needs to ‘raise the ceiling’ as well as ‘lift the floor.’
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.