You probably haven't heard of Harrison Bergeron. If so, that's too bad. He should become a household name.
Harrison Bergeron is a fictional character from a 1961 short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and his saga is definitely worth taking a few minutes to read. The satirical narrative is about America in 2081 and makes a strong case for today's Americans to focus on the inherent dangers of striving for equal outcomes instead of assuring abundant individual opportunities to all American youngsters.
Excessive government control and the dumbing down of America's schools (and the often unearned high grades 'awarded' to too many students) are reasons for concern about America's future prospects in this globally competitive economy.
Settling for average or lower than average global performance inevitably will result in widespread mediocrity. And mediocrity is not even close to what's not good enough for our kids and grandkids. As Robert Browning said, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
The Bright Students Left Behind is subtitled 'While everyone focuses on boosting the weakest students, America's smartest children are no longer being pushed to do their best:'
"A great problem in U.S. education is that gifted students are rarely pushed to achieve their full potential. It is no secret that American students overall lag their international peers. Among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose students took the PISA exams in 2012, the U.S. ranked 17th in reading, 20th in science and 27th in math.
Less well known is how few young Americans—particularly the poor and minorities—reach the top ranks on such measures. The PISA test breaks students into six levels of math literacy, and only 9% of American 15-year-olds reached the top two tiers. Compare that with 16% in Canada, 17% in Germany and 40% in Singapore.
Among the handful of American high achievers, only one in eight comes from the bottom socioeconomic quartile. In Canada it’s one in four; Germany one in six; and Singapore one in three.
What has gone wrong? Thanks to No Child Left Behind and its antecedents, U.S. education policy for decades has focused on boosting weak students to minimum proficiency while neglecting the children who have already cleared that low bar. When parents of “gifted” youngsters complained, they were accused of elitism. It is rich that today’s policies purport to advance equality, yet harm the smartest kids from disadvantaged circumstances.
High achievers were taken more seriously during the Sputnik era. . . . As the country concerned itself with educational equity, John W. Gardner, the president of the Carnegie Corporation (and future U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare), posed a provocative question in a seminal 1961 book with the title, “Excellence: Can we be equal and excellent too?”
The year 1983 brought “A Nation at Risk,” the celebrated report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which declared that poor schools were contributing to national weakness: “Our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”. . .
Poor test scores show that gifted American children still aren’t reaching the heights they are capable of. How do other nations achieve better results? We set out to examine 11 of them—four in Asia, four in Europe, and three that speak English—for our forthcoming book, “Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students.”
Unsurprisingly we found that culture, values and attitudes matter a great deal. Parents in Korea, Japan and Taiwan push their kids to excel . . . .
Finland is a different story. Equity and inclusion are the bywords, and teachers are supposed to “differentiate” instruction to meet the unique needs of every child. . . .
What lessons can the U.S. take from this research on how to raise the academic ceiling, while also lifting the floor? States could screen all their students and offer top scorers extra challenges. They could encourage smart kids to accelerate through school or—more disruptive—allow every child to move through the curriculum at his own pace. Why must every 11-year-old be in fifth grade? Technology eases such individualization, but this change would also require agile teachers and major revisions to academic standards, curricula and tests that now assume every child should progress through one grade a year. . . . But liberating fast learners to surge forward academically would do them—and society—a world of good. . . .
If we cannot bring ourselves to push smart kids as far as they can go, we will watch and eventually weep as other countries surpass us in producing tomorrow’s inventors, entrepreneurs, artists and scientists."
We are in a globally competitive world.
Yet we're still focused on 'intramurals' and only looking at how well our kids and schools compare to the achievements of other kids and schools in the immediate area.
We're also looking too much to government 'leaders' to solve our many globally competitive and educational issues.
Those are both huge mistakes.
I graduated from high school and entered college in 1961 when the 'Harrison Bergeron' story was first told.
George Orwell's '1984' was popular at that time and described the insurmountable obstacles associated with excessive government control and a lack of individual freedoms.
Sadly, the lessons taught by Vonnegut and Orwell seem to be missing from today's academic training.
Yet they're needed now more than ever.
That's my take.