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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Failing Our Brightest Kids by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Brandon L. Wright

Failing Our Brightest Kids:  The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students

Book Description:  
In this provocative volume, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Brandon L. Wright argue that, for decades, the United States has done too little to focus on educating students to achieve at high levels. The authors identify two core problems: First, compared to other countries, the United States does not produce enough high achievers. Second, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are severely underrepresented among those high achievers. The authors describe educating students to high levels of achievement as an issue of both equity and human capital: talented students deserve appropriate resources and attention, and the nation needs to develop these students’ abilities to remain competitive in the international arena.

American Education has focused on equity for several decades--on making sure that children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds reach a minimum level of proficiency. And there has been some success in closing that gap.

On the other hand, bright and high ability children are often neglected with the assumption that they will do fine anyway.  The authors are concerned with those children for whom the minimum provides no challenge.  How have these children been served?  And how do our most capable students stand in relation with students from other countries?

In 2012, 27 of 34 countries did better than we did on the math section of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exam.  (More information about the findings can be found here.)  And this is just one assessment that reveals our less than stellar educational results compared to other countries.

While the authors make a strong case for better opportunities for all children with high ability or who are high achievers, they are even more concerned about the neglect of high ability students from disadvantaged homes in which academics are not a priority, students whose parents are unaware of what is offered or don't have the financial means to take advantage, students who live in areas where transportation to a better school is not available or practical, and of students who speak another language at home.  Untapped and neglected potential that we cannot afford to waste.  Why are other countries doing better at reaching these students than we are?

OK--I knew this was going to be a problem.  How to review a book that has so much information and that I've highlighted perhaps over-zealously?  (I had to keep switching highlight colors to bring out important details in important passages.)  There is so much information to ponder!

In spite of the numerous acronyms for educational programs and assessments, the book is surprisingly readable.  I enjoyed reading about the way the eleven countries in the study handled the problems of trying to provide both equity and excellence, their strengths and weaknesses, and what the U.S. might learn from their efforts.

To avoid bogging down in details that I find fascinating, I'm going to direct you to reviews that might give you a better idea about the importance of the book:

NPR review

Wall Street Journal review

NetGalley/Harvard Education Press

Education Theory.   Aug. 28, 2015.  Print length:  312 pages.  


  1. My daughter was one of those high ability students and I was constantly having to push to get her the education she needed. She was put into a Gifted Class, but the emphasis was on the Humanities and her interests were in Science and Math.

    1. Hopefully, some changes will be made. Magnet schools with math and science as a focus would help. It is unfortunate about your daughter because girls still fall behind boys in math, just as boys fall behind in reading. Gender gaps need to be addressed as well. To fail to provide for a girl whose strength is math and science is a shame.

  2. Interesting book choice and review! As someone who has had 3 kids go through the public school system--one with an IEP-- and now 3 grandkids going through it, & as someone who has homeschooled a child for years at a time, & also has worked in public elementary school Sp. Ed. most of my adult life.... I just had a relevant conversation this past week with my family... the U.S. public school system needs a very serious overhaul!!

    I came at this with frustration because my youngest g-kid did poorly in kindergarten, so her parents kept her home and homeschooled her to get ready for first grade (her birthday is in December and she is rather babyish). Last week the school said they don't leave back students, ever, so she had to go into 2nd grade, and they wouldn't budge. Well, my g-kid is not prepared for 2nd, she needs 1st, so her parents are going to homeschool her (to try to learn both years, 1 & 2) this year to then be prepared to go back into the public school system since my daughter works 12 hour shifts and a rotating schedule and it's a burden on her to do this.

    Apparently schools in her state do not leave any students back but just push them ahead and put them in Sp. Ed. if they can't keep up. They suggested this; I worked in Sp. Ed-- my g-kid doesn't belong there.

    Hey, this keeps the school district's numbers looking good, and in this age of "No Child Left Behind" accountability, this is the most important thing to them. They spend a day every week just instructing and practice-testing the kids to be able to take standardized testing, at least in certain grades that I know of. But how much music, P.E., art are they getting??

    Sorry, sorry, sorry for my rant... you just opened a raw wound with me. Let's instruct our kids for the real world and for their best success in life, not the way we are handling things now. Our kids deserve it!

    1. Wow! Hard to believe that a system would try to push ahead a child that was not prepared, but the differences among states and even among systems within a state are often drastic. Another concern of the authors of the book has to do with late bloomers, children whose talents and abilities may not be immediately discernible.

      I agree about the problems with over-testing, teaching to the test, the elimination of P.E.,art, and music and other non-academic subjects that have great benefits generally and that can transfer to academics. I also have a problem with any curriculum that has ONLY university in mind. Not everyone needs to attend college and other paths might suit their interests and skills better. Some of these things are addressed in the book.

  3. That's an interesting book and I enjoyed reading your thoughts, Jenclair. Our school system here focus not only in academics but they want them to participate in school activities too. Aside from this, the school also offers remedial and supplementary classes for students who are weaker in certain subjects (sometimes compulsory, too). My youngest has class schedule that starts from 10am till 6pm for three days per school week. Now that sounds like a work hour isn't it? Bottom line is, I feel students are getting too much stressed today as compared to our days then. I suppose they have to follow the change as the time changes.

    1. Singapore gets top marks in these international assessments, but the book doesn't give any information about class schedules, so it is interesting to see your daughter's. What grade is she in? What about her schedule for the other two days of the week?

      Now, I'm off on another pondering. Elementary schools in our area usually start at 7:45 or 8:00 and dismiss at 2:45 or 3:00 every day. That's a shorter day and earlier start and dismissal than your daughter's, and it is every day. Our local school year begins in Aug. and runs through May, which is longer than it was when I was in school.

      Stress is certainly a problem for a lot of students and for many reasons, including the importance of test results and cultural expectations.

    2. Jenclair, my youngest is in Primary 3 and my eldest Primary 5. The normal school hour is from 12.30pm till 6pm, with a 30min canteen break in between. Each school has their own timing for remedial and supplementary classes, though. The school year begins in January; and school holidays are June and December.

      I really feel sorry for the children today, but with all the competitiveness I suppose students have to work harder than before. :(

    3. Wow, such a difference in daily scheduling! We start early and end early. Your school schedule is dramatically different! In the U.S. both parents usually work and getting kids to school and providing after school care are major concerns. So many complexities!

    4. We have lots of working mothers here too. They either hire foreign domestic helpers to handle house chores and to take care of their children, or have their parents to stay with or around them so they can help out. Otherwise, another option is to put the children at the students care centre after school so they can do their school work or play there until their parents come to fetch them. Now that I'm not working I can spend more time with my children, be it academic or family bonding wise. :)

  4. I come from a family of educators and so education is important to me. Even more so now that my daughter is about to enter the school system. We moved into our current house four and a half years ago because of the area schools. We can't afford private school, but it is something I thought seriously about. I really hope things get better all around, especially as my daughter gets older. Things are so much different than they were when I was in school. Both for the better and the worse.

    1. The efforts to improve the system are always there, but not always successful. I do hope that recognizing the importance of excellence is served as well as equity. The interesting thing is that while IQ can make a difference, high achievers can equal most test scores and that a "can do" attitude is the best predictor of success. I'm reading How Children Succeed (recommended by my friend Teresa) now which which is also very good.