At least encourage the crazy ones: How to reward our highly motivated students

Frederick Hess

The High Flyer (Blog Banner)-NAGC.pngFor the better part of two decades, school improvement has been focused on narrowing “achievement gaps” by raising the reading and math scores of low-performing students. While this charge has undeniable merit, it also carries some real costs. Among these is a lack of attention to students who are performing passably but are eager to pursue learning that stretches beyond the corners of state academic standards.

For those concerned about the failure to adequately challenge these students or push their intellectual horizons, this state of affairs has been disheartening. William Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, the world’s only quarterly journal for academic research papers by high school students, is one of them. Frustrated by decades of mostly-ineffectual efforts to persuade high schools to prioritize long-form, rigorous student work, he recently offered a suggestion that’s half tongue-in-cheek but wholly worth pursuing.

As Fitzhugh puts it:

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Hoosiers is when the coach first drives into the town early in the morning or late in the evening, and he passes the HS senior shooting hoops. This student is the one who defends the coach and puts up the winning shot in the state championship.

Could we provide more high school students with an incentive to spend part of their spare time on Independent Study History papers, with no teacher time required—as in the shooting hoops case? This should help with the problem everyone cites—that teachers have no time to guide students on serious term papers . . .

Fitzhugh’s notion seems especially well-suited as we enter 2019, a time when concern about the degree to which testing mania has fueled a lowest-common-denominator mindset, and when talk of “personalized learning” is inescapable.

Of course, the downside of “personalization” is that it can be an invitation to empty-calorie education, undermining rigor and leading to the problems of anything-goes instruction. That’s why Fitzhugh’s project has always been so alluring. Allowing passionate learners to pursue a historical topic that enthralls them and then have them pen an extended, extensively researched, clearly written essay on that topic is the best kind of personalization.

As Fitzhugh observed in a note which was accompanied by a remarkably accomplished student essay, “This 21,000 word paper was written as an independent study, and I have reason to believe the teacher didn’t even know about it. This kid is applying to Harvard . . . We could at least try to reach and encourage the crazy ones.”

This runs contrary to how many schools and school systems approach their work today. Even as the enthusiasm for test-based accountability recedes, discussions about success tend to focus on movement in reading and math proficiency for various student demographics. There is little reward or support for the time teachers spend encouraging the crazy ones.

This can be rectified. That may require retooling teacher evaluation to place more weight on teachers who provide extraordinary opportunities for students and who make it a point to nurture student learning that extends beyond state standards or isn’t captured on state tests. It may mean creating room in the schedules of high school students for things like Concord Review-style essays, and perhaps even providing coaching or giving some teachers a period to mentor and support such work. It may call for partnering with educators who have a track record of supporting extraordinary student efforts, as is the case in math instruction with the remarkable Art of Problem Solving.

Our schools have never been as good at encouraging the crazy ones as we might like, but it’s safe to say that things have gotten worse on this count over the past two decades.

Now, despite some overheated claims that No Child Left Behind-style accountability or test-based teacher evaluation were motivated by a villainous enthusiasm for “shaming and blaming” educators, the problem was not the intent of these efforts. The goal of ensuring that all children should, at a minimum, be proficient in reading and math was admirable, and it’s tough to quarrel with the insistence that teachers and schools should do their part. The problem, rather, was with the ill-conceived machinery and the lack of appreciation for how these policies would ultimately change teaching, learning, and the culture of schooling.

One costly consequence was that teachers felt far less free to devote time and energy to encouraging the crazy ones. Making it a point to reverse that state of affairs would be a healthy resolution for school improvement in 2019, and beyond.

Frederick Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Forbes.

The views expressed herein represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.