The Myth That Top Students Can Take Care of Themselves Is a Damaging One

TracingWoodgrains - [original thread]

I'm working on a response to a Noahpinion thread, and piece, that manages to very precisely press my buttons on the topic of education, with an ounce of good "common sense" advice mixed with some common, and harmful, poison pills.

This is the thread, and this is the piece, both written in response to recent initiatives to strip away options for advanced classes. Steve Miller dives in depth into a California initiative here. In response, Noah aims to thread a needle, asserting that Both Sides of an equity-excellence debate are wrong, and that he has the reasonable middle-ground solution of improving math education for average kids.

I'm passionate about improving education for all kids, so the claim that we're not adequately serving average ones is one I take seriously. That's not what's got my goat. No, what bothers me is that he's a PhD and Stanford physics graduate who, having received the best education money can buy, turns around and asserts that smart kids can take care of themselves.

In support of this, he makes statements like this:

Supporters of gifted education, meanwhile, all too often focus on talent screening rather than effective education. The disappointing long-term results of shunting kids into accelerated classes based on test scores suggest that motivation ultimately matters more than ability. But even more fundamentally, the notion that the purpose of education should be to discover and elevate natural talent is fundamentally flawed, as the entire previous section of this post argued. Finding a few kids capable of defeating China in a math competition is useless compared to the task of training millions of kids to work in high-tech export industries.

I am not worried about top-end math education. Top students will find a way to learn.

I am worried about average students' math education. These are the students whose parents have not prepared them as much. But they have plenty ability to do math!! ...

I am not worried about "gifted" kids' math education. Gifted kids are well-prepared by their parents and will find ways to learn. I learned calc from a textbook and slept through the class. Whatever.

I'm worried about the AVERAGE student, whose parents don't prepare them!!

The reason things like this worry me is NOT because I think we're entering some Harrison Bergeron world where the top kids won't get a chance to shine.

It's because I worry that we're canceling math classes for the AVERAGE student.

He's straightforwardly wrong on the facts here, as those who are familiar with the general course of my education writing will know. Top students can only take care of themselves in the sense that, if instruction is poorly suited to them, they will outperform average students. But as I said in a very irritated response, every student at every level benefits from instruction suited to their level. After controlling for aptitude, carefully tailored education environments make a massive difference in outcomes (2) and are popular with the students, even at the very top level.

The myth that top students can take care of themselves is a damaging one, used to excuse people not even trying to meet their needs, and it's too often perpetrated by people like Noah who emphatically did not "take care of themselves" on their pathways through education, people who have attended top institutions and received ample support throughout their academic lives.

I'll stop on that tack before I write the whole piece here and now. Instead, I'm most interested in hearing a) how others here feel about Noah's piece and thread, and what they would like to see covered in a response, and b) the experiences of "top students" in education, and the extent to which you, if you were a gifted student, felt you could or should be able to take care of yourself. Or, if you have kids or know of kids/teenagers with relevant stories, what their experience has been.

I'd like to experiment with Serious Journalism in this case (i.e. writing something up that looks more polished than a reddit comment, including stories and examples), so if you'd be comfortable with any of: answering followups by PM, seeing your story included in a more polished piece, identifying yourself or the focus of the story by first/full name, please let me know here or via PM.

Anyway, that's it for me from now. Look for a more detailed response to Noah's writing as soon as I can cobble it together.