Are schools doing enough to challenge all students?

BY joe Nathan



Three important questions come from “Do Schools Challenge our Children?”, a new report by the Center for American Progress:

• Is school too easy for many youngsters?

• Should we believe student surveys?

• If the answer to the first two questions is “yes,” now what?

CAP describes itself as a “non-partisan research and education institute,” seeking to “find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems….” Its new report has attracted lots of attention.

I agree that some students need more challenge. Researchers found that, for example, that:

• Thirty-three percent of Minnesota 4th graders, and 37 percent of 4th graders nationally described their math work as “often, always or almost always too easy.” Nationally, 67 percent said “sometimes” too easy, and 17 percent “never too easy.”

• Twenty-eight percent of Minnesota eighth students and 29 percent of eighth graders nationally said math is “often, always or almost always…too easy.”

• Nationally, 51 percent of eighth-grade civics students and 57 percent of eighth grade history students feel that their work is “often or always too easy.”

You can read more here:

Should we trust these students’ comments? My experience, and research the report cites, say “yes.” As an elementary, middle, high school and university teacher over 40 years, I found that most students gave me helpful feedback.

The questions I asked varied, based on students’ age. But they often were frank about whether I was being clear and fair, whether they were learning a little or a lot, what they liked best about the class, and what most needed improvement.

One of the most intriguing parts of CAP’s report summarizes research showing the value of surveying students. This research does not say student surveys are the only way to evaluate teachers, or that all students are truthful.

But CAP cites intriguing research by Harvard Professor Ronald Ferguson. After surveying more than 300,000 students, he’s found that there are valuable questions to ask. For example, 79 percent of students in classrooms that score in the top quarter say, “my teacher explains difficult things clearly.” Only 50 percent of students in classrooms scoring in the bottom 25 percent say their teachers “explain difficult things clearly.”

So, one possible response is to help some teachers explain difficult concepts and ideas to some of their students.

Another possible response is to examine how technology can help schools do a better job of individualizing learning.

But increasing standards, one of center’s major solutions, won’t do much to solve the problem.

Why? Because, as Ed Fuller, a Penn State education professor recently wrote on a blog created by Diane Ravitch, students who are not doing well under current standards were much less likely to say school is too easy. Raising standards won’t necessarily help currently less successful students.

You can read his (and other) reactions here:

It’s not just about how educators are teaching, it’s about how schools are organized to promote and encourage learning. Moreover, we need to do more to promote respect for academic, along with athletic accomplishment. The report wisely urges doing “far more to improve the learning experience for all students.”


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome,

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