The grand ambition of the No Child Left Behind law was proudly contained in its name: Everyone deserves a chance to succeed. That meant teachers, principals, school administrators and taxpayers should give every child – rich, poor or in-between – an opportunity to learn.
It is an admirable goal: Don’t leave disadvantaged kids behind just because their parents are immigrants, homeless, unemployed or addicts. After all, the failure of each child creates a big cost for our future.
The reality is we can only save some children who come from homes devoid of hope, encouragement and ambition. When half the students at a public high school miss at least 15 days a year, too many will fall by the wayside, no matter what teachers do.
In Hawaii, the Felix consent decree created an education culture in which children with disabilities and special needs were not ignored. Another admirable goal, but even with extra attention, many of those children will still face a difficult future.
As we focus resources on these students, another group who are crucial to the future of Hawaii and America do not get what they need to succeed. These are the smartest and most motivated students. Our best candidates for future innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership are not getting what they require to reach their potential.
Funding for gifted and talented programs has declined federally and locally. G/T programs are scattered about and have trouble maintaining a culture of excellence within the low-achievement atmosphere of the regular public schools.
What we need are whole public schools in which the entire culture is based on high expectations, major demands and elite achievement. We have private schools that set these expectations, but what about those children whose parents cannot afford the tuition? There isn’t nearly enough scholarship money to cover all the bright yet needy students.
At “exam schools,” so-called because you must test to get in, smart students are pushed to excel in an environment where good grades are valued over football and sexualized clothes. In Hawaii, bright students could commute from all over their home island to thrive in schools where keeping order is not the teacher’s primary duty and “good enough” is not enough.
If exam schools existed in Hawaii, they would create an incentive for students at the regular public schools to work harder and study more, so they could apply and be admitted.
As we tried not to leave any child behind, we made it harder for anyone to surge ahead. It’s easy to say that Hawaii should spare no expense to give every child the best possible education, but that is unrealistic. There is never as much as you ideally want, so you have to spend wisely to get the most return from your investment in education.
It’s time for Hawaii to take the lead and ensure that no prodigy is left behind. We can’t afford to neglect them because their success will help create a better future for everyone.