Nerd, geek, dork, egghead: Why does American education fetishize mediocrity?

The overwhelming focus of resources in the U.S. educational system is on bringing lagging students up to an “acceptable” level on standardized reading and math tests. This is especially true since No Child Left Behind created a school rating system — and associated punishments — that cares only about how many students achieve an adequate level of performance and not one iota how much high-achieving students are learning.

Focusing teacher effort and class time so intensely on below-average students plays into our country’s egalitarian (and insanely corrosive) anti-“nerd”, anti-“egghead”, anti-“dork”, anti-“geek” educational culture.

High-achieving students in many other nations are looked up to by their classmates. In America, they’re subjected to name-calling and bullying.

It’s especially ironic since American culture idolizes individual success almost everywhere except the classroom. Top student athletes are hugely popular. We admire talented musicians and actors of all ages. We love smart businessmen, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. But when it comes to student performance, every child must be alike. As a society, we have chosen to take resources away from talented students and give them instead to lagging students. Many talented students manage to thrive, despite constantly feeling unchallenged in school. But many more talented students grow increasingly bored and frustrated and eventually turn off to school.

One simple, obvious and minimal-cost solution to this problem is to group children by academic performance (perhaps on a subject-by-subject basis) rather than chronological age. Teachers could then teach all students at a level appropriate. A 2004 report advocates for accelerating high-achieving students:

When [America’s gifted children] enter school, things change. They’re often the most frustrated students in the classroom. They’re bored in kindergarten, and they’re bored again in first grade. Year after year, they learn little that they haven’t learned already. They hope things will get better, but things rarely do. For many of them, nothing changes.

America’s school system keeps bright students in line by forcing them to learn in a lock-step manner with their classmates. Teachers and principals disregard students’ desires to learn more — much more — than they are being taught.

Instead of praise and encouragement, these students hear one word — no. When they ask for a challenge, they are held back. When they want to fly, they are told to stay in their seats.

Stay in your grade. Know your place.

It’s a national scandal. And the price may be the slow but steady erosion of American excellence.

Posted by James on Wednesday, December 02, 2009