Apparently, nothing. According to yesterday's New York Times:
"The National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam commonly known as the nation’s report card, found that the reading skills of 12th graders tested in 2005 were significantly worse than those of students in 1992, when a comparable test was first given, and essentially flat since students previously took the exam in 2002.
The test results also showed that the overwhelming majority of high school seniors have not fully mastered high-school-level math.
At the same time, however, grade-point averages have risen nationwide, according to a separate survey by the National Assessment, of the transcripts of 26,000 students, which compared them with a study of students’ coursework in 1990." [emphasis mine]
"The proportion of high school students completing a solid core curriculum has nearly doubled since 1990, and students are doing better in their classes than their predecessors did," Education Week reported. A solid core curriculum "includes four credits of English and three credits each of social studies, math, and science." EdWeek also mentions that "Two-thirds of the 26,000 graduates who were followed for the transcript study also participated in the 2005 NAEP math and science assessments." So we know we're comparing apples to apples. Now we have data supporting John Stossel's "Stupid in America" 20/20 episode from last fall (click the link to watch it on YouTube.)
What is up with this? In the NYT, "The Education Trust, a nonprofit group representing urban schools, attributed the disparity to a kind of academic false advertising, saying that schools may seem to offer the same courses to all students, but that the content of those courses is sometimes less demanding for poor and minority children.
For example, the group found, a ninth-grade English teacher at one school assigned students a two- to three-page essay comparing the themes of Homer’s “Odyssey” to those in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” At the same school, assignments in another class covering the same material were considerably less demanding. There, students broke up into three clusters, with one designing a brochure for “Odyssey Cruises,” another drawing pictures and the third making up a crossword using characters from the “Odyssey.”
If the Trust is referring to tracked classes, i.e. the essay writers are in the "Honors" 9th grade English course and the others are in the "regular" course, they're being a bit disingenuous. I would hope kids at different academic levels would have different curriculum. However, if both of these classes are billed as 9th grade English (or worse, Honors 9th grade English), there's definitely a problem. "Just slapping new names on courses with weak curriculum and ill-prepared teachers won’t boost achievement,” Kati Haycock, the Education Trust’s president, said [in the NYT]."
So what to do? Stop worrying about self-esteem and start worrying about rigor, for a start. Stop telling teachers that "best practice" for differentiation is "For example, if you're reading Charlotte's Web in a class, tier one might be working on basic plot facts while tier two might write a story about one of the characters. A gifted child in tier three might be asked to "write your own chapter from one of the character's point of view." (Suggestion is from Imagine Teaching Robin Williams -- Twice-Exceptional Children in Your School on the Council for Exceptional Children's website.
This example is clearly for elementary students, not 9th graders. Regardless, this is not differentiation. This is busywork for everyone except those in tier one. I like writing stories, but writing your own story with someone else's characters isn't encouraging creativity and it certainly isn't deepening understanding of Charlotte's Web, any more than making a crossword puzzle of character's names deepens understanding of The Odyssey. Writing a paragraph about how the story would be different if the animals couldn't understand Fern, or if Charlotte were a goose rather than a spider, that is appropriate differentiation for gifted kids.