Lefty? You Take that Back!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Mike Petrilli has completely misunderstood my response to his and Checker Finn’s NRO piece last week.

I would let it slide, but the man also called me a “lefty,” so now my honor is at stake. (And even while delivering this shiv to the ribs, he calls me “our friend Greg Forster.” Beware the smiling mamba!)

Pistols at ten paces being illegal, I must content myself with another blog post.

To recap:

1) Mike, writing with Checker, claimed that in the NCLB era the kids at the bottom had made good progress while the kids at the top remained unchanged.

2) They said this meant that NCLB had sacrificed “excellence” in order to promote “equality.”

3) I responded that if it’s true the kids at the bottom are getting better while the kids at the top are staying the same, it sounds like we’re making progress toward both more equality and more excellence.

Well now Mike throws this at me:

Is the whole population getting “more excellent”? No, the whole population is making incremental progress. That’s surely good. But excellence is something else entirely. According to Webster’s, it’s the quality of being “superior, eminently good, first-class.”

So the improvement in learning among the lowest-performing students is “incremental progress” but it is not an improvement in excellence. Well then, incremental progress toward what, exactly, if not toward excellence? If they keep making incremental progress until they’re all as smart as Einstein, wouldn’t that be excellence? And doesn’t that mean that the progress they’re actually making now is progress toward excellence? So if that’s not an improvement in excellence, what is it?

Then he delivers the shiv:

Greg’s definition equates “excellence” with a narrowing of the achievement gap. That’s breathtakingly radical. Who knew that Greg had become such a lefty!

Mike, I said we were making progress toward both equality and excellence. I didn’t say that progress toward equality was progress toward excellence. If I say that my daughter is getting both taller and smarter at the same time, does that mean I equate height with intelligence?

If we want to parse definitions, I would define narrowing the achievement gap between groups as an improvement in “equality,” and any raising of the level of achievement – whether across the board or in a particular group – as an improvement in “excellence.” And obviously you can have both of those at the same time without collapsing the distinction between them.

Meanwhile, by Mike’s definition, if some students improve while others stay the same, we have made no progress toward excellence. I don’t think that’s the way the word “excellence” is normally used.

If I wanted to respond to Mike’s final paragraph in kind, I could say this:

By Mike’s definition, no matter how much improvement the other kids in the class make, only the kids at the top of the class can ever be capable of “excellence.” That’s breathtakingly reactionary. I had no idea he was such an elitist!

But I would never do something like that to a friend.

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