Is Education a Zero-Sum Game?

Guest Post by Eric Muller

In last Wednesday's Chapel Hill News, school superintendent Neil Pedersen wrote the following:

We take th[e] goal for equality a step farther by advocating for 'equity,' which means that students deserve to receive whatever resources are necessary to meet common educational goals. In some cases, equity will lead to some students receiving more resources than others in order to meet the same, high educational goals.

In last Friday's Chapel Hill News, editor Ted Vaden wrote the
following about the perception that recent and proposed changes in gifted education have led to a "dumbing down" of the curriculum:

This is an unfortunate perception, because it proceeds on an assumption that advancement for one group of students - low-performing African-Americans and Latinos - can come only at the expense of others, particularly more advanced students.

These two assertions obviously conflict with each other. The superintendent's claim has low-achieving students receiving more resources than high-achieving students in order that the maximum number of students attain a particular high level of achievement. Mr. Vaden's claim is that the focus on equity actually entails no trade-offs.

Is there any reasonable way to reconcile these two conflicting characterizations? Who is right?

Eric Muller is a law professor at UNC and has his own blog at



WINSTON! maybe you did not read the whole article before you wrote this?

how could the reporter know this:

" One sixth-grader said she's so bored that she files her nails in class. Another woman said her daughter, who isn't gifted, is so intimidated by the gifted students in her class that she feels dumb. "

if she wasn't there?

Anyway, with average students feeling dumb becuase they have to sit with the gifted kids, and gifted kids spending all their time on their nails because they already know the basics, this system seems to be serving no one at all. What a mess!

By my count, there were 51 citizen speakers. 50/51 talked about the revised gifted plan. About 10 (several who were district employees) were pro. Most of the rest (almost all parents as far as I could tell) expressed concerns in one way or another.

I am sure that, over the course of the evening, there were at least 100 people there. I don't know if it would be accurate to say that 100 people were opposed to the revised gifted plan, but it was certainly the case that a large majority of the crowd was not supportive of the current draft.

Being able to listen to over 2.5 hours of citizen input (most of it not so happy) really makes me admire the Board. I think most of them earn their meager stipends in just one meeting. Love 'em or loathe 'em, God bless them for signing up for the abuse.

The Ministry of Truth reports that the Herald Sun today featured not only a much more descriptive article on the School Board meeting, but also an editorial.

in which the writer actually asks the question:

What's the best way to educate a gifted child?

The news report covers what happened after Eric left ( or at least that's the present MiniTruth position):

A MiniTruth analysis reveals that staff, at McDougal at least suport the plan and spoke in support of it, but parents are broadly against it. Regardless of the side, MiniTruth conjectures that communication between staff and parents nust have been poor at many levels to allow for such broad differences.

Reports are in but they don't match the word on the street.

the News and Observer doesn't really cover the meeting

and in a wonder-if-the-reporter-was-actually-there story in the Herald Sun, we read

"About 40 parents oppose gifted-student revisions"

parents today were saying thre were well over 100 people there opposed -- but that's gossip or hearsay or something.

Your harmless drudge from the Ministry of Truth,


Comments on/reactions to last night's school board meeting? Anyone?

(I'm told that it went until midnight, and then broke for further discussion of the gifted plan at the meeting on June 3. I left at around 9:40 after speaking my little piece. I was the 42nd speaker, and there was still a long list of names after me. Apparently the district is going to seek an extension from the state of the deadline for filing the district's gifted plan.)

We have great teachers in this school system with a tremendous

amount of pressure. We also have really wonderful children and

concerned parents with the same pressures. No matter how

flawed the system , there would not be a system without us.

We will continue to utter words of discontent when things are not

going quite the way that we want, but by joining forces we insure

that each child gets the education he or she is entitled to receive.

Some may have to do a little more or give a little more but the out

come will depend on our own unselfish efforts.

I don't totally agree with Neil, Ruby or Jay but respect their opinions. If we were all doing so well in our lives and did not have

to work two or three jobs just for the bare necessities, we could

all be at the schools every day helping and donating. We would probably have to take a ticket to get in. We have an obligation to

properly educate every child in Orange County regardless of our

personal resources.

Let us all be different, as we surely are, but make a difference when it comes to educating our children and eveyone benefits.

Ruby wrote:

"Part of the reason Chapel Hill's educational system is so successful is because of all the wonderful parents who volunteer their time, energy, and money to make the schools excellent. I commend all the PTA members and and otherwise engaged parents for their dedication to public education. I wish more parents were like them.

But I wonder why they don't share the concerns voiced for so many years about how our schools are doing for children less like their own."

I appreciate the sentiments of your first paragraph but think your assessment of parent volunteers in the second paragraph is uninformed and unfair. Most of the parents who I know who volunteer in the classroom tend to focus on helping the children who are struggling simply because this is where they are needed. They aren't there to help their own children or those like them.

Unfortunately, many of these dedicated parent volunteers are the very same people who are being maligned in the debate over differentiated instruction, advanced courses, the gifted plan, etc. I would not be surprised if many of these parents understand disadvantaged children and their needs better than those who make education policy from an altitude of 40,000 feet.

Ruby tells us : Part of the reason Chapel Hill's educational system is so successful is because of all the wonderful parents who volunteer their time, energy, and money to make the schools excellent. I commend all the PTA members and and otherwise engaged parents for their dedication to public education. I wish more parents were like them.

But it is not only parents who can help in the schools. Ruby, we would love to have you come in and volunteer in any school, once a week, every week for a year. Say you will! We really need you, Ruby.

Today's newspaper reports the following:

Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools Board will meet at 7 pm Thursday in McDougle MIddle School Cafetorium. Items for discussion include:

The district's in-the-works revision to its gifted services plan, which proposes changes to how gifted students are identified and tracked.

Measures that must be taken if schools don't meet No CHild Left Behind testing standards.

Approval of revised self-evalution guidelines, which the board would use to help monitor their (sic) own actions.

I work for the Chapel Hill Schools, directing a program designed to help African-American and Latino students succeed ( Although there's still tons I'd love to change about the way things work in CHCCS, I'm very proud of our district's initiative to create equity for all students. If you read Dr. Pedersen's full comments, I think you'll understand that he is trying to put forth the belief that educational improvement needs to be seen through a "both/and" lens, not "either/or".

The vast majority of students in our district are successful. In fact, we have consistently been the highest performing district in the state. We offer more advanced, honors, and AP courses than almost any district. We also have a significant number of African-American and Latino students who do not perform at (already low) grade level standards. These students also have access to more support resources than almost any other NC district provides. All of this is courtesy of a community that commendably provides ample resources for its schools.

To see how we're doing with students of color, view this recent report:

Most students are served very well by our district. However, I believe that every school district, school, and teacher has a moral responsibility to ensure that ALL students can meet basic educational standards. Our district has had a stated strategic goal to do this for the over 10 years. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, it is mandated by the federal government as well.

With so much money, Chapel Hill should be among the first districts in the state to improve the achievement of students of color to the point where we no longer have an achievement gap. And we should be able to do this without "taking away" significant supports to high performing students. Education should never be an either/or, zero-sum game.

Dont' worry -

if the school systems are merged we won't have to worry about honors classes or the achievement gap.

I am still waiting to hear our educational "experts" that will be on WCHL tomorrow - (referring to brown and carey) on how merging the schools will more likely close the achievement gap that has been closing in the city schools.

Some of us will probably miss the day you could talk about where the resources are directed rather than are there enough resources at all that get to be directed to things like extensive honors classes and closing achievement gaps.

Parents, and I mean parents with kids in the Chapel Hill Carrboro Schools, are justly peeved with Peterson.

First, my measuring friends, Peterson and company will not release the results of tests that show increase or decrease of performance across the range of students. Only the results that show the mass of students are somewhat edging over the lower end of the test boundary. So we do not know if the middle, low middle, high achievers etc are doing better or worse. We do know about that for Wake County.

Second, my observant friends, Peterson and company allowed Phillips Middle School to run without a head for the most of last year. Finally, Steve Scroggs was pulled in to save the day at the last moment. This is a problem of leadership and of oversight that is very large.

Thirdly, my meeting attending friends, Peterson and his gifted educators held meetings at which questions from parents were consistantly ignored, ruled off topic, or dismissed out of hand. At best, parents were told to write a letter or send email. Additionally the behavior of the presenter toward non-native speakers of English was that of impatience at best. This too is a problem of leadership.

Parents, all parents, would like their children and their neighbors' children to succeed. It is not clear to me that the closed door that has been presented helps that happen in the least

Kids, parents and citizens need accountability (with empirical evidence), reliability (with effective leadership and oversight), and access with understanding.

The evidence is that we are not getting that at all.

I agree with Mark that we should examine the question of what "resources" are. I think Dr. Pedersen has, again, put his foot in his mouth by using vague words that needlessly raise hackles. If I'm wrong, and he really thinks that it's possible to tot up a balance sheet of "resources" to be added here and taken away there, well, I'm surprised.

I think we can all remember moments from our school days-- perhaps the most important moments -- that weren't the product of some restrictive calculus of material "resources." For me, it was a kind, encouraging talk back in the fall of 1983.

If I _did_ accept Dr. Pedersen's zero-sum depiction of resources, I'd ask this question: Has anyone raised the idea that intervening early to help out kids who need more help might, in the long run, work in the favor of "gifted" kids? I'd like to hear a teacher weigh in on this, but it seems reasonable that it would take more time, effort, and _resources_ to help a moody, hormone-drunk teenager to read at grade level, for instance, than it would to work with that same child when they're 8 years old; and that if you have success with that child when they're 8, and that child realizes that they're succeeding, they eventually won't require the special "resources" Dr. Pedersen keeps talking about. If by the time they're in high school, there are fewer "resources" being alloted to those kids because they've developed the intellectual momentum to keep up on their own, perhaps those "resources" could go to other kids who could use them, including "gifted" kids.

I do not think we should talk about low SES children coming to schools with a 'deficit'--that presumes that the white, upper middle class child is the norm from which all others will be compared.

Post-enlightenment rational philosophy has given us an educational system that is based on the assumption that all children are equal according to their age. In the modern classroom, especially in an age of accountability via testing, that assumption has been seen as flawed. Unfortunately, the first the solution to overcoming the flawed philosophy was to provide additional academic opportunity (advanced courses, gifted education, etc.) for some. We'd all be better off if the solution had been to challenge the basic assumption and redesign the system so that each child has the opportunity to progress at her own pace. IMHO, the current system is too flawed to continue. That's how we found ourselves in the position of have to make a choice between providing new privileges (resources) to the traditionally underserved group (Pederson's current recommendation) and/or by removing historical privileges from others (advanced classes).

While I still won't concede that we should do away with public education, I do think there needs to be a major overhaul instead of all the constant tinkering.

Ruby, I agree that these two points aren't necessarily in conflict.

Students who come to school with relative deficits require a collection of resources that are often different than those resources required by students who come to school more prepared to achieve. If a baseline level of achievement -- reading on grade level, passing end of course exams, etc. -- are desirable for all students, Pederson is saying that it will take more resources for those coming in with deficits to help them reach these benchmarks of achievement than it will for those entering school without those deficits. This seems self-evident.

Vaden points out that it isn't necessarily so that high achieving students still can't be provided with an educational environment that challenges them and allows them to maximize their levels of achievement, even while the school systems directs resources toward pupils with achievement deficits.

Both of these can be true. I think some of the confusion comes from the concept of "resources" and how a school system provides them.

(Not that I think any child is comparable to toxic waste, but here's an analogy)

Cleaning up a former toxic dump and making the area suitable for growing produce requires an X amount of "resources."

Tending a fertile citrus grove in Florida requires somewhat less (X minus Y), yet many argue you can find no better orange anywhere in the world.

I really don't agree with Eric's assumption that these two points are in conflict with each other. I don't see why so many people act as if only one kind of child can be served by our schools or even by a particular progam in the schools. We all benefit when our schools embrace and support students from a wide range of backgrounds. In fact, it's the students' perspectives that they share with each other that is one of the more educational aspects of public schooling.

Part of the reason Chapel Hill's educational system is so successful is because of all the wonderful parents who volunteer their time, energy, and money to make the schools excellent. I commend all the PTA members and and otherwise engaged parents for their dedication to public education. I wish more parents were like them.

But I wonder why they don't share the concerns voiced for so many years about how our schools are doing for children less like their own. When I hear about the way some students (mostly low-income, mostly not white) are treated in our schools, I find it to no surprise that they are also doing more poorly academically. I am outraged at the lack of concern for the entire student body - as a body.

It is not OK for one child to excel at the expense of another. And I see no reason why this should be the model for funding our schools. Every child that is helped helps others. If we lose a portion of our students, we are also losing an important portion of our children's education. Don't we want the next generation to do better... to overcome the racism and classism that afflict our society even today? How will they learn to respect other people if their education teaches them to succeed at any cost - community be damned? This is not what I want my future neighbors to learn.


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