Poll: Are smart kids left behind?

More than half of local teachers think so, a St. Petersburg Times poll shows, as the state increasingly focuses its efforts on lower-performing students.

Published May 17, 2006

He was in second grade and bored.

So Susan Cartwright asked her son's teacher at Brooker Elementary School last year to give him more homework. The Brandon mother thought the extra work would challenge her bright 7-year-old.

"The teacher looked at me like, what? Are you crazy? I'm swamped," Cartwright remembers.

Her experience is hardly unique. A St. Petersburg Times poll of Hillsborough and Pinellas County teachers shows that more than half think smart kids are being left behind because educators are focusing their efforts on lower-performing students.

Many of those teachers said in interviews that state and district officials are more concerned with making struggling students average than making good students great.

"Teachers ... only have so many hours in the day. They only have so many tricks in their bag," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "If the system is moving resources to struggling kids, they can't fight it."

The idea that smart kids get less attention from teachers is not new. It is a staple of school chat room discussions and a topic of education journals. But the Times poll is the first to document the extent to which teachers in the Tampa Bay area acknowledge the phenomenon.

High school teachers who were surveyed were the most likely to agree that high-performing students in their classes were being shortchanged. And nearly 70 percent of teachers at high-poverty schools said smart kids are less of a priority. That compares with about 50 percent at middle- to upper-class schools.

Caroline Cooper, a teacher at Hillsborough's Woodbridge Elementary, which has a large percentage of low-income children, sees how frequently low-performing students get help.

"They get after-school tutoring," she said. "They get during-school tutoring. They get adults spending time with them daily, almost one on one. The above-average child gets very little of that."

Fifty-nine percent of the teachers surveyed said this is not the way schools used to work. Jennifer Lotti, a teacher at Palm Harbor Elementary School, thinks the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is causing the change.

Since the FCAT's debut in 1998, student scores on the state exam have been used to punish or reward schools, which are graded on an A-to-F basis. Teachers can earn bonuses if their school's grade improves.

Lotti said schools focus on raising the scores of students in the bottom quarter of a school's population because that is a major component of the state formula that determines school grades.

The end result?

Not enough time for the children who already are doing well, Lotti said.

"Nobody ever talks about moving the 3s to the 4s to the 5s," she said, referring to the FCAT scoring scale of 1 to 5 for reading and math. "All the resources we have are being placed on the 1s and 2s."

When Keith Aborn came to Hillsborough's Cannella Elementary School as a math resource teacher three years ago, he noticed teachers were gearing their grade-level lessons to whatever subject was getting the most weight on the FCAT.

It was reading in third grade and writing the year after. Fifth grade teachers concentrated on math. But in each of those grades, he said, the other subjects suffered.

"FCAT testing has caused a change in the way teachers approach their classroom," said Aborn, 43. He said that has hurt both "higher-end kids and the ones in the middle."

Aborn now goes from class to class, helping teachers structure their math lessons so all kids benefit.

Sandi Nielsen of St. Petersburg knows about the plight of kids in the middle.

She is transferring her son William, a seventh-grader, from Meadowlawn Middle School to Northside Christian School next year because, she said, he is one of those kids in the middle who seem to be forgotten.

She said teachers are having to spend too much time on unruly students.

"We don't think they have challenged him enough because of all these distractions," Nielsen said. "We feel he's not reaching his full potential."

Eileen Taylor of Temple Terrace saw her daughter, Isabella, grow bored in school.

When the girl was in first grade at Lewis Elementary, she came home with perfect scores on her spelling tests. But she refused to do her homework.

"It was too easy," Taylor said. "They weren't able to challenge her."

Her daughter was eventually placed in a second-grade reading class, which caused her to miss the grammar lessons given by her first-grade teacher, Taylor said. On Fridays, she missed reading altogether because the classes had "fun Fridays," where the kids played games.

"That was 20 percent of her week where she wasn't getting any reading," Taylor said. "They shortchanged her."

Taylor transferred her daughter to a magnet school, Muller Elementary, where the girl feels more challenged.

But Taylor still faults the overall educational philosophy in the state, which says that every student should be capable of performing at grade level. She said that has helped the kids at the bottom but done little for those above grade level.

Cartwright said she wishes schools would put children of similar abilities in the same classes. She thinks the grades of all students would rise, as would their self-esteem.

"I'm sure there's no easy answer," she said. "I don't think we should just talk about something. We should do something about it."

Grouping students of similar abilities helped Lori Cook's 13-year-old twins at Tyrone Middle School. Caitlin, a gifted student, is in a special group that does advanced work. She will start earning high school credits next year. And her sister Amanda goes to regular classes.

"My daughters are being taught at their potential," Cook said. "They should do it in all schools."

In both Pinellas and Hillsborough, school district leaders said they were disturbed by the survey results. They said no group of children should be routinely overlooked by teachers.

"There has to be a balance," said Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "We have to be able to provide what every student needs."

Pinellas School Board vice chairwoman Mary Brown said she hates the thought of smart kids not reaching their potential because teachers don't have time for them.

Good teachers, she said, help all their students.

"I want low-performing students to get what they need and high-performing students to get what they need," Brown said. "If teachers are saying that it's not happening ...then we need to help those teachers."


Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.