America and its high-potential kids

Throughout much of 2013, a colleague and I worked on a project related to America’s highest-potential boys and girls, students colloquially known as “gifted.” Though I learned a great deal, it was mostly a discouraging enterprise.

In short, this country gives the impression that it doesn’t much care about such kids. We have an astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate system of school supports for kids on the right side of the academic distribution.

Though the project was designed to identify what’s happening in this field, I spent much of my time studying the dog that seldom barks—trying to figure out why there is so little activity in this field. I’m now of the mind that American-ness might be at the heart of the problem.

There is something quintessentially American about beating the odds, bootstrapping your way to success. Think of the waves of penniless immigrants who came to our shores and made their marks, the hardy souls who crossed the plains and mountains to realize their destinies. This is the stuff of The American Dream.

But something important seems to go hand-in-hand with our rooting for the underdog—what might be described as the chip on our collective shoulder, a bit of disdain for those seen as undeservingly advantaged. Our Founders cast off the crown, the nobility, and the haughty pretentions that go along with class privilege. We rebel against not only tyranny but the Platonic idea of “philosopher-kings”—persons groomed from youth, told they are crafted from precious metals, and guided into positions of power and lives of advantage.

As a still-mostly-meritocratic country, we seem to respect what people become, but we reserve our reverence for the process of rising, Horatio Alger style. As for those blessed with advantages from the get-go, well, we have no intention of holding them back. But we are inclined to just let them be. In all of our research, what we heard most frequently was that people believe major efforts aimed at high-performing students aren’t all that important because these kids will do fine without any additional “favors” from the rest of us.

In Closing America’s High-achievement Gap, recently published by the Philanthropy Roundtable, I argue that the “let-them-be” approach is deeply flawed and that public education policy and practice pay far too little attention to helping gifted students reach their full potential. 

First, this form of benign neglect is based on a false assumption. Most of America’s ostensibly “self-made” leaders enjoyed all sorts of essential support along their paths to greatness. Frederick Douglass received surreptitious reading lessons during his childhood. Thomas Edison was home-schooled by an attentive mother. Robert Goddard was given a telescope, microscope, and subscription to Scientific American. America’s position on the global stage would look markedly different today if generations of political, industrial, and scientific leaders had not been cultivated and nurtured by the adults in their lives.

Unfortunately for today’s gifted students, however, when a Fordham Institute survey recently asked teachers which students were most likely to get one-on-one attention, 81 percent said struggling students and only 5 percent said advanced students. Some knowledgeable, insistent, well-resourced parents can deflect some of these problems by finding special schools, hiring tutors, and so on. But the talented, low-income child often pays the price, depending as she does on whatever supports her neighborhood school has to offer.

Second, leaving them alone overlooks the opportunity costs—both to individual students and to society—when a gifted child does not reach her potential. For low-income and minority students, this gap has negative implications for the cause of social justice and civil rights. But for all high-potential kids who get too little attention, the child, her community, and the nation all pay a large price. A natural resource was squandered—great accomplishments never came to be. The damage inflicted can last far beyond the year (or years) she was under-challenged. She will have missed the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.

In fact, a 2011 Fordham Institute study found that somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of early-grade “high-flyers” descend and no longer achieve at the most advanced levels. A similar study in the United Kingdom found the same result. This adds up to lots of kids and lots of lost potential. In the best of cases, a high-potential student will have a fine personal and professional life, but the delta between what is and what could have been will be significant in terms of both her personal sense of fulfillment and her contributions to society.

Third, benign neglect assumes that raising the floor is the best and fastest route toward equity. Over the last two decades, policymakers, compelled by the demands of equal opportunity and aghast at widening achievement gaps—particularly for poor and minority youngsters—have focused resources on the neediest kids. The “achievement gap,” the difference between the proficiency rates of different groups of students, appears to be closing slowly. This is invaluable.

However, the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

Our short book offers lots of suggestions. For example, new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools). We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

But leaving possible solutions aside, I’d like to return to the fundamental problem—that we seem not to care very much about these boys and girls. If you doubt this, ask yourself: What is my organization doing for the highest-potential students? What is our reform movement doing for them?

We should care about all boys and girls. Morally, it’s the right thing to do. Politically, too: If we want education reform to be sustainable, we have to broaden our base. But we should also help high-achievers for the sake of our nation. Our brightest kids have the potential to become our future presidents, judges, diplomats, business leaders, scientists, and artists. If we’re to remain competitive internationally and prosperous and free domestically, we must start investing more in high-talent kids. It’ll pay big dividends, and future generations will thank us for patriotically leaving them this nest egg.

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