Controversy over diversifying selective high schools is raging across the country, especially in the largest districts. Any number of solutions have been proposed, ranging from lowering admissions standards to the use of lotteries to eliminating the programs. But one idea – a necessary but insufficient solution – has rarely been discussed: Offer more advanced services in public schools. As currently designed, most school districts simply offer too little supply of advanced learning in the face of tremendous demand.
The purpose of advanced education is to provide challenging learning experiences to students who would not otherwise receive them. We think about youth development in sports and the arts this way, but we are less likely to think about it with respect to academic learning.
Yet the demand for advanced learning services far outstrips supply. In 2018-2019, New York’s 327,000 high school students were served by only 18,435 seats in the city’s selective high schools. That represents only 5.6% of the city’s public high school students. The problem is further compounded by severe restriction of supply at earlier points. Over 15,000 families apply for 2,500 kindergarten seats in the city’s gifted education program. Those are the applicants, not all the students who would benefit from the services.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia’s Fairfax County has a more complicated but even more restrictive supply-demand problem. The 1,781 seats at that school are apportioned 70% to Fairfax County students and 30% to students in surrounding communities. To be fair, some surrounding communities have their own advanced high school options, but the availability of advanced services is still limited. Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the largest and highest-achieving districts in the country, can offer only 2-3% of its high school students admission to this advanced high school, regardless of how many would benefit from it.
These districts are not alone in underserving their advanced students. In a recent study, my colleagues and I found evidence that at least 15% of Grade 3-8 students perform three or more grade-levels above their current grade in reading (6% in math). Again, that is actual performance, and the percent of students with potential to perform at high levels is certainly much higher. The results also suggest these students can be found in nearly every single classroom, meaning this isn’t just a suburban phenomenon. There are huge numbers of bright students in our schools who do not have the opportunity to experience advanced education.
There are two reasons why equity is not possible with these limited services. First, students whose families have social capital will always have advantages given limited supply. That’s true whether the admissions process is based on a single test or a portfolio of different data points – I’ve yet to come across any measure of student potential or performance that isn’t correlated with social and economic class. The current reality need not be destiny – some interventions appear to narrow these testing gaps significantly, especially if implemented early and comprehensively. But those services will take years to show consistent results and are not likely to overcome supply limitations.
Second, even if current identification practices change, holding the number of seats constant will lead to a situation where current students lose services. In other words, if a large number of new advanced students is identified but the program capacity remains constant, some students – perhaps many students – will lose access to advanced services. Those families will turn to the pitchforks and torches, or turn to private schools and out-of-school programs that most other families can’t afford, widening excellence gaps in the process. Equity is rarely achieved by removing opportunity from those who have it.
Given the obvious demand for advanced education, why is the supply so artificially constrained? There are a myriad of reasons, but a key factor is that the vast majority of teachers prepare for their careers in states that do not require coursework on advanced or gifted education. Even worse, future educators are often inundated with anti-excellence tropes in their preparation programs, including that advanced students can learn just as well in the absence of advanced education. After educators enter the profession, many become building and district-level leaders. These leaders then hold to the belief that advanced services are unnecessary, and they hire teachers with little knowledge of advanced learning – and, more to the point, their hiring practices put no pressure on teacher prep programs to do a better job on advanced instruction.
This vicious cycle leads to and reinforces an ideology among administrators that advanced services are unnecessary and objectionable. Furthermore, there are incentives for administrators to maintain this anti-excellence ideology. For example, severely restricting advanced services – or not offering them at all – is perceived to save money. I often find myself conducting interviews with administrators during my work, and their commitment to this ideology would be impressive if it weren’t so damaging. In one district, the small talk among administrators before a focus group began was about their frustrations with differentiation and its lack of effectiveness for dealing with student learning differences. When we began the focus group, every single administrator criticized advanced learning programs as being an unnecessary expense. When I asked how they would meet the needs of students with diverse ability in the absence of their current program, they all said, “differentiation” at the same time. I laughed, assuming they were joking given their earlier comments, but let’s just say the mood in the group was pretty icy from that point forward.
Ideally, every school in the country would offer advanced education services to its students, which would massively increase the supply to meet this large demand. But until that happens, the use of special schools is going to be with us, and that approach will never provide anything resembling equal opportunity with such limited supply. Districts wrestling with equity issues regarding their selective programs need to increase the number of available seats if they have any hope to address these issues.
Jonathan A. Plucker is the Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, where he is also a Professor of Education. He currently serves as President of the National Association for Gifted Children. He can be followed on Twitter at @JonathanPlucker or reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.