Helping High-Ability Kids from Disadvantaged Backgrounds in 2018

‘Tis a time of celebration, reflection, gift-giving, and—swiftly thereafter—planning and resolving for the year to come.

Let’s include in those reflections and resolutions some extra attention to the oft-neglected demographic subset we might simply call smart poor kids. They so often fall through a crack between two common assumptions in American education: (1) that “gifted and talented” education is something that’s mostly about able but also privileged middle class youngsters with pushy parents (i.e., that it’s an elitist thing); and (2) the belief that smart high achievers will generally do fine on their own and hence the formal education system should focus laser-like on the laggards and those on the lower edge of the achievement gap.

What gets left out are millions of able kids who, for reasons entirely beyond their control, aren’t middle class, lack sophisticated and aggressive adults to steer them through the education system, and who therefore depend heavily on that system to notice what they’re capable of and cultivate their abilities to the max. All of which was made worse by No Child Left Behind with its single-minded fixation on getting kids over the proficiency bar.

Why bother thinking differently about it now?

• There’s an equity issue here, of course: These kids, like others, deserve an education that meets their needs.

• There’s an upward mobility opportunity here: The poor kids with the greatest potential to rise out of poverty—and bring subsequent generations with them—are high-ability poor kids.

• There’s a personalized-learning challenge (and opportunity) here: These kids would benefit greatly from a K–12 system that truly made it possible for them to progress at their own speed.

• And the nation’s future is an element here, too: These young people, provided that their talents are properly developed and their aptitudes cultivated to the max, have much to contribute to the country’s prosperity as well as its civic and cultural lives.

This last point was underscored in an important recent study from The Equality of Opportunity Project, the ambitious “big data” initiative led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty and others. They examined a million American inventors—people who have actually filed patents—and discovered “large disparities…by socioeconomic class, race, and gender” although “differences in ability…explain very little of these disparities.” More precisely, “Children at the top of their third grade math class are much more likely to become inventors, but only if they come from high-income families” (emphasis added).

Consider the implications for American society—for equity, for mobility, for prosperity—if its inventors and innovators continue to come almost exclusively from wealthy backgrounds. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt refers to the “lost Einsteins” and quotes AOL founder and venture capitalist Steve Case, who reminds us that “creativity is broadly distributed. Opportunity is not.”

Turning this situation around is going to require forceful and sustained attention to the education of the kids at greatest risk of becoming more lost Einsteins. That’s the gist of what I hope will be many people’s New Year resolutions—the kind that get kept, please, and refreshed through the year and well beyond, not the kind that resemble promises to go to the gym more often or quit eating candy.

Yet there’s also cause for celebrating at this holiday season. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) created a fresh opportunity for states to pay attention to the achievement of all their students, not just those below the proficiency bar. And, according to Fordham’s careful analysis of the accountability plans that states (and D.C.) have submitted to Washington under ESSA, twenty-three jurisdictions intend to make commendable use of this opportunity and fourteen more are at least moving in that direction.

Several states and districts are going further. The huge Miami-Dade district is making great strides in identifying high-ability low-income kids and English language learners and getting them into gifted classes, accelerated programs, and Advanced Placement. New York City is striving to bring AP into all its high schools, including those in Gotham’s poorest communities. Early-college high schools are springing up all over. Several forceful nonprofit groups, such as the National Math and Science Initiative, Equal Opportunity Schools, and MassInsight Education, are doing excellent work in pushing AP into kindred high schools in lots of places—and changing educator expectations and school cultures to cause more disadvantaged youngsters to enter and succeed in such rigorous classes. Several Wisconsin legislators have proposed that the Badger State create a first-of-its-kind “Gifted and Talented Education Savings Account.” We’re also seeing more scholars and advocacy groups elevate these issues on their agendas.

Bravo and thanks to them all and others not mentioned here. The gifts they are bringing have value far beyond the children who will benefit from them in the near term. They’re gifts to the nation as well.

So far, however, that’s still a small pile of gifts when placed alongside the need at hand. So please don’t fail to make—and keep—those New Years resolutions, too. And in the meantime have a happy holiday.

— Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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