Stop ignoring the smart kids

Americans think high achievers don’t need any help to reach their full potential, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. He’s the author of Closing America’s High-Achievement Gap, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Educated, well-resourced parents can provide special help to their gifted children, writes Smarick. The “talented, low-income child” depends on support at school. And teachers pay much more attention to struggling students than to achievers.

When a high-potential child isn’t challenged, she misses “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.”

. . .  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.

. . . 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.

“We should care about all boys and girls,” Smarick concludes.

Busy with the move to Common Core standards, teachers have even less time for gifted students, reports Education Week. ”In order to differentiate, you have to understand the standards and know what they entail. That’s ground zero,” said Jared B. Dupree, a Los Angeles Unified administrator. “Quality differentiation” for gifted students may be  ”three or four years down the road.”

Top students may not be ready for college

Even some top students with high grades and test scores aren’t ready for college, writes Elaine Tuttle Hansen in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary. Now executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, Hansen was president of Bates College and a professor of English at Haverford College.

It’s a problem even at Johns Hopkins, which  is highly selective, says the  director of undergraduate studies in math.

“What they don’t have is a deep understanding of why the techniques they’ve been taught work, the actual underlying mathematical relationships. They walk into to my classroom in September and don’t have the study habits or proper foundation to do the work.”

“Not all of the smartest kids who have jumped through the hoops required for selective college admissions are ready for the demands of college-level work,” writes Hansen. Bright students can earn good grades without working very hard.

Take David, a college student I heard from recently, who loved the summer program he took at the Center for Talented Youth a few years ago. But it wasn’t enough to save him from being so bored in school that he “coasted” through elementary, middle, and high school and his first two years of college. “By the time I found academic work that challenged me, … I realized my work ethic and study skills were atrocious, in large part, I believe, because I had never been forced to use them,” he said. “I would like to know the person I would have become had I been engaged as a young learner.”

Sometimes excellent students have parents who’ve been directing their education from baby play group on up. They don’t have the maturity, self-discipline and time management skills that college demands.  However, you’d think they’d have a solid academic foundation.

Study: Low-income achievers aim low

Low-income, high-scoring students usually don’t apply to selective colleges and universities, even though they’d qualify for financial aid, according to The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students, a working paper by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery. Those who do apply are as likely to be admitted and graduate as high-income students.

Among students in the top 10 percent on college-entrance exams, but the bottom quartile in income, those in large, urban districts were the most likely to apply to selective colleges. Larger districts can offer selective or magnet high school that expose disadvantaged students to classmates and teachers with high expectations, Hoxby and Avery speculate.

“Open selective public high schools in more areas to reach more high-flying students,” suggests Amber Winkler on Gadfly.

 

America’s math problem

In America’s search for education equality, we’ve watered down math instruction, argues Jacob Vigdor in Education Next. That’s hurt high achievers without helping low achievers.

In the early 20th century, American high-school students were starkly divided, with rigorous math courses restricted to a college-bound elite. At midcentury, the “new math” movement sought, unsuccessfully, to bring rigor to the masses, and subsequent egalitarian impulses led to new reforms that promised to improve the skills of lower-performing students. While reformers assumed that higher-performing students would not be harmed in the process, evidence suggests that the dramatic watering down of curricular standards since that time has made our top performers worse-off.

. . . America’s lagging mathematics performance reflects a basic failure to understand the benefits of adapting the curriculum to meet the varying instructional needs of students.

When Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools placed below-average-performing eighth graders into algebra, they proved more likely to pass algebra by 10th grade, but less likely to pass geometry or advanced algebra ever, Vigdor notes. By contrast, Chicago improved success rates for below-average students by giving them a “double dose” of  algebra tailored to their needs.

Exam schools from the inside

Exam schools — public schools for high achievers — attract far more applicants than they can take, write Fordham’s Checker Finn and consultant Jessica Hockett in Education Next.

Some school officials are uneasy about the practice of selectivity, given possible allegations of “elitism” and anxiety over pupil diversity. Still, most rely primarily on applicants’ prior school performance and scores on various tests.

. . . Their overall student body is only slightly less poor than the universe of U.S. public school students. Some schools, we expected, would enroll many Asian American youngsters, but we were struck when they turned out to comprise 21 percent of the schools’ total enrollment, though they make up only 5 percent of students in all public high schools. More striking still: African Americans are also “overrepresented” in these schools, comprising 30 percent of enrollments versus 17 percent in the larger high-school population. Hispanic students are correspondingly underrepresented, but so are white youngsters.

Exam schools are “serious, purposeful places” with motivated, well-behaved students. Teachers have high expectations for students. Most schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, their own  advanced courses and/or actual college classes. In addition, there are literary magazines, robotics competitions, sophisticated music and theater offerings, most of the usual clubs and organizations, plenty of field trips, and no dearth of sports—though champion football and basketball teams were rare!

But exam schools are under heavy pressure to get graduates into top-tier colleges. The “AP tiger” frustrates teachers, exhausts students and discourages  ”experimentation, risk-taking, unconventional thinking, unique courses, and individualized research, as well as pedagogical creativity and curricular innovation,” write Finn and Hockett.

While exam school students excel, it’s not clear the school added value to students who already were high performing, they write.

Should the U.S. have more exam schools for high achievers? Here’s the poll.

Study: Few gains in ‘gifted’ classes

Gifted and Talented magnet programs didn’t improve achievement in reading, math or social studies in a University of Houston study reported in Education Next.  Students in gifted programs did learn more science compared to similar students who just missed the the eligibility cut-off or those who qualified but lost a lottery.

Researchers aren’t sure why students didn’t accelerate their already high achievement when placed with high-achieving classmates in a more challenging program. One theory is that students who just made the cut-off were discouraged by going from the top of their old class to near the bottom of their new classes. Another is that high achievers who missed entry into the gifted magnets were able to find high-quality alternatives. The science gains may be a result of better teachers and well-equipped labs.

 

Late bloomers are rare

Children’s academic future is decided by third grade: Average students rarely turn into high achievers in later years. So warns K5 Learning after re-crunching the numbers in Fordham Institute‘s study, Do High Flyers Maintain their Altitude? (pdf.)

Graph of likelihood of becoming a high achiever in math in grade 8 vs grade 3 math achievement

While Fordham looked at progress for children in the top 10 percent, K5 Learning looked at the also-rans.  Children who performed in the bottom 1/3 in reading or math in grade 3 had less than a 1% chance of being high achievers by grade 8.  Even average students in grade 3, (between 40 and 60 percentile) had less than a 5% chance of becoming high achievers later.

Kids performing in the 60-70 percentile range in grade 3 had about a 8-9% chance of becoming high achievers by grade 8.

“High achiever” is defined as scoring in the 90th percentile or above in reading and math. It is possible to have a decent life with less exalted performance.

K5 Learning provides “reading and math enrichment.” If you hire a tutor, will your 60th percentile second grader turn into a Harvard-bound third grader? There are no guarantees.

 

Don’t blame NCLB for high-flyers’ decline

Fordham’s high-flyers’ report, which argued top students are getting short shrift, is a Phantom Menace, argue Ulrich Boser and Diana Epstein of the Center for American Progress. While many high-achieving students don’t maintain their performance over time, there’s no evidence that efforts to close achievement gaps are responsible, they write.

All of Fordham’s data came from the post-NCLB time period, so without a pre-NCLB comparison, there is no way to make a claim that NCLB caused the decline.

Gifted and Talented programs are expanding in many states, write Boser and Epstein.  More fourth and eighth students are scoring at the highest level in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

College for low-achieving 11th graders?

College classes for low-achieving 11th graders? It’s a hot idea, writes Community College Dean. And a bad one.

Also on Community College Spotlight: First, he earned an associate degree. Next he’ll graduate from  high school.

For achievers, it's not the money

High-achieving, low-income students aren’t kept from college over money, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. He’s responding to one part of Columbia Professor Andrew Delbanco’s NY Review of Books article, Universities in Trouble.

When the poor but gifted and motivated students Delbanco describes materialize, they are treated like 6-11 power forwards looking for athletic scholarships.

Money is a barrier for average students with low incomes:  A 2002 federal study “estimated that more than 160,000 students with annual family incomes below $50,000 were qualified for college admission but did not attend even a two-year community college because of financial barriers.” But “qualified” was defined as a 2.7 grade point average or an 820 combined math and verbal score on the SAT.

We’re losing the “potentially successful,” Mathews writes. Most low-income students don’t develop the academic skills and work habits they need to excel. They’re out of the game long before 12th grade.

Low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part, I think, because they attend high schools run by people who don’t believe such kids can learn very much and who don’t try very hard to teach them. Educators who do believe in their potential find it difficult to get the resources they need because too many policymakers, politicians, voters and taxpayers do not share that optimism.

If you know “any gifted and motivated students you know who have been unable to go to college because of money,” send their names and contact info to mathewsj@washpost.com. Mathews promises to help.

Mathews is correct for students who are citizens and legal residents.  If they’re truly high achievers, they will get college scholarships.  For undocumented immigrants, who aren’t eligible for public aid, it’s much tougher. Some private colleges will offer aid; many will not fund “international” students.

I recently interviewed graduating seniors at Downtown College Prep, the San Jose charter school that’s the subject of my book, Our School (available in hardcover or paperback).  The undocumented students are starting at community colleges, which they can afford, and planning to transfer to a four-year university with a private scholarship raised by DCP. (Eventually, they will legalize their status through a relative’s sponsorship or marriage.)  Without the promise of a scholarship, even the high achievers would find college an impossible dream.