When Joshua Wyner became executive vice president of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, he expected an outpouring of support from fellow educational donors for his philanthropic priority: helping students with great potential but not much money.
Instead, he says, he got pats on the head. “It’s nice what you’re doing,” other funders would say, in a tone that suggested they had better things to do. When he would press them about their lack of enthusiasm, he usually received one of two replies. Funders either didn’t believe that there were that many low-income students with significant potential, or, if there were, they didn’t believe the students needed much help to succeed.
Most people intuitively recognize that it makes sense to give gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds strenuous and imaginative educations. The idea, however, must overcome policy and public relations obstacles. American educational policy has long focused on children who are failing in school, not those who are succeeding. No Child Left Behind accentuated this emphasis. Funds are more likely to go to schools with students three grades below grade level, rather than three grades above.
If America’s brightest students—particularly those with limited family resources—are to get the academic challenge they need, innovative private funders may need to fill the gap, and in ways that magnify and maximize their giving. Donors in the field describe four important strategic priorities for those interested in helping children with unusual potential: scholarships that put students in challenging circumstances; adults who can serve as role models, mentors, and advisors; schools with demonstrated ability to raise achievement; and efforts to help policymakers recognize the enormous potential among high-achieving, low-income children.
The number of high-potential, low-income students is breathtaking. Achievement Trap, a study by Wyner and two colleagues, reports that “about 3.4 million K-12 children residing in households with incomes below the national median rank in the top quartile academically.” Without support, the study finds, they will keep losing ground. For instance, “while 25 percent of high-achieving lower-income students fall out of the top academic quartile in math in high school, only 16 percent of high-achieving upper-income students do so.”
“It’s not just an ethical issue, but also an economic issue,” says Lea Ybarra, a leading sociologist and executive director of Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Johns Hopkins University. “We need to ensure that these children are going to be able to reach their highest potential and get great jobs that will generate the wealth that grows our economy.”
One of the most energetic initiatives in finding and funding such students is the Next Generation Venture Fund (NGVF), which was launched by the Goldman Sachs Foundation in cooperation with the CTY and the Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP). CTY and TIP are known for identifying the nation’s smartest middle school students and providing them with a college-curriculum summer program.
The Goldman program focuses on low-income students—nearly 60 percent of whom are from families in which at least one parent does not have a bachelor’s degree. (One-fifth are from families with an income of less than $20,000, and the overall mean family income is $34,317.) The program awards $25,000 five-year scholarships to approximately 100 eighth graders each year, to support summer learning and to provide academic advising, assistance with the college admission process, entrepreneurship training, and comprehensive counseling for the students and their families.
Stephanie Bell-Rose, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation and the founder of NGVF, has a deep personal interest in the program, and has been an active proponent of efforts to develop under-served high-potential youth into leaders. She was a bright student who grew up in poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Long Island. She was nevertheless destined to receive a scholarship from Harvard College, and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School. Minorities like her (she is African American) will make up 62 percent of all American children by 2050. Failing to bring them up to their potential, she notes, means “falling short as a nation.” That message is taken seriously—already 78 percent of NGVF students are minorities.
“The goal,” says Bell-Rose, “is to enroll these talented low-income youngsters in the most competitive colleges and universities and have them succeed there—and hopefully in that way develop into future leaders for our nation. It’s working: 87 percent of NGVF high school graduates have gone on to competitive colleges and universities.”
Wyner points to a similar effort, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Young Scholars program, which provides 375 students annually with summer programs, computers, group sessions, and assistance in finding challenging high schools. The average family income of the first group of scholars was only $25,000, notes Wyner, and yet “40 percent went to Ivy League colleges.” The program’s strong counseling component was inspired by a University of Chicago study showing that only one-third of low-income students with strong potential went to selective colleges. Another third went to non-selective schools. The remainder never went to college at all. With these data in mind, the foundation also invests heavily in several other national counseling and scholarship programs designed to increase college access and success for America’s highest-achieving, low-income students.
While many scholarships for gifted students focus on academic achievement and test scores, these are hardly the only signs of untapped talent. The Colorado-based Daniels Fund, for instance, scouts out students with demonstrated character and leadership skills. “We want students who have a fire in their belly and a drive and will to succeed,” says the fund’s senior vice president for scholarships, Kristin Todd. Students are selected from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and the process, Todd notes, “is very labor-intensive and very community-based.” Youth groups, like the Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as high schools with large populations of low-income students, help the fund recruit the right applicants.
Jack Kent Cooke also works on the second strategic priority: supporting schools that challenge and improve the performance of all students. Many educational institutions, both public and private, say they have gifted-ed programs, but these are often a disappointment—some extra reading and maybe a few field trips. They offer an illusion of challenge, for parents who just want to know their kids are getting something extra that other students are not getting.
Wyner points to the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), 66 mostly charter schools throughout the country whose student population is 95 percent black or Hispanic. “KIPP sets standards incredibly high,” says Wyner, “and what you find is by eighth grade the students are emerging as high achievers.” A survey of 1,000 KIPP students showed that, between fifth and eighth grade, student test scores jumped on average from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 44th to the 82nd percentile in math. Such school-wide success has attracted support from a range of educational funders, including (among others) the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation.
The third priority for funders, investing in public policy, is crucial when considering high-potential children. Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is especially concerned that No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on remediation for the lowest-performing children, is shortchanging gifted students.
To that end, Fordham commissioned a detailed study on how high-achieving students were doing under the new law. The researchers discovered that while students at the bottom were seeing strong gains, students at the top were not. From 2000 to 2007, low-achieving students gained 16 points in fourth grade reading and 18 points in fourth grade math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 500-point scale. Gains for the highest-performing fourth grade students were only one-third as large.
Some states have tried to alter these trends. Colorado, for example, is experimenting with a new accountability system that requires significant gains not only for low-achieving students, but also from middle- and high-achieving students. “Frankly,” says Petrilli, “this is going to bump up against No Child Left Behind unless the law is changed.”
Donors, practitioners, and policymakers across the board agree that further research is necessary. Petrilli points to the growth of state-level education reform organizations. “They are not really think tanks,” he observes. “They are advocacy organizations that are trying to get policymakers to implement effective policies.”
Many policymakers nevertheless insist that they can raise the achievement of both high- and low-performers. “But when you boil it down to an actual school and an actual classroom,” Petrilli says, “and you are a teacher looking out at 25 kids, with a range of abilities all over the place, there is a lot of pressure to get the lowest kids over the bar set by the state test. It is the high-achieving students who are likely to be told: ‘Go do another worksheet.’”
Further research can also help supply data on the effect funders are having. That need is especially acute when dealing with gifted students. It is extremely difficult to ascertain to what extent a particular academic program contributed to a student’s ultimate success. Ybarra says the CTY has surveyed its students and found strong indications that the program is making a difference. “Many students,” she says, “even those from middle- and upper-income families, tell us that this is the first time they have felt challenged academically and excited about learning.”
Wyner points to the results of relatively large, challenging programs such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. Research in Texas has found that high school students who take AP courses and tests—even if their test scores are mediocre—do better in college than students who did not take AP courses.
Instead of asking what proof there is that challenging programs will help the gifted, Wyner says, “I would flip the question around: What evidence do we have that anything else would move proficient kids to advanced levels?”
One thing seems clear: the longer a gifted student is challenged, the more he or she will flourish in the long run. Wyner says studies have looked at the development of children with similar backgrounds, comparing those that get good gifted programs with those that do not. “The longer they stay in school without some academic intervention, the greater the gap between them and those who are getting something extra,” he concludes. “It is critical to reach them at a young age.”
Jay Mathews covered education for the Washington Post for 30 years. His latest book, Work Hard. Be Nice., examines the success of the KIPP Charter School Network.