Fall 2013 – Closing America’s Other Achievement Gap

Why donors should help our most talented students reach their full potential

This is excerpted from the Roundtable’s book Closing America’s High-achievement Gap: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Helping Our Most Talented Students Reach Their Full Potential. Read the full guidebook here. 

What is honored in a country is cultivated there.  —Plato, Republic, Book VIII

There is something quintessentially American about bootstrapping your way to success from a humble beginning. We admire the greats who made it big despite strong odds against them. Former slave Frederick Douglass emerges as a moral leader. Rising above rural poverty, less than a year of schooling, homeliness, and depression, Abraham Lincoln becomes a national savior. Steve Jobs, given up at birth and later dropping out of college, pioneers an entire industry.

This proud populist tradition of self-invention has blessed America in many ways. We recognized from the beginning that education can equip a person to rise above his station. Our tuition-free schools, our numerous programs for low-income and special-needs children, and the many educational gifts of philanthropists seek to perpetuate the fundamentally democratic rise of young climbers.


For struggling students we now have government and philanthropic interventions of all sorts, Title I spending and Pell Grants, networks of high-poverty charter schools, “equity lawsuits” and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and countless scholarship programs for the low-income—all efforts we can be enormously proud of.

But there is another group of students we largely ignore: those naturally achieving at an advanced level. We certainly have no intention of holding back our top students, but we are inclined to let them be. These students were blessed, we reason; they were given capacity and talent to spare. They will be fine without any favors from us.

Bob Davidson, a software entrepreneur and a leading philanthropist in this area, responds that “that’s like saying a great athlete will be great no matter what, so we don’t need expert coaches.” Besides, intellectually gifted students are often far from “privileged” economically, emotionally, or otherwise, and like every learner they have weaknesses and needs. Yet our system of school supports for high-potential students is astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate at present. Guiding children to the very highest levels of academic achievement now falls low on the priority list of most schools, far below equity, diversity, and extracurriculars.

Not only is this tragic for many students, but it also flies in the face of individual and national realities. Many of our most admired achievers from the past were talented people who were given special help along the way. Frederick Douglass received surreptitious reading lessons during his childhood. Thomas Edison was homeschooled by an attentive mother. Robert Goddard was given a telescope, microscope, and subscription to Scientific American during formative years. Steve Jobs was repeatedly encouraged and aided in following his unconventional fascination with technology.

While America’s most at-risk kids deserve all the help they can get, we ought to also give increased attention to our potential top achievers—both for their own sake and for the nation’s. And philanthropists are best positioned to lead the way.

Gifted students also deserve help

Many schools today do a poor job of stimulating quick learners and stretching them from average or good results toward greatness. The majority of gifted students do not match their tested ability with comparable achievement in school. Bright students “spend time in school working well below their capabilities. The belief espoused in school reform that children from all economic and cultural backgrounds need to reach their full potential has not been extended to America’s most talented students. They are under-challenged and therefore under-achieve,” summarized a U.S. Department of Education report.

In a recent survey, teachers were asked which students were top priorities at their schools. They were three times likelier to say “academically struggling” students than “advanced” students. When asked who was most likely to get one-on-one attention from teachers, 81 percent said struggling students. Only 5 percent said advanced students.

The first and most basic reason to invest in programs for top students is the same as that for helping low-performing students: a moral desire to see that every child has a chance to fulfill his or her potential. Squandered human talents are a loss for the person, the community, and the nation. This is as true for the gifted student who languishes as for any other child. And it is especially easy for high-potential children to become bored with school or, worse, lose interest in education generally. If left unchallenged, they may never acquire hard-to-measure but vital attributes like grit and perseverance. This will bring trouble when they face obstacles in college, graduate school, the workplace, or family life.

The “drop-off” of high-potential students into mediocrity is far more than speculation. A 2011 study found that, depending on the grade span and subject studied, somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of “high-fliers” descend and no longer achieve at the most advanced levels. Research at English schools found that many of the brightest children were also not getting the attention they needed, and as a result 27 percent of previously high-attaining children no longer earned A’s or B’s in English and math.

Even if a high-potential student ends up with a perfectly fine career, the gap between what is and what could have been represents a waste of both personal fulfillment and potential contributions to society.

In some families, knowledgeable, insistent, well-resourced parents are able to compensate for undemanding schools. They offer enrichment, find tutors, or supplement the school work of their under-challenged children. Some simply decide to homeschool. But high achievers are born into inattentive as well as attentive households, poor as well as comfortable homes, families where parents know how to compensate and families where they don’t. To say gifted students can just rely on their own domestic resources is unfair and unlike the way we try to help all other children attain their best.

Tragically, it is often the talented low-income child who finds himself stifled and alienated at a low-expectations school. With neither school nor family in his corner, he faces seemingly impassable barriers to intellectual growth and development. He may languish or, worse, apply his intelligence to take himself down a path much less constructive and more dangerous than he would have trod in a more demanding school.

In their book Genius Denied, philanthropists Jan and Bob Davidson note that while affluent families can always find supplemental programs for their kids, “Poor families are simply stuck with the schools and districts they get.” Indeed, research shows that bright impoverished students fall through the cracks and regress to the mean at higher rates than their more affluent peers. Donors can focus their efforts on catching these students before they fall.

We’re unprepared for contests ahead

Another key reason to help quick learners is to keep U.S. education competitive with other nations. International assessments of student performance show that the top American boys and girls now lag far behind international peers, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM fields), where many of the highest-paying jobs and most important inventions of the future are expected to emerge. Findings from the Program for International Student Assessment in 2009 showed the United States in 21st place in science and 30th place in math. More recent results from two other international assessments found that math and science achievement of American eighth graders was stagnant.

According to the 2011 National Assessment for Educational Progress, only 2 percent of U.S. eighth graders scored at the “advanced” level in science. As one author recently noted, based on international assessment results, the top 10 percent of American students “would be considered middle-of-the-pack in top-scoring countries like South Korea, Finland, and Belgium.” There is a strong case, on competitiveness grounds alone, for enhanced philanthropic activity to accelerate high-potential students.

A case study in helping high achievers

Many small programs have demonstrated how philanthropists can help gifted students live up to their full potential. Started in 1998, Project EXCITE is a collaborative program between the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University and Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in Illinois. The project was created to address the glaring underrepresentation of minority students in honors and Advanced Placement courses at Evanston Township High School.

Project EXCITE begins working with students in third grade, providing supplemental education over six years to ensure that by the time participants reach high school they will have completed Algebra I (the gateway to higher-level math courses like statistics and calculus), have had exposure to significant laboratory and science experiences, and are prepared for honors-level courses in math and science.

The program currently serves approximately 130 students from five participating elementary schools in the district. At the beginning of the school year, minority students receive an invitation to participate in the selection process. Applicants take reading and math tests from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (a nationally normed assessment) and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test.

From the initial pool, 20-25 students are chosen based on test performance, classroom achievements, and teacher recommendations. Students enroll in Project EXCITE and begin receiving services in late November of their third-grade year. These include after-school, weekend, and summer enrichment classes; tutoring; practice and preparation for high-school math placement exams; and educational guidance and counseling.

The program’s after-school classes are held one afternoon per week at the local high school. Math and science teachers immerse participants in hands-on activities involving biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Saturday Enrichment Programs are held on the Northwestern University campus for students in grades four through eight. Not only do the students get access to top-flight activities, they are also introduced to a college campus early in their academic careers—a strategy used by some of the most successful high-performing, high-poverty schools.

Project EXCITE is free for participants. The cost of the program is underwritten primarily by Northwestern University, with additional funds from the Evanston/Skokie School District and donations from corporations like AT&T, Citicorp, Coca-Cola, and Morgan Stanley.

The results have been tremendous. According to Rhoda Rosen of the Center for Talent Development, in third grade, African-American and Latino students in this district lag behind their white peers in math by 39 and 37 points respectively. By seventh grade those gaps grow to 46 and 38 points for non-EXCITE students. But for EXCITE participants, the gap is only 4 points. The benefits continue: By ninth grade only 27 percent of non-participating minority students in the high school are working above grade level, compared to 77 percent of EXCITE participants.

This type of locally focused partnership could be a model for donors across the nation. Identify useful supports for gifted kids, set a clear goal, tailor a program for a school or small district, and then engage local schools, colleges, external support organizations, and a range of donors. What’s working in Evanston could easily be replicated in Erie, Eureka, or El Paso.

Other solutions

Philanthropists seeking to help top students can draw inspiration from many other models. (For many examples and details, see the new Roundtable guidebook Closing America’s High-achievement Gap.) There are programs for bright students from underprivileged backgrounds such as Prep for Prep, the Jack Kent Cooke scholarships, and A Better Chance. There are a variety of university programs that offer gifted children of all backgrounds summer, after-school, or online enrichment learning.

There are schools that offer advanced curricula and high expectations—places like the BASIS charter schools and Ohio’s Menlo Park Academy, or the 165 specialized public high schools that use entrance exams. There are accelerated tracks that keep quick students stimulated at conventional schools. There are programs like Project Lead the Way, 100kin10, and the National Math and Science Initiative, which can dramatically enhance STEM instruction at neighborhood schools. There are special schools for gifted artists and musicians.

The exciting expansion of online offerings to bright students has the potential to transform the field. Innovators are aiming to attract new teaching talent and to better train existing teachers to handle quick learners. Opportunities abound for philanthropists to sponsor smart research and advocacy.

Buttressing reform

One final reason to invest in high-achieving children is that doing so could help sustain the broader education-reform effort, on which struggling students also depend. Schools for high performers can act as cultural magnets for big cities, preventing affluent and middle-income families from feeling like they have to leave the area or shift to private schools to find an academically demanding setting for their children. That works against the pernicious effects of segregation and concentrated poverty.

For more than a decade, the vast portion of resources dedicated to K-12 reform has been funneled into improving outcomes among today’s least successful students. There is little thought given to suburban, rural, or middle-class families by today’s school-reform movement, least of all to children who are fast learners. We are starting to see a backlash. First there were murmurs that the Education Department’s billions of dollars of “Race to the Top” programs offered nothing to suburban communities. Then as state budgets tightened, suburban leaders groused more and more about the tax dollars sucked out of their districts. Determined efforts to redistribute great educators from high-achieving schools into low-achieving schools maddened parents.

In short, the larger reform movement may be in jeopardy because it ignored the interests of too many families for too long. All American children and communities need improved education. A set of initiatives aimed at producing and supporting high-achieving students will add a much-needed balance to the current reform agenda. It will signal the reform community’s interest in helping all schoolchildren, and thereby strengthen a movement that is vital to students at every level.  

Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Education and recently served as New Jersey’s deputy commissioner of education. He helped launch a college-preparatory charter school for underserved Maryland boys and girls; he is also a former White House fellow. His article “Magna Charter” ran in the Spring 2013 issue of  Philanthropy.

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