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Excellence Gaps In Education: A Major, But Solvable, Problem

Helping talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds

Are talented but disadvantaged students performing lower than their full potential? And if so, what can we do to help them? These are two of the key questions addressed by Jonathan Plucker and Scott J. Peters in a new book titled Excellence Gaps In Education: Expanding Opportunities For Talented Students. Among other things, the authors provide detail on what excellence gaps are and how we can solve this problem in American education. What follows are their responses to key questions about their new book.

The U.S. education community cares about achievement gaps among students generally. But why don’t they care as much about achievement gaps among higher performing students?

Our guess is that they do, but that they see closing minimal proficiency gaps as a necessary prerequisite to caring about advanced achievement. We’d bet the average American or even the typical teacher thinks that there’s not much point in thinking about advanced achievement or closing advanced achievement gaps since so few students are even at basic proficiency. But this is a false dichotomy. Even though there are many students who don’t score at grade-level proficiency, there are still many who do – those who could even score at advanced levels if they even received a small amount of support and attention in schools. This is a serious misconception that needs to be addressed. Just because Bobby, Susie, and Kent are all below grade level does not mean that Juan and Amelia aren’t ready to learn more. It’s the worst kind of reactive and defeatist thinking to believe that just because there are a lot of kids who need remediation that any kind of advanced educational support isn’t appropriate.

We think there’s also this belief that helping students or humans in general to achieve at advanced levels is inherently un-American – that if you’re so great, you shouldn’t need help. But this stands in contrast to everything we know about eminent creators and producers. Humans don’t come out of the womb strong at science or art, they need help and opportunities to develop those skills. We Americans don’t like to admit it, but nothing is achieved without help. The recent international results provide evidence that countries that pay attention to advanced achievement end up with more advanced achievers. It’s really that simple.

'Plucker and Peters, used with permission'
Source: 'Plucker and Peters, used with permission'

What are “excellence gaps” and what is the research behind them? Why do they matter in the educational conversation?

Excellence gaps are simply the differences in percentages of students scoring at advanced levels. For example, in 2015 22% of Asian students scored advanced on the 4th grade NAEP math test compared to 10% of Caucasian students. That’s an excellence gap of 12 percentage points.

They matter for two reasons. First, the students who aren’t scoring at advanced levels as often as we would like are the fastest growing populations in American schools. They also represent the majority of American K-12 students. If we can’t develop their talents, then what’s the point? How can we maintain a healthy, vibrant economy and culture with talent coming from a shrinking minority of students?

The second reason they matter is that advanced skills are the skills of the 21st century. Just like a high school diploma isn’t near as likely to get you a well-paying job today as it was 20 years ago, minimal proficiency skills aren’t as likely to lead to success. Good jobs in the 21st century require advanced skills. Basic skills just don’t cut it anymore. A good example of this are manufacturing jobs. There are still a lot of those jobs in the U.S., but they have changed from assembly line positions to jobs where one has to troubleshoot robots and deal with production line issues. The former traditionally didn’t require advanced skills, but the latter certainly does. Most economists don’t see those assembly line jobs ever coming back to the U.S., making the development of advanced skills a high priority for our schools and economy.

What are some potential interventions that can be a part of the solution to help these talented yet disadvantaged students?

The lucky part for us is that this isn’t as hard as so many other problems we face in America. Increasing the rates of advanced achievement among low-income, African American, Native American, and Latino/a families is a political and resource problem – not a scientific or educational one. The first thing that needs to be done is to make advanced achievement a priority. Too many people, including educators, believe that disadvantaged students can’t be talented or otherwise achieve at high levels. That’s ludicrous. Once educators and policymakers understand that talent exists in every zip code, as our colleague James Moore likes to say, then they have to devote resources and staffing to schools attended by low-income, African American, Native American, and Latino/a students to help them develop advanced skills early on in school. The focus can’t always be on remediation. In our book we talk about a range of other options that can be applied to help mitigate excellence gaps. These include the use of local norms when searching for talent, front-loading curricular support, ability grouping, and changes to school accountability systems to further encourage attention to those students who are already grade-level proficient but show potential for advanced performance.

© 2016 by Jonathan Wai. You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook.