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Narrowing the Excellence Gap Requires a Multifaceted Approach

May 22, 2015

Natalie_jansorn_for_PhilanTopicAs globalization continues at breakneck speed, the United States needs to increase the number of talented individuals — tomorrow's innovators and leaders — in the workforce in order to remain economically vibrant and competitive.

Changing demographics means we will be able to tap the most diverse workforce in the history of the world to fill many of these critical positions. However, we continue to overlook one of our most promising talent pools: high-achieving, low-income students.

In part, that's because many public education reformers over the past few decades have been fixated on the "achievement gap" and have advocated for significant resources to be dedicated to helping as many low-income students as possible reach minimum academic standards. While that effort has met with some success and is certainly worthwhile, we believe it has come at the expense of the highest achievers among the population of low-income students, resulting in an "excellence gap" — the disparity in the percentage of lower-income students who reach an advanced level of academic achievement compared with those from higher-income households.

The reasons for this gap are many. While there are gifted students from poor backgrounds who pave their own road to success, they tend to be the exception; for every low-income student who forges his or her own way forward, there are dozens with comparable abilities who don't get the attention they need. In fact, a recent study found that more than one million school-age children who qualify for free or reduced lunch rank in the 25th percentile academically; that's about eighty thousand very smart but poor students per grade nationwide.

Fewer than half of these students take at least one Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) course (compared with 71 percent of their wealthier peers), while only 22 percent apply to college, even though their academic abilities and achievements more than meet the admissions requirements at many schools, including highly selective ones.

What's more, this gap appears in elementary school and persists as students move through middle school, high school, college, and beyond. This makes closing the gap doubly challenging. There is no "silver bullet" solution to the problem; instead, it needs to be tackled from many different angles. With that in mind, our team at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation would like to share the following key strategies and recommendations:

1. Collect and report better data. States and the federal government collect minimal data on advanced learners, and practitioners and policy makers often do not distinguish barely proficient students from advanced performers in their reports. To close the excellence gap, states and the federal government should take steps to more closely track and report on the progress of advanced learners nationwide.

2. Support high-potential students. State and local education leaders, and their university partners, need additional funding to offer high-quality academics to low-income students both during the school day as well as through summer programs and extended-day activities. Places like the University of Iowa Belin-Blank Center are doing this well through the STEM Excellence and Literacy program, which serves more than three hundred students in rural middle schools. Elsewhere, the College of William & Mary has worked hard to maintain funding for its two-week summer residential program, Camp Launch, for advanced students in the Richmond and Norfolk areas, while Equal Opportunity Schools, a national nonprofit that works to identify "missing students" from advanced courses that will prepare them to achieve their college goals, is leading the charge to expand access to AP and IB courses for low-income students.

3. Identify the best and the brightest. Educators must employ diverse strategies to identify students' talents and abilities, especially with respect to children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Purdue University's Hope Scale is one example of a tool teachers can use to identify hidden talents and abilities in students from diverse backgrounds. Similarly, states should require more training for pre-service and in-service educators to ensure that teachers are equipped to recognize and support high-potential, low-income students.

4. Provide quality college counseling. High-achieving, low-income students need access to high-quality counseling that prepares them to be competitive applicants for selective colleges. But heavy caseloads and inadequate training can prohibit school counselors from providing effective guidance to these students. Programs such as the College Advising Corps can ease the burden on schools by providing near-peer college advisers — recent college graduates — who can share information with students about financial aid, scholarships, and the benefits of applying to more selective colleges.

5. Demand more accountability. States should be held accountable for advancing the education of high-ability learners. Federal, state, and local governments should work together to establish best practices for monitoring and supporting all students, including the most promising.

We know that many foundations are striving to expand educational opportunities for all students, yet not enough resources are being invested in closing the excellence gap. Kids, regardless of their socioeconomic background, deserve to feel hopeful that their education will, in fact, help them reach their fullest potential. Our nation simply can't afford to waste another generation of untapped talent.

Natalie Rodriguez Jansorn is director of strategic initiatives at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides the largest scholarships in the nation to high-performing students with financial need.

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