Compared to other industrialized countries, the US is typically at the bottom when it comes to educating students to advanced levels. To demonstrate, see a couple of the graphs below from the book Failing Our Brightest Kids by Chester Finn and Brandon Wright.
The first shows where US students stand relative to other countries on the PISA – a well-known international gauge of 15 year-old students in specific academic subjects. It shows how poorly the US does on the percentage of students reaching advanced levels (levels 5 and 6) as well as US students’ overall average score on math. You can see the US lags behind the OECD average and is well below other industrialized counterparts.
Failing Our Brightest Kids, Figure 2.5, p. 33
Secondly, they also track US students scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), a consistent source of achievement data for US students. It classifies students into 3 achievement levels – Basic, Proficient or Advanced – based on their scores in each subject. The figure below shows the percentage of students reaching Advanced levels from 1990-2013. You can see that for US 4th-12th graders, less than 10% of students qualify as advanced for all subjects. In science, the percentage never rises above 4%.
Failing Our Brightest Kids, Figure 2.1, p. 21
For more evidence, simply look at the summary of a 2010 study from Harvard’s Kennedy School. It found:
“The percentages of high-achieving math students in the U.S.—and most of its individual states—are shockingly below those of many of the world’s leading industrialized nations. Results for many states are at the level of developing countries.”
Why does the US lag so far behind in producing high-ability students? There are a myriad of reasons, but a big factor is that we don’t prioritize Gifted & Talented education in this country. When one examines the incentive structures for schools (many of which come from No Child Left Behind of 2001) they are heavily skewed towards advancing only low-achieving students. In their research, Finn and Wright reviewed many of these policies and found that:
“Whether the children in a particular school are poor or rich, virtually all of the public-policy pressures, incentives, and accountability schemes of recent decades – whether arising from local, state or federal sources, from private philanthropy, or from the priorities and values of educators themselves – have pushed teachers and administrators to concentrate on low achievers, those who in the language of No Child Left Behind, are not yet “proficient” or “making adequate yearly progress” in ready or math….Helping students climb over the proficiency bar wins points and plaudits for the school, but boosting them further up the achievement ladder rarely does.” (Failing Our Brightest Kids, p. 15)
We’ll note here low-achieving students certainly need attention and resources too. But, as Finn and Wright argue in Failing Our Brightest Students, this focus shouldn’t be at the expense of high-achieving students.
“Instead of concentrating our policy energies on both boosting the entire distribution of performance and targeting extra help those farther behind, we have for years been devoted almost exclusively to the latter.” (Failing Our Brightest Kids, p. 16)
If all of this seems abstract, here is more data from actual classrooms. In 2008, The Fordham Institute conducted a study of 900 public school teachers. They found that 60% said the top priority in classrooms were the needs of “academically-struggling” students. When asked who would get priority attention, 81% of teachers said “struggling students,” whereas only 5% said “advanced students.” It’s no surprise then, that 73% of teachers in the study reported that bright students were bored and unchallenged in their classrooms.
On top of the skewed incentive system, many Gifted & Talented programs have been closing in recent years. For example:
- January 2020: Seattle dismantled middle school gifted programs that offered highly-capable students an advanced track for STEM classes
- February 2021: Boston’s school board voted to end their gifted program that offers high-performing 4th, 5th, and 6th graders the opportunity to study subjects in greater depth.
- March 2021: Champaign, Illinois phased out its accelerated learning program for elementary students.
- October 2021: In New York, mayor Bill DeBlasio ended Gifted & Talented programs for all New York City schools.
- November, 2021: the state of California proposed new guidelines that would de-emphasize calculus, encouraging less-challenging alternatives instead.
Where does all of this leave Gifted & Talented students? It leaves them bored in traditional classrooms, and without the challenge and opportunity they deserve.
We created gt.school to solve this problem and enable Gifted & Talented students the opportunity to achieve their true potential. You can learn more about the gt.school program here.