Developing Talent Requires Both Opportunity and Motivation: The Excellence GapApril 15, 2014 Katie McClarty
The Education Trust recently published a third report in their Shattering Expectations series. This report, Falling Out of the Lead: Following High Achievers Through High School and Beyond, compares high school and college outcomes of initially high performing African American, Latino and low-socioeconomic status students with those of their White and advantaged peers. One positive finding is that high-achieving African American, Latino, and White students all take advanced courses in high school at similar rates. In addition, they attend schools where rigorous coursework is equally available. The same pattern did not hold, however, when comparing high-achieving students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Low SES students were less likely to take advanced courses and more likely to attend schools where such rigorous coursework was not offered.
These results highlight two important factors in developing student talent and supporting high achievement: opportunity and motivation. These results suggest that high-achieving low SES students have fewer curricular opportunities within their schools than their high SES peers. Although programs have been developed to support some highly motivated students who lack opportunities (such as Project Excite at Northwestern University or the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Young Scholars Program), there are many more high achieving students without access to educational challenges. I have written before about how pairing opportunities such as acceleration with additional demanding curricula provides the greatest benefit for talented students. In fact, it may not be any one opportunity that leads to greater accomplishments; rather, some research suggests it may be the number of opportunities, or dosage. Providing a variety of options allows students to take advantage of the ones they find most interesting.
Once opportunities are offered, however, students must be encouraged to participate and given the support they need. For example, the report found 38 percent of high achieving White students enrolled in calculus when it was offered compared to 26 percent of high achieving African American students and 31 percent of Latino students. Likewise, 45 percent of high-achieving, high SES students took calculus, whereas only 36 percent of high-achieving, low-SES students did. What factors led to this differential pattern? The study did not investigate the reasons, but some hypotheses emerge. Were the differences based on student choices and future aspirations? Are different procedures used by the schools for course placement? The report found minority and low SES students received lower grades in their courses. Would this preclude them from enrolling in calculus? More research is needed to understand these differences.
The results of the report are ultimately alarming for those of us concerned with the excellence gap. Minority and low SES students who arrive at high school as top performers end up earning lower high school grades, scoring lower on college admissions exams, performing worse on Advanced Placement exams, and are less likely to enroll in a selective college or university. We must continue seeking interventions to help these talented students access educational opportunities and reach their potential. The following suggestions from students warrant further research and consideration: high-quality courses, encouragement, advisors and mentors, and a culture of high expectations for achievement.