America’s Smart Kids Left Behind

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Catching up to our global peers will require changing education policy and culture

Intel’s recent announcement that it will cease sponsoring and underwriting the prestigious Science Talent Search (which it took over from Westinghouse in 1998) is another nail in the coffin of “gifted education” in the United States.

Unlike many European and Asian countries, which are awash in academic competitions, Olympiads, and other status-laden contests that bright students (and their schools and teachers) vie to win, American K‒12 education has relatively few that anyone notices, save for the National Spelling Bee that Scripps has valiantly stuck with since 1941. But spelling bees are for middle schoolers. The big deal for high schoolers, at least those with a bent toward STEM subjects, has long been the Science Talent Search, which President George H. W. Bush called the “Super Bowl of science.”
Intel’s turnabout surprised that firm’s former CEO, Craig Barrett, and disheartened many who care about both STEM education and gifted education. It’s another sign of America’s inattention to high-ability learners, especially those from disadvantaged circumstances. That neglect is what triggered our new book, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students. All sorts of data—from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from research studies including the 2011 Fordham Institute report, “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students” by Robert Theaker and his colleagues, and elsewhere—have shown that high achievers made lesser gains in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era than did low achievers. Policy efforts that raised the floor and eased the achievement gap did so at the expense of strong students, who were already nudging the ceiling. Under NCLB, schools and teachers had scant incentive to work hard with kids who were already “proficient.” And so they didn’t, especially in places full of poor and minority kids, so many of whom needed extra help to become proficient.