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January 10, 2006

"They're all rich, white kids and they'll do just fine" -- NOT!

Two of the most popular -- and most insidious -- myths about academically gifted kids is that "they're all rich, white kids" and that, no matter what they experience in school, "they'll do just fine." Even in our own district, however, the hard data do not support those assertions.

When the District analyzed dropout data for the five-year period between 1995 and 1999, they identified four student profiles. Of interest for the present purpose is the group identified as high achieving. Here are the data from the MMSD Research and Evaluation Report from May, 2000:

Group 1: High Achiever, Short Tenure, Behaved

This group comprises 27% of all dropouts during this five-year period.

Characteristics of this group:

  • Grade 5 math scores - 84.2 percentile
  • Male - 55%
  • Low income - 53%
  • Minority - 42%
  • African American - 31%
  • Hispanic - 6%
  • Asian - 5%

Put in words, more than one-quarter of the District's dropouts during the second half of the 1990's had exhibited high academic achievement early in their school careers. (The report actually uses the word "astounding" to describe these students' previous achievement.) In addition, over half of this group of early achieving dropouts were poor, more than two-fifths were minority students, and almost one-third were African American. (Note: this number - 27% - is roughly comparable to what is found nationwide regarding the percentage of dropouts who have tested and/or performed in the gifted range -- that is, across the nation, gifted students don't do "just fine" no matter what happens to them in school.)

During this same time period - the second half of the 1990's - the percentage of MMSD high school students who were from low income families was about 16% and the percentage who were minority was about 25%. Thus low income and minority students were significantly over-represented in this high achieving group of dropouts (53% versus 16% and 42% versus 25%).

Point: The best way to insure that poor and minority students of high academic ability are not "lost" is to work at finding them in the first place, and then to support and follow them throughout their school careers - i.e., to have in place a broad-based system of early and ongoing identification (one that does not require parental advocacy), as well as a set of ongoing support and retention strategies.

Point: The best way to insure that all students of high academic potential have equal access to adequately challenging learning opportunities is to have enough of these appropriately rigorous learning opportunities, in all of the District's schools and at all grade levels.

To the extent that "high end" learning opportunities and District services for high potential students decrease, it hurts all academically talented students in the District. That goes without saying. But these data suggest that as those services and programming are eliminated, we may be doing particular harm to those academically talented students who come from less advantaged backgrounds. These students are less likely to have parents who can advocate effectively for them, thus they are less likely to have access to the ever shrinking pool of appropriately rigorous learning opportunities available in our schools. These students are also less likely to have parents who can provide them with opportunities for advanced learning outside of school, not to mention transfer them to private school, when their learning needs are not met in the public system.

A case in point: West High School

Because of the curricular changes currently occurring at West High School -- changes which threaten the historically broad range of challenging courses West has offered its high end learners -- we'd like to draw your attention to a further breakdown of these data, from the same District report:

High SchoolGroup 1 dropouts (% of total dropouts for that school)
La Follette23.8

Put in words, from 1995 to 1999, West had a significantly higher percentage of dropouts who exhibited high academic achievement early in their school careers than did any of the District's other three high schools, each of which had about the same percentage of Group I dropouts. (Note: 32.4% is also significantly higher than the national estimate.) There is no reason to assume that the demographic characteristics of West's Group I dropouts are significantly different from those of the District-wide group of Group 1 dropouts -- that is, it is likely that many of the West Group 1 dropouts were either minority students, from low income families, or both. This suggests that as West contemplates getting rid of ever more "high end" courses (arguably as a result of the Small Learning Communities initiative), they may be moving in the wrong direction -- assuming that the goal is to maximize minority achievement, as opposed to simply minimizing minority failure. As 10 of West's 18 math teachers put it in an April, 2004, letter to the Isthmus:

It seems the administration and our school board have redefined 'success' as merely producing 'fewer failures.' Astonishingly, excellence in student achievement is visited by some school district administrators with apathy at best, and with contempt at worst. But, while raising low achievers is a laudable goal, it is woefully short-sighted and, ironically, racist in the most insidious way. Somehow, limiting opportunities for excellence has become the definition of providing equity! Could there be a greater insult to the minority community? (bold, italics and underline added)
A recent report from the St. Louis Black Leadership Roundtable speaks to the complexity of the challenge of closing the achievement gap while also maintaining a commitment to high academic standards for all -- and the importance of keeping the big picture in full view.

Conclusion: The two most popular myths about "high end" students is that they are all rich, white kids and that no matter what they experience in school, "they will do just fine." The above data from our own district illustrate well just how untrue those two statements are. Students of high academic potential come in all colors and from all cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. To think otherwise is, quite simply, racist. Furthermore, students at any point along the performance continuum disengage from school when they feel misunderstood, unappreciated, and poorly taken care of by their schools. In that regard, "high end" students are no different from any others.

Note: Unfortunately, the 2000-20004 dropout data have not been analyzed in the same way the 1995-1999 data were and we have been told that there are no plans to do those analyses. A request has been made to reconsider that decision.

Additional note: According to a December, 2004, MMSD Research and Evaluation report, the District-wide high school dropout rates for the years 1995 -1999 were 21%, 17%, 19%, 18% and 19%, respectively (average equals 19%). For ease of computation, consider a West high school class of 500 students. Given an average 19% dropout rate, that means 95 students not graduating each year, more than 30 of them with a history of high academic performance - including 15 - 20 academically talented poor and/or minority students.

Final note: The percentage of West students who are minority and the percentage who are poor have both increased significantly since the late 1990's. Currently, the West student population is approximately 24.9% low income (compared to 14.6% in the late 1990's) and 35.8% minority (compared to 26.3% in the late 1990's). This may well mean that even more poor and minority students of high academic potential are not graduating.

Bottom line question: Are we really prepared to sacrifice so many potential scholars and leaders of color?

Laurie Frost & Jeff Henriques

Posted by Jeff Henriques at January 10, 2006 9:39 AM
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