Talented Tenth

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both attended elite private high schools. Both are undeniably smart and well educated and owe much of their success to the strong foundation laid by excellent schools.

We’ve failed to raise the ceiling for those already well above the floor.

Every motivated, high-potential young American deserves a similar opportunity. But the majority of very smart kids lack the wherewithal to enroll in rigorous private schools. They depend on public education to prepare them for life. Yet that system is failing to create enough opportunities for hundreds of thousands of these high-potential girls and boys.

Mostly, the system ignores them, with policies and budget priorities that concentrate on raising the floor under low-achieving students. A good and necessary thing to do, yes, but we’ve failed to raise the ceiling for those already well above the floor.

Public education’s neglect of high-ability students doesn’t just deny individuals opportunities they deserve. It also imperils the country’s future supply of scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.

Today’s systemic failure takes three forms.

First, we’re weak at identifying “gifted and talented” children early, particularly if they’re poor or members of minority groups or don’t have savvy, pushy parents.

Second, at the primary and middle-school levels, we don’t have enough gifted-education classrooms (with suitable teachers and curriculums) to serve even the existing demand. Congress has “zero-funded” the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, Washington’s sole effort to encourage such education. Faced with budget crunches and federal pressure to turn around...


Admission to what was until recently "America's best high school" (as named by U.S. News & World Report) is again under assault from multiple directions. Seven teachers at Fairfax County's acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology allege that the school's famously rigorous selection process has been eased, such that it's no longer enrolling the ablest and best-prepared pupils.

Recent high-profile complaints against TJ overlook widespread failings in American public education.

A federal civil rights complaint filed by a former Fairfax County School Board member asserts that entry criteria at TJ, as the school is known, in conjunction with the district's clumsy handling of "gifted and talented" education in earlier grades, rig the enrollment against black and Latino kids. At the same time, a law professor is pressing his claim that black students are favored over white students in the admissions process.

Any of these allegations could be true. But both complaints about TJ overlook two widespread failings in American public education that give rise to such grievances while also jeopardizing the nation's long-term economic competitiveness.

First, we've been neglecting the education of high-ability youngsters. States, districts, and individual schools, pressed by federal policies and metrics, have concentrated attention and resources on low-achieving and other "at-risk" youngsters, while paying scant heed to the fate of smart, eager pupils. Uncle Sam hasn't helped in recent years by zero-funding the one program intended to strengthen "gifted and talented," or G/T, education for poor and minority students. While struggling to raise...


Aggressive marketing campaigns have led to an uptick in Catholic-school enrollment in some cities, a trend Gadfly hopes accelerates; many urban parochial schools have plenty to brag about and their merits stack up well against many of the district (and charter) schools they compete with for students.

A Wall Street Journal essay took teacher unions to task over the weekend for effectively protecting sexual predators through the byzantine procedures required to fire educators guilty of abusing students. Reformers need to be careful not to wield this argument recklessly—but the unions must recognize that the issue at hand is not worker rights: It’s doing the right thing for the students that teachers serve.

At last weekend's AFT convention, Joe Biden declared that teachers are under "full-blown attack" by Republicans. By attack, Mr. Vice President, you mean advocating for compensation that rewards teachers for high performance? Creating school models that empower educators and cut down on bureaucracy that keeps education dollars from reaching classrooms? If so, then here's hoping the GOP goes after principals next.

Giving high-performing blended-learning schools like Rocketship high-profile coverage, as the Washington Post did on Sunday, is more than deserved: With luck, it will help the public overcome its wariness about this promising model.

Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson announced his resignation on Tuesday. We wish this estimable gentleman the very best in his next endeavor....

What is the best education for exceptionally able and high-achieving youngsters? There are no easy answers but, as Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett show, for more than 100,000 students each year, the solution is to enroll in an academically selective public high school. Exam Schools is the first-ever close-up look at this small, sometimes controversial, yet crucial segment of American public education.

One big idea animates virtually all of today’s earnest education reformers: the conviction that great schools can spur social mobility. Voucher supporters, charter advocates, standards nuts, teacher-effectiveness fanatics—we all fundamentally believe that fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators can help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers. And then Charles Murray comes along and throws cold water all over the idea.

Can fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators actually help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers?

This was my reaction last month when Murray visited the Fordham Institute to talk about his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Among his many interesting and provocative comments about the rise of a “new upper class”—one inhabited by the winners of America’s meritocracy—he made this rather disturbing statement: “The better the meritocracy, the faster social mobility will decline.” Checker Finn, our president and moderator, did a double-take. “Say it again?” So Murray did. “The better the meritocracy, the more efficiently you identify and reward talent, the faster that social mobility will decline over time.”

As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time Murray has made that argument. An earlier version can be found in his controversial book, The Bell Curve, written with Richard Hernnstein, and then restated in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed:

The more efficiently a society identifies the most able young people of both...

Drop-out recovery charter schools annually serve about 20 percent of Ohio’s charter students but have never been held accountable for the performance of their students. Ohio’s Senate Bill 316 (SB 316) would change this by requiring the creation and enforcement of standards for these schools. The legislation empowers Ohio’s Board of Education to set accountability standards but also leaves open what these standards will actually be. Yesterday, however, the House education committee amended the bill so that drop-out recovery schools will not be subject to the state’s automatic closure law for charter schools.

As the House considers the bill this week, lawmakers need to balance the demand for high standards for recovery charters with the unique student composition and testing challenges associated with these schools. Further, lawmakers should understand the benefit of drop-out recovery schools to the graduation rates of traditional public high schools.

First, by definition, drop-out recovery charters primarily serve dropouts or students at risk of dropping out. This fact alone requires a different perspective of what “student achievement” means—and the approaches required for student success. Because dropout recovery charters enroll mostly high-poverty and highly underperforming students, an apple-to-apples comparison of dropout recovery charter performance to traditional high school standards of success seems unreasonable.

Second, legislators should consider how dropout recovery charters actually benefit public school districts. They do this is a couple ways: first, by enrolling students who would have otherwise dropped out of education completely, recovery charters improve public school district’s graduation rates. Consider, for example,...


This week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that guarantees high-achieving students a number of accelerated learning opportunities—such as skipping a grade—while making sure parents and kids know how they can take advantage of such possibilities. The measure was championed by State Representative John Legg, who feared that talented students were going through school unchallenged while principals focused on bringing low achievers to proficiency. While other initiatives, such as Advanced Placement programs and dual-enrollment efforts, provide valuable options to top students, studies have shown acceleration to be particularly effective. Yet many educators resist such policies because of (mostly unfounded) fears of negative social consequences for students. Without being overly prescriptive, the new Florida law requires school districts to, at minimum, offer whole-grade and mid-year promotion for eligible students as well as early graduation options. We’re always queasy when states create mandates around schools’ instructional policies, but this might be a case in which a little nudge from above will prod districts to do right by their high-achieving students.

Fast-Track Academic Path Approved in Florida,” Sean Cavanagh, Education Week Charters & Choice blog, April 30, 2012.


The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.

From where I sit, the basic strategies
aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and
constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the
K-12 system as we know it.

This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.

The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty real, but largely beyond the reach of public
policy. No, here I refer to obstacles that competent leaders and bold policymakers
could reduce or eradicate if they were serious.

How much difference would that really make? It’s possible,
of course, that we’re pursuing the wrong core strategies....