‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air’
In Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” those flowers are a metaphor for talents and gifts. I have always loved both the poem and those lines, but I wonder whether they accurately describe what is more likely to happen to talented youth today? What happens to talent that is not nurtured?
I remember the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan—the gifted son of hardscrabble Irish immigrants–telling me that ‘cream rises to the top,’ which was his own experience. My experience as a teacher in a federal penitentiary suggests otherwise. More importantly, so does hard data from solid research.
Let’s put one important fact on the table to start: Talent is randomly distributed. It is not a function of social class, race, income or even education. For more information on this, look at “The Achievement Trap” (PDF), a report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. It notes that when they enter elementary school, high-achieving, lower-income students mirror America both demographically and geographically. They exist proportionately to the overall first grade population among males and females and within urban, suburban, and rural communities and are similar to the first grade population in terms of race and ethnicity (African-American, Hispanic, white, and Asian).
Not only that, “More than one million K-12 children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch rank in the top quartile academically. Overall, about 3.4 million K-12 children residing in households with incomes below the national median rank in the top quartile academically.” This population is larger than the individual populations of 21 states, the report notes.
But then what happens? Here the news is not good, starting as early as first grade. Because ability is randomly distributed, kids from different income groups ought to appear in equal numbers in the four academic quartiles. Unfortunately, among first-grade students performing in the top academic quartile, only 28 percent are from lower-income families, while 72 percent are from higher-income families. As the report notes, “In elementary and high school, lower-income students neither maintain their status as high achievers nor rise into the ranks of high achievers as frequently as higher-income students. Only 56 percent of lower-income students maintain their status as high achievers in reading by fifth grade, versus 69 percent of higher-income students.”
If programs for gifted and talented were adequately funded, things might be different. But, as we and others have reported, these programs have been cut, victims of No Child Left Behind’s frenzied pressure for higher test scores among kids who were just a point or two away from getting over the ‘adequate’ bar.
Does “Cream rise to the top” on its own? No, that’s not likely. However, talented kids who were born into upper income families are likely to rise. Again quoting from the Jack Kent Cooke report:
While 25 percent of high-achieving lower-income students fall out of the top academic quartile in math in high school, only 16 percent of high-achieving upper income students do so. Among those not in the top academic quartile in first grade, children from families in the upper income half are more than twice as likely as those from lower income families to rise into the top academic quartile by fifth grade. The same is true between eighth and twelfth grades.
They are also twice as likely to drop out of high school without graduating.
And do these kids whose talent is not nurtured ‘waste their sweetness on the desert air,” as Thomas Gray wrote? Here I have some direct experience. I taught in a federal penitentiary in Virgina for two years in the late 1960’s. I had classes of 20 or so young men who wanted to read literature and improve their writing. During my career I have also been a high school English teacher (NY), a junior high school summer school teacher (Greenwich, CT) and a teaching assistant (Harvard). The young men in that federal prison were easily the most focused, ambitious and responsive students I’ve ever taught. And while it’s true that they were self-selected and that most prisoners have literacy issues, I still wonder, nearly 40 years later, where things went wrong for those guys. Why criminals instead of teachers or plumbers or business executives? What did not happen in their schools that might have set them on a productive path?
I stayed in touch with one of those former prisoners and later was best man at his wedding. Bobby worked hard, bought and fixed up a couple of two- and three-family homes, rented them out, and before long became a very successful citizen. I hope the other guys did as well, but, more than that, I hope that educators will address their own ‘Expectations Gap’ when it comes to low-income kids. Kids from wealthy homes are likely to get that extra stimulation at home, but poor kids need what schools can and should provide—field trips, challenging curriculum, and the best teachers.
This country cannot afford to waste any talent. We’ve done that for too long.