Wasting Talent

‘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?

Wasting Talent - The Achievement GapI 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.

10 thoughts on “Wasting Talent

  1. Thank you so much, John, for this poignant telling of a painful truth. Not only have we (educators)allowed our expectations to limit the progress of too many students, but we have also allowed our silent complicity with bad policy to destroy the dreams of many more.


  2. Thank you for this important post. I often wonder why the Jack Kent Cooke study doesn’t get more attention! The rural and urban gifted public school student would have fewer options than the typical suburban student (because suburban parents fight for gifted programs). The disconnect between what we say we want to focus on in this great nation of ours and what we end up funding is huge.


  3. John, it is so easy to base expectations on stereotypes. Convincing ourselves that we have so many other things on our plates, it’s easy.
    What we fail to recall are those people and experiences that motivated us to challenge ourselves.
    The world is littered with people who never succeeded despite potential. We must find ways to motivate ALL students, confident that is the key.
    The good news is that will become win-win for learner and teacher – with little impact of environment. Cream WILL rise to the surface.


  4. John, your post is particularly important in light of Charles Murray’s resurgence in the national education debate. There are unfortunately too many people willing to believe that the cream is already at the top, and that poverty is itself a mark of low ability.


  5. John,
    I cannot agree more with your beautifully penned appeal for us to educate gifted kids of all demographics more appropriately. I have two gifted boys who have been motivated and well behaved and even in fairly affluent school districts and private schools these two children have been ignored enough to make them cry. I can tend their wounds and give them the resources necessary to keep them emotionally healthy and intellectually challenged because I have been blessed by a comfortable standard of living, a good education and a work ethic. I worry every day,however, about the gifted children of parents who may not be themselves educated, may be working more than one job, and may not claim English as their first language. These children have the potential to raise their families out of poverty if they are given the tools to graduate high school and college and bring their gifts to fruition. My relatives and my husbands, immigrants themselves, were given these opportunities and I am saddened that our society has stopped prioritizing such educational opportunities today. This lack of foresight will come back to haunt us.


  6. Great blog post–timely, much needed. As a teacher and a parent, nothing makes my blood pressure rise like the fallout from NCLB policies, and how so much opportunity and time is wasted teaching to dry tests which really don’t give students the opportunity to learn much of real value, or to think creatively. I worry about how talent is being squandered both in the classroom–with its preoccupation with standardized testing, and because funding/time has been pulled away from programs that would allow students opportunities for further study in the areas which genuinely interest them. I am speaking not just of gifted programs, but also simple field trips and exposure to arts performances.

    I have very smart kids–one of whom had a mid-grade-level reading ability in Kindergarten. She was almost excluded from enrichment studies because she was slow (received a score of 79 out of 83) in pointing out “capital I; lower-case z” on an insipid “test” administered by the reading specialist. It didn’t matter that she could read *everything*–the number on the dumb letter recognition flashcard was what stood between her and opportunity…Luckily, her teacher managed to intervene.

    Anyway–if we say that education is important, we should change the system to reflect true education, not just test scores.
    How late is too late, I wonder, before students become people who neither read nor question anything?


  7. I appreciate the supportive words from Renee, Jeanne, John, Claus, Will, Mary Beth and Elizabeth and urge you all to keep this conversation going. If we continue down the road of bubble-test obsession, we are driving talent away—and we’re raising generations who will have mostly bad memories of public education and will, therefore, not be inclined to support it.


  8. it was sad to see the funding for the Javits program for gifted education on the chopping block. One reason I have so strongly opposed NCLB is because of its leveling effects. I accept the idea of Jerome Bruner that every child is capable of some level of mastery in every domain. Our task as educators is to empower that student to learn as much as s/he can, removing obstacles, providing support, challenging as is necessary. A one size fits all method of evaluation ignores the importance of meeting the students where s/he is, and then – pace Vygotsky – challenging to do more by moving into the Zone of Proximal Development

    No matter what a child can do when s/he enters my classroom, the measure of my effectiveness is how much I am able to provide the opportunity and where necessary the motivation for that child to move far beyond that point of entry.

    Socioeconomics, previous education, history of behavior problems notwithstanding.



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