Excellence gaps, those divides in achievement between academically advanced students of different racial groups, ethnicities, and income levels, aren’t just a problem for educators and advocates to fret over and solve, argues Jonathan A. Plucker, co-author of the new book “Excellence Gaps in Education” (Harvard Education Press, 2016). If we fail to close these significant achievement gaps among our brightest students, we’re hurting the nation’s workforce and economic development—and that affects everyone.
“We’re getting most of our high-performing students from the same demographic groups that we always have, but those groups are shrinking,” says Plucker. “We have a culture and an economy with a huge thirst for talent, but if we don’t do something about the excellence gap we won’t meet these needs over the long term. We need as many talented people as we can get.”
Plucker, the Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and School of Education, was part of the original group of education researchers who first brought excellence gaps in K-12 education to light in 2010. In his book, co-authored by Scott J. Peters, the prominent talent development expert draws on the latest research and a wide range of national and international data to provide a thorough examination of these divides and offers a number of interventions for closing them.
“There’s a persistent talent underclass in the U.S. made up of black, Native American, Hispanic, and low-income students,” he says. “These are entire demographic groups of students whose academic talents have not been developed for at least a generation and likely more.”
Taking his original research one step further, Plucker offers a variety of interventions to close the excellence gap and achieve equality and equal opportunity for all academically talented students. “Providing realistic opportunities for students is important,” he said. “Another major intervention is making sure educators know that talented minority and poor students exist before they enter the classroom—that’s not happening anywhere in the country. And at the state level, the K-12 accountability system is being redone. In light of that, finding a way for schools to be rewarded for closing excellence gaps is critical.” None of these interventions can exist only a single point in time, he added. “You have to think years ahead and frontload.”
For example, creating more programs to get minority students into Advanced Placement courses seems like a good idea, but if the students aren’t prepared for more rigorous coursework, they won’t be successful. “Frontloading really forces people to take a K-12 perspective,” he said. “If you are going to put a talented, poor student in AP U.S. history her junior year, you have to have more than junior history teachers at the table talking about the plan. You need the student’s sophomore and freshman teachers at the table. You need middle school teachers at the table. If we are going to create these opportunities for students you have to make sure they are prepared for them.”
Closing the excellence gap won’t be easy, but it can be done.
“We are not going to solve this tomorrow,” Plucker said. “But we can solve it in 4-5 years if we get started now.”
Jonathan Plucker, a prominent educational policy and talent development scholar, is available to serve as a subject matter expert in stories dealing with the excellence gap, creativity and intelligence, gifted and talented education, and education policy.
Since 1979 the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth has helped identify, nurture, and advocate for academically advanced students of all backgrounds. A nonprofit, CTY offers exceptional learning opportunities to pre-college students from around the world, including summer, online, and family programs.
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