The “Excellence Gap”: income & race disparities persist


Excellence-Gap-10-18-13A new report was released yesterday that shows no progress towards “highest achievement levels” by minority groups:

Talent on the Sidelines:  Excellence Gaps and America’s Persistent Talent Underclass by Jonathan Plucker, Jacob Hardesty, and Nathan Burroughs

The report warns:

The circle of high-achieving American students is becoming a preserve for the white and well-off, with potentially severe consequences for the country’s promise of equal opportunity, according to a new report by University of Connecticut Prof. Jonathan Plucker and colleagues at two other universities (

While education and public policy debates have largely centered around basic academic skills, Professor Plucker and his associates are concerned with the progress at the upper end academic achievement. And the report is disheartening. Plucker’s previous study came in 2010, and in it he expressed hope “that the excellence gap might narrow.” It hasn’t:

The new data, though, show the opposite has happened: the gap between white, relatively affluent students and their poorer, nonwhite classmates has only widened.

So what’s it mean? Racism? Social Inequity?

“Talent on the Sidelines” makes clear that what we’re seeing is untapped achievement that has solidified along economic lines. However, by pointing out the disparities between economic classes, we should be heartened, not discouraged or scared into just another “solution” that leads to more of the same. Note:

The math scores based on economic background were even more dramatic, with students ineligible for free or reduced-price lunches improving from 3.1 percent in the advanced range in 1996 to 11.4 percent in 2011. Less affluent students, meanwhile, went from 0.3 percent scoring in the advanced range to 1.8 percent.

So minority students in poverty have made little advance since 1996, while those whose families have entered the middle and professional economic classes are making significant gains. There should be little surprise here. Unfortunately, this report is speaking to policy that doesn’t want to hear these results.

Let’s be clear

Closing the gap will also require an acknowledgement of the role childhood poverty plays in reducing many students’ chance at a quality education.

In other words, universal kindergarten, more money for schools, and the next latest pedagogical program designed to uplift the disadvantaged from the lowest to average scores has not and will not change much of anything, and, worse, it is doing nothing to uplift kids into the highest tiers of academic excellence.

I’m not challenging, and this report is not challenging, programs that have assisted the lowest level students and most impoverished families. There is a role for that. The problem that this report highlights is that as the only policy mechanisms employed, programs focused on the lowest achievers are not helping students escape it.

My question is that if wealth is the greatest indicator of academic success, then why do we do so much as a nation to enable poverty? This report highlights yet another of the unintended consequences of the Nanny State that seeks to end but instead entrenches poverty and it’s awful consequences.

“If the diversity of our school-age population isn’t represented among our high-achieving students, we can make the argument that we’ve failed to achieve either equity or excellence, with serious implications for America’s future,” Plucker said.

Therein the serious policy implications from this report. We can call it, “Give Excellence a Chance”:

The report also contains policy recommendations, ranging from requiring states to include the performances of advanced students in accountability systems to bringing federal resources, which are now essentially non-existent for excellence education, to bear.

Seriously, how can we expect achievement if we only support sufficiency, if that? The same vicious circle as nannyism is at work in schools that merely uphold the minimum without also supporting the patterns, habits and opportunities of high achievers. How to get there… well, that’s debatable. In my experience, signature programs are a waste of resources. Expectations should be raised in every classroom, not just the AP or IB rooms. But that’s another whole debate. Plucker’s report here is pointing to the opposite problem, where all the focus is on the lower end of academic level, which entrenches and deprives potential talent from arising.

We’re chasing the wrong end of the tiger. Educators, policy makes — and voters, please take note of this important study.

– Michael

The A+ Club from LLC, based in Arlington, VA, is dedicated to helping students across the U.S.A. meet their goals and find the academic success the want and deserve. Contact us here or call now  to (703) 271-5334 to see how we can help.


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