Wednesday, September 19, 2012


The High End

I’ve been involved in a series of initiatives lately based on improving student success rates (defined as passing and graduating), closing racial and economic gaps, and helping students from underrepresented groups find their way into the jobs of the future.  These are all good and worthy endeavors, and I’m happy to work with them.

As worthwhile as they are, though, they share a theme.  They all focus on the lower-achieving stratum of students.  They’re all about raising the floor.  I haven’t seen any large-scale initiatives about raising the ceiling for the high achievers.

We have some locally-grown (and locally funded) programs to cater to the high achieving students.  We have an Honors program, and some strikingly ambitious learning communities, for example.  (If it didn’t give away too much, I’d brag about the transfer record.  We send students to some pretty highfalutin places, year after year.)  But there’s no external funding for those, no state attention to them, and no apparent political support for them at the state or federal levels.

This strikes me as misguided.

Yes, it is absolutely important for community colleges to give students whose k-12 preparation wasn’t the best a second chance.  But I can’t help but think it’s also important to give the gifted-but-not-wealthy student a shot at the same caliber of education that she’d get in the first two years of a traditional, selective institution.  

That’s getting even more true as the cost gap between community colleges and private colleges grows.  

The high-achiever blind spot is of long standing, but if anything, it seems to be getting worse.  As operating budgets continue to sputter, the only meaningful new money is devoted to either workforce programs or efforts to raise the floor.  The strongest students are almost entirely forgotten.

It’s easy to assume that the strongest students will be fine even without recognition.  And there’s some truth to that, depending on how you define ‘fine.’  They’ll pass.  They’ll get good grades.  But will they be as strong as they could have been?

That matters.  The high achievers are likelier to generate the breakthroughs.  They’re the ones who will both go on to high-paying careers and “give back” at some level.  They do wonders for faculty morale, and they keep us academically honest.  

I’d hate to see the ones who don’t have money wind up underchallenged.  The loss of what they could have been is hard to quantify, but real.  

The folks who teach in the Honors and LC programs here have favorite stories of students who didn’t know how smart they actually were until they were seriously challenged.  Take away those serious challenges -- sacrificed to yet another year of flat budgets -- and we won’t see as many of those breakthroughs.  We might not even notice, focused as we are on raising the floor.  

By all means, raise the floor.  But I can’t remember the last time I heard a governor, let alone a president, brag about -- or fund -- an honors program at a community college.

Although I'm not directly involved in this sort of initiative, my observation is that federal agencies and some private foundations will throw ungodly amounts of money at you if you have an initiative to send minority students to graduate programs in STEM. Most of the students in these programs are among the higher-achievers. Yes, there are inspiring anecdotes of people who failed freshman chem but went on to get a PhD, but by and large these programs recruit the higher-achieving minority students.

I realize that a CC can't send students directly to grad school, but you could tap into "pipeline" projects with nearby research institutions, have them do a summer research experience at the research institution, and ultimately transfer to the research university.

I'm at a 4-year institution, and I sometimes see grant programs that target success for CC transfer students and provide research experiences for them. Usually these are for STEM, but they aren't always targeted specifically at ethnic minorities. You might see if there's a 4-year institution nearby that is interested in really bright transfer students and wants to get them involved in summer research experiences early.

A gripe: I am a STEM faculty member running a research group composed almost entirely of undergrads. I look at my record of publishing with women, minorities, low-income or first-generation college students, and transfer students (even a lot of my white and Asian students are transfers), and my record of sending some of them to grad programs. Then I look at some grant-funded programs designed to achieve similar goals. I get a fraction of the funding of those programs. I sometimes wonder why I don't make the leap and go for it.

The answer is that I like being in the lab with students, and if I got one of those grants I'd have to delegate a lot of research mentoring and spend my time doing assessment, attending workshops, writing reports, etc. Yes, I realize that assessment is important to the extent that it means taking a reflective look at what you're doing and asking if it's working, but the bottom line is that my students are publishing and getting into grad programs in STEM, and they mostly come from the targeted demographics. In some sense, the assessment writes itself, except they'd want more survey data and all that. And instead of a mentoring plan that consists of "Get a good projects that the students can manage in the available time frame, get some smart kids, and work together really hard" I'd have to use a lot more buzzwords.

Still, sometimes I look at the money and think of going over to the warm, fuzzy side...
This starts in K-12 and obviously continues on up. In my state, districts are not mandated to have programs for the "gifted and talented", which strikes me as odd. I heartily agree that the high achievers are the ones more likely to achieve the breakthroughs, and yet, we as a society are still scratching our heads over why our K-12 students are lagging behind the other countries. Perhaps because we don't seem to put the same resources into the high end of the spectrum as we do the other? Sure, as DD notes, the high achievers probably do "fine", but it seems like we're doing this group a huge disservice by not providing outlets that let them explore their full potential.

At my CC, there is so much focus on the lower-achieving students and it's frustrating. I teach college-level science, and a lot of the special workshops and funding is not applicable to the students I teach.
I despise the word "achiever." Meaningless and abstract or defined in ways that are meaningless and abstract.

In fact, I think your own reference to kids who "didn't know how smart they were until challenged..." contradicts the notion of "achiever." I would argue that most kids in that category are not considered "achievers" at all in our current test-obsessed k-12 culture. "Achievement" in our world has become about delivering numbers, one way or another. I'm much more interested in fostering and responding to curiosity, self-awareness, intellectual honesty than I am producing achievement numbers

That being said, I completely agree that students with heightened curiosity about their world and unique talents are just as likely to land at the former community/state colleges and that we should cater them as much as someone looking for a practical certifications or employment entry. Glad you've raised the issue.
It also occurs to me that for the best students in non-elite institutions (whether a CC or a 4 year state university), in some sense they need the depth, breadth, and all-around academic rigor to be even higher than that at a more selective institution attended by students of similar ability but more advantaged backgrounds.

If you're a smart kid who goes to a selective school, you're probably fine, no matter what your professors do (or don't do). You are spending 4 years hanging around the sorts of people who go to selective schools, you have a piece of paper saying you went to a selective school, and you get to network with alumni who went to a selective school. If the professors literally did nothing, the kids would still do fine in life.

If you go to a less elite place, the name on the diploma and the people you're around won't be able to open as many doors for you. All you are getting out of that place is whatever you get from the academic program. That's an argument for aiming as high as possible for them, and giving them the most sophisticated preparation possible.
I agree with the sentiment, but I think you've understated the damage being done in k-12 by relentless focus on the floor instead of the ceiling.

Our school district killed a very good talented and gifted program more than a decade ago in a misguided attempt to save a few dollars. The gifted from wealthy families have been going to private schools ever since.

We're wasting talent at a prodigious rate in this country.
My only real regret is that I was never really challenged at school. I did well, very well, but it wasn't until my PhD program that I actually had to intellectually stretch and learn to study. If my school had had a gifted and talented program, or if my parents could have sent me to an Ivy-league prep school or college, my life might be so different. I loved learning, but I wish I had been pushed just a bit harder when I was younger.
As Edmund notes, the conservative perspective is that if you're smart, you will have access to private education, so there's no need for gifted education. Why would you want to empower social mobility? That just gives the proles ideas.
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