The Gifted Opportunity Gap is Neglected

I have yet to hear anyone working in a low-income, minority-majority school be concerned that only 2% of students at Yale are from the bottom income quantile in America. As a middle class Coloradan who had the privilege of going to an Ivy League-quality school (read US News Rankings if you don’t believe me) and teaching in low-income neighborhoods since graduation, I have unique understanding of both the value of a world-class education and the lack of access 99% of Americans have to it. The lack of access has little to do with intelligence or ability.

Most people lack a true appreciation of what it means to have access to an excellent university. Prior to attending the University of Chicago, I hadn’t even heard of the job “consultant” outside of the context of experts starting up a business late in their career. In my new reality, “consulting” was a fall-back job for people without direction seeking to make six figures before they turned 25. Getting into a graduate school program ranked less than the top 20 universities meant you were a failure. Almost all premed and pre-law students go into medical school and law school, often with scholarships. I believe nearly a quarter of my graduating class wound up working in consulting or banking (as in Wall Street, not your neighborhood one). Nearly no one graduated jobless, and students either followed their passions for less pay or made more money than a 22-year-old responsibly knows what to do with. As for the education itself, I’ve never felt more intellectually challenged in my life.

Getting an education at schools like University of Chicago is a golden ticket both financially and spiritually. I had, and still have, more job flexibility than anyone I know from high school who went to a state university.

And yet, for all the talk about valuing diversity, I could count the number of classmates who grew up poor at the University of Chicago on one hand. The opportunities for life-changing financial success are wasted on those who would be fine anyway.

My black classmates (all 4% of the undergraduates) at University of Chicago usually were not from the same background as the ones I teach. They were often the lucky ones, whose parents could afford to send them to better schools. I rarely encountered anyone who went to a low-performing, inner-city school growing up. Colleges don’t recruit from there, and these schools also have no desire to prepare students for once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunities. The result is disastrous.

When I taught at a failing middle school, people rolled their eyes on me when I suggested that it was a problem that we were scaling back our already slim gifted education program. They believed that “tracking” even in an all-black school was somehow racist and/or served no purpose beyond inflating egos. The thought that some students were exceptionally intelligent and driven and needed to be pushed was absurd. It was too difficult on the teachers of regular and remedial to not have access to “the easy kids”. The other classes were “too toxic” if they “had too heavy of a concentration of the bad kids”. It wasn’t important that the smart kids never got the same opportunities that their middle class and wealthy peers had to a gifted education.

I guarantee you, no kid who goes to a school that doesn’t care about the gifted achievement gap will have a chance at going to a school like the University of Chicago, let alone being successful once they get there.

I understand that the opportunity gap on the other end of the spectrum is heartbreaking. The fact that so many low-income youth cannot read, write, or do arithmetic is a national disgrace. But the fact that gifted low-income youth are taken for granted and forgotten about is also a national disgrace. Far more than 2% of Yale’s class should be from the bottom quintile of Americans, no matter what crazy theories about intelligence and income you subscribe to.

Schools that serve middle and high income students have the expectation that a small minority of their kids will become the world’s leaders. High income students are expected to go to Yale if they are smart. Low income students are expected to maybe make it to middle class if they are smart. We can dream bigger than that.



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