After U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced plans to retire in 2016, advocates for high-performing students sang her praises for her steadfast support of federal initiatives to boost programming for academically gifted, low-income learners, and with it, the likelihood that they will fulfill their exceptional potentials.
State leaders, however, haven't performed similarly well for this group of children, despite the frequent conversation in Annapolis about supporting high achieving, low income students. According to a new study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities: A Report Card on State Support for Economically Vulnerable Academically Talented Students, Maryland received a "C" grade for its state-level policies aimed at fostering student talents and a "C+" for student outcomes.
In fact, in Maryland and across the country, there is a profound "excellence gap" — a large difference between the percentage of economically vulnerable and economically secure children performing at advanced levels. Thirty percent of Maryland's children grow up in economically vulnerable households, so this gap has implications for possibly tens of thousands of the state's children. Clearly, state and local policymakers, administrators and educators need to take a fresh look at what can be done for the most talented students from low-income backgrounds and take action accordingly.
It isn't that there is lack of good ideas or intentions; it's that there are no cohesive statewide policies in place to make sure good talent doesn't slip through the cracks. The study reports that the state has neither a coherent policy requiring teachers to take any college coursework to learn how to teach advanced learners, nor a statewide high school honors diploma. As a result, Maryland is a patchwork of different approaches with widely varying resources, which more often than not means where students live determines the opportunities they will have in their academic careers.
The consequences of the absence of statewide policies are telling. In the fourth grade, 21 percent of students who were middle- and upper-income scored at the "advanced" level in math and reading. In contrast, just 3 percent of low-income fourth graders reached the advanced level on math and 4 percent on reading. In the eighth grade, fewer middle- and upper-income students had advanced scores in either subject, but there were still at least five times as many of them than there were from low-income homes. Those excellence gaps are among the largest in the country and represent a missed opportunity for a state that is frequently recognized for the overall quality of its schools.
Areas served by Baltimore City public schools are among the poorest in the state, so this is obviously a more significant concern for families in that system. It has a long way to go, but positive steps are in place. The Office of Academics for the first time in many years is now focusing on research-based approaches and current best practices for gifted education. But while city schools are developing new quality programs for advanced learners at the elementary and middle school levels, they have limited resources and many priorities other than focusing on early identification of gifted or advanced learners; the excellence gap generally emerges within elementary and middle school, so it is critical that the children with the best abilities are identified and nurtured early.
The best way to do that, and to reach underprivileged children not only in urban areas but also rural areas in western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, is for the state to mandate that every county provide gifted students from all socioeconomic backgrounds with advanced coursework options that match their talents. Reducing the excellence gap even modestly would mean tens of thousands of additional students would achieve the advanced level, offering them better opportunities in college and beyond.
With a level playing field, similar rates of kids from low-income, middle-income and high-income families will achieve excellence. They will become the leaders of tomorrow, which will be key to keeping Maryland and America competitive in the 21st Century global marketplace. It's also just the right thing to do. State policymakers should finally get this message and follow Senator Mikulski's wise example.