Cooke-ing Excellence Through Research

Jennifer Glynn

I’ll miss the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation now that it has closed its research and evaluation department. After almost a decade examining challenges faced by high-ability students, I’ve learned a lot. I want to share with you some of the key takeaways. It is important to acknowledge what we know and act immediately on that information.

  1. Talented students are everywhere. High achievers look like America. 
    They come from every community, race, gender, and socioeconomic background. Brilliance knows no boundaries, gender, or color. Cooke scholars have been found in all 50 states, in small rural towns, vast cities, and every place in between.
  2. Yet excellence gaps abound. 
    Facing unequal access to quality educational opportunities, some bright young people are less likely than others to reach advanced levels of academic performance. In 2019, for example, just 12 percent of White students but only 2 percent of Black students scored “Advanced” on the National Assessment of Education Progress. Three percent of those receiving meal subsidies scored “Advanced” versus 15 percent of others. These gaps appear early and continue through college. Worse still, they’re growing.
  3. Identifying talented students takes work. 
    Excellence gaps can be closed with well-crafted programming but many students lack access. Last year just two percent of students at elite, STEM-focused Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County were Black, though Black students comprise ten percent of county enrollments. In response, the school is changing its admissions processes, to create more equitable access.

    Students from low-income households, rural areas, and minority populations are under-identified for gifted programming, because they lack programming and methods used to identify “gifted” students often favor the fortunate. There is no silver bullet for identification but multiple measures work better than one. Universal screening in early grades helps, as does using local norms — i.e., taking the brightest kids from each school.

    Teachers know their students better than anyone. Yet only 9 states require them to be trained in identifying and serving high achievers. Sometimes all that’s needed is a little empowerment. Says Marcia Gentry of Purdue’s Gifted Education Resource Institute, “We just tell teachers we’re looking for more [low-income students] and they nominate at twice the level.”
  4. Begin cultivating students’ interests early.
    It’s never too early to ignite kids’ passion for learning. Loudoun County’s Propel program immerses elementary students in high interest STEM projects. They solve problems, collaborate, and deepen their scientific knowledge. JKCF’s Young Scholars program fosters interest exploration starting in middle school; once reaching college, Young Scholars are less apt than their peers to change majors, because they arrived with deeper understanding of their interests. 
  5. Exposure, exposure, exposure. 
    High-achievers need opportunities and role models that match their ability levels and broaden their understanding of the world and career possibilities. James Madison University’s Valley Scholars programs furnishes high-achieving rural students with intensive, year-long programming. This includes inviting scientists to visit, connecting students with high-achieving peers in other schools, and taking them to visit colleges. In this era of distance learning, much of this can be virtual.
  6. Smart students need guidance, too. 
    Being talented doesn’t erase the need for guidance. Whether it’s advice on which courses to take, encouragement to pursue extra opportunities, or help navigating college admissions and financial aid, high achievers benefit from astute counseling. Without it, tremendous discrepancies appear in outcomes for disadvantaged students. Organizations like Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America and Thrive Scholars provide counseling to talented students from low-income families and those whose parents never attended college. As a result, their students attend college at rates that equal or exceed wealthier students.
  7. Engaging with like-minded peers is powerful. 
    The COVID pandemic has many costs, including the dearth of opportunities for students to interact in person. Historically, one of the most valued aspects of the Cooke scholarship has been its summer gatherings. There’s magic in bringing brilliant young people together. Instead of intellectual (and sometimes social) isolation, kids leave these summer events musing “I never knew other kids like me existed” and saying they have found their community.  
  8. Students look up to older students. 
    High-achievers also benefit from connecting with those a bit older. In JMU’s Valley Scholars program, undergraduates advise high school students. The Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access, which brings AP courses to rural students online, engages college students as virtual tutors. This “near-peer” mentoring offers students advice from a trusted source — older youth — and program staff find that this is the most valued connection for some young people.

    How can programs build community virtually? Breakthrough Collaborative proved it could be done this summer, supporting over 4,500 students in virtual programming taught by near-peer teaching fellows.
  9. Measuring proficiency is not enough. 
    Many state accountability measures focus on proficiency. That’s important but doesn’t do justice to high-achievers, many of whom start school each fall having already reached the standards for their grade. Their performance needs monitoring, too, best done by measuring students’ growth in each year. Yet only five states now report growth for high achievers. All should do so, with performance disaggregated by sub-group, to see whether they are cultivating their next generation’s leaders, innovators, and inventors from all sectors of their populations.
  10. Closing excellence gaps matters…. especially now
    Today, as America contends with the pandemic, educators must think creatively about how to bring advanced learning opportunities virtually to students. As we work to continue educating all our students, let’s not forget our high achievers, especially those from underrepresented groups. Scholarship organizations like JKCF cannot do the whole job alone, not to the extent that the nation needs and our youth deserve. Schools must offer advanced learning opportunities or partner with others to do so. Teachers must be trained to identify and support high-ability students. Districts must monitor data on advanced performance. States should require identification and monitor programs for quality.

    Ensuring our underrepresented gifted students are appropriately challenged will both give them a fair shot at social mobility and help build intellectual capital for our nation as it rebuilds its economy and its spirit in the years to come. 


Dr. Jennifer Glynn served as Director of Research and Evaluation at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation from 2011 to 2020. She is the author of numerous research reports, including most recently “Persistence: The Success of Students Who Transfer from Community Colleges to Selective Institutions” and “Small Town, Big Talent: Identifying and Supporting Academically Promising Students in Rural Areas."

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC