Why American schools fail low-income high achievers, and what can be done

Timothy Daly

The High Flyer (Blog Banner)-NAGC.pngEditor’s note: This essay first appeared in a slightly different form on The 74.

Why don’t more low-income and minority students succeed in school? There is plenty of talk about bad schools, insufficient resources, turbulent neighborhoods, and the like. And, yes, lots of disadvantaged students start school behind their more advantaged peers—and, because of these myriad challenges, stay behind. But there are many others who demonstrate success in school, at least for stretches of their educational careers, but fall off along the way. Instead of resigning ourselves to these outcomes, we must instead ask: Why, specifically, does this happen? And how do we fix it?

At EdNavigator, of which I am a founding partner, we have spent the past two years providing sustained educational support to hundreds of families in and around New Orleans, in all types of schools. Each of them has been afforded access to a Navigator—someone with deep roots in their community and professional experience in teaching, counseling, or school leadership—who serves as their personal education adviser. Through this work, we have gained deep insight into the day-to-day interactions of families and schools and the obstacles they confront. Our experience has brought the questions above and others to the forefront for us.

Today, we’re sharing the stories of five students we have been supporting in a new paper, Lost in the Crowd. In it, you’ll meet:

● DeAnthony, a talented fourth-grader whose middle school options are bleak;

● Amalia, who earns straight A’s in class, yet scores below grade level on most state tests;

● David, whose signs of brilliance are overshadowed by challenges with attention and focus in class;

● Kendra, a sixth-grader who has attended four schools since kindergarten; and

● Joy, a high schooler with a bright future, but also with an inattentive guidance counselor.

Though they are anecdotal in nature, we believe these profiles mirror the experiences of countless families. Moreover, they align with research showing that talented students from low-income families are not maximizing their potential as often as more privileged peers and are less likely to be identified for gifted programshave access to challenging coursework, or enroll in selective colleges. Together, they illuminate many of the reasons high-performing students from low-income communities slip off track. Here are some of them:

School choice doesn’t work as well as it should for their families. Although it opens some doors, low-income parents of high-performing students face numerous barriers to placing their children in schools with high-performing peers, leaving them to choose among very similar schools that tend to specialize in raising the achievement floor, not the ceiling. High performers are left adrift, while “average” students get lost in the crowd.

Students are shut out at an early age. Many lower-income parents are unaware of the processes for accessing rigorous, selective schools, so they cannot take advantage of them when their children first show signs of high potential in preschool or kindergarten. When this potential becomes more obvious in later grades, seats in those schools are no longer available, having been claimed by early-bird students from higher-income, better-networked families.

Families rarely receive clear, complete information about their children’s performance.Sometimes, tests indicate that students may not be doing as well as their grades suggest. In other cases, they signal exceptional potential in students who would otherwise be overlooked. Yet educators do not consistently use test data for these purposes, help families understand divergent information, or counsel families toward opportunities.

Small challenges can have major ramifications. For all these students, the difference between success and failure may come down to seemingly minor factors, such as the family’s ability to track down paperwork at the right time, having reliable transportation to school, or whether anyone notices a sign of potential in a child’s grades or test results.

Many of these challenges are complex and interconnected; at the highest level, solving them requires schools and school systems to find ways to prioritize the interests of individual students and families as well as students in the aggregate. However, we believe there are also practical solutions that would help more high-performing students from lower-income families thrive—strategies that would improve educational outcomes for all students if implemented well.

For example:

● Help parents map out their children’s educational pathway early. Affluent families tend to have clear educational goals that they begin working toward from the day their children are born, if not sooner. They set up college savings accounts, consider elementary school options when deciding where to live, and join waiting lists for high-quality preschools. Many low-income families know what they want but do not have a plan for getting there. Students usually gain access to guidance counselors in middle or high school; parents should have a “guidance counselor” for themselves, starting when their children are infants.

● Continue increasing high-quality school options. School choice by itself is not a solution, but it is a useful tool for families—and a scarcity of quality options remains a pressing concern. Expanding the number of schools that can serve a diverse student body well and holding all schools to high standards would mean fewer dead ends and bad choices for families.

● Increase the capacity of existing schools to serve high-performing students more effectively. For instance, investe in personalized learning, school-based tutoring, and competitive academic clubs, as well as improving access to out-of-school learning centers and high-quality, affordable after-school and summer learning programs.

● Direct additional resources to educators and schools. Ensuring that schools have the right funding to hire effective guidance counselors, give teachers time to assess student progress comprehensively, and provide rigorous coursework and academic programming to meet the needs of high-achieving students is essential.

● Focus schools on getting the basics right. Even in the absence of additional resources, there are many steps schools can take. Poor communication with families, inattention to existing data, missed deadlines, and lost paperwork are all challenges with straightforward, inexpensive remedies.

● Provide clearer, more accurate information about academic progress. When parents are made aware of issues that threaten their children’s educational success, they tend to act decisively. Yet many families receive mixed or misleading messages about their children’s performance, leaving them uncertain about what data to trust and how to respond. Schools can address this issue by improving report cards, enhancing information systems, and assisting teachers with data analysis.

● Expand early warning systems. We typically think of early warning systems for students as focusing on high-risk issues like absenteeism or behavior problems. We should continue investing in these systems, but also use them to spot high-potential students who should be monitored and kept on track.

We hope these case studies help education leaders and policymakers more deeply understand how these and other families experience the education system and explore ways to improve it. Expanding educational opportunity and improving academic outcomes for students from low-income families is a challenge with profound consequences, not only for students and families themselves but for our nation’s future as well. Unfortunately, too many schools are poorly prepared to support these students, even when success is right in front of their eyes. We find ourselves asking: What needs to change for more students to reach better outcomes? How many more children like them are lost in the crowd every day?

Read the full case studies in Lost in the Crowd.

Timothy Daly is a founding partner of EdNavigator, a nonprofit organization that helps hardworking families stay on track for success in school and beyond.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.