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Talent on the Sidelines: The Widening Gap in Excellence

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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An alarming report on the current state of excellence in the United States has been released today.

The conclusion of the report “Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and the Persistence of America’s Permanent Talent Underclass” is that the United States is relying on less than half of its talent, with large percentages of our brightest students not even getting a chance to enter the room.

University of Connecticut Professor Jonathan Plucker and colleagues at two other universities examined data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and state assessments. Their most striking finding is the under-representation of low-income and minority students among those performing at the highest levels of academic achievement.

While the percentage of white students scoring at the advanced level in Grade 4 mathematics increased from 2.9 percent to 9 percent between 1996 and 2011, the percentage of high-scoring black students barely budged, reaching 1.1 percent in 2011. The math scores based on economic background were even more dramatic, with students ineligible for free or reduced-price lunches improving from 3.1 percent in the advanced range in 1996 to 11.4 percent in 2011. Less affluent students, meanwhile, went from 0.3 percent scoring in the advanced range to 1.8 percent.

They put these findings in perspective: In Grade 8, 8% of all eighth graders reached advanced levels in mathematics, which translates to about 290,000 of the 3.6 million eighth graders that exist in the United States. This means that out of the 44% of all students eligible for free and reduced meals (about 1.6 million), less than 40,000 would score at advanced levels, about 160,000 fewer students than if low-income students performed as well academically as more affluent students. This means that schools are losing about 160,000 high-performing eighth grade students every year.

The researchers conclude that America has developed a “permanent talent underclass”:

“In an age of increasing global competitiveness, it is somewhat harrowing to imagine a future in which the largest, fastest-growing segments of our K-12 student population have almost no students performing at advanced levels academically. In many states, including many of our largest, this is already the reality.”

The report also offers state-by-state comparisons, where the lack of non-white and poorer students among the highest achievers can be even more stark than the national average. In North Carolina, for example, the percentage of black students with advanced scores in Grade 4 math rounds to zero, while in Texas, an impressive 17 percent of more well-off students have advanced scores in that category, compared to just 3 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Individual state profiles are available at the report web site (

As Plucker and colleagues note:

“If the diversity of the U.S. K-12 student population is not proportionally represented in our high-achieving students, one could argue that neither equity nor excellence has been achieved, with serious implications for the country’s future.”

They also point out:

“Year after year, with billions and billions of dollars spent on interventions and policy initiatives that focus largely on minimum competency, the vast majority of our bright minority children, ELL students, and students of limited financial means underperform academically… It seems ominous that the United States appears to have a permanent underclass regarding academic talent, given the need for advanced intellectual skills in our information-based society. This phenomenon is especially troubling given that the percentage of poor and minority students is increasing.”

The researchers also tracked reading scores and compared high achieving American students’ performance to their international peers, a comparison that found U.S. students lagging.

You can download the full report here.


In an earlier report in 2010, Plucker and colleagues found similarly depressing results, but they reported that there were limited signs of hope that the excellence gap might narrow. Now, just three years later, they are less optimistic, considering they found that the gap between white, relatively affluent students and their poorer, nonwhite classmates has only widened. As they pessimistically note:

“The data we explored for the current study should crush anyone’s optimism about the country’s success in developing academic talent: The rich are getting richer, so to speak (but not in all cases), and the poor continue to show evidence of incremental, insufficient progress.”

Thankfully, the report does contain some policy recommendations. Here’s an excerpt:

  1. START PAYING ATTENTION. When any new education policies are created, policymakers should ask themselves two questions: How will the proposed policy impact our highest achieving students? How will the proposed policy help more students achieve at the highest levels?
  2. INCLUDE THE PERFORMANCE OF ADVANCED STUDENTS IN STATE ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEMS. Very few states include indicators of advanced achievement in their K-12 education accountability systems. This omission sends the implicit message that advanced achievement is neither important nor a goal, and as a result, the vast majority of other education policies, systems, and interventions align with the indicators that focus attention elsewhere.
  3. ACKNOWLEDGE THE MAJOR ROLE POVERTY PLAYS IN WIDENING EXCELLENCE GAPS. The dominant educational assumption in policy circles for the past 15 years has been that poverty is largely unsolvable, hence the need to “stop using poverty as an excuse.” That’s not surprising – students’ demographic characteristics are often used as an excuse to establish low expectations for them – but pretending we can close achievement and opportunity gaps in the absence of poverty reduction is a puzzling response to the issue.
  4. ADDRESS THE “LOW-HANGING POLICY FRUIT” IMMEDIATELY. Each state should quickly examine its policies that may help or hinder the promotion of high achievement in its K-12 schools.
  5. ACCELERATE RESEARCH ON ADVANCED LEARNING AND TALENT DEVELOPMENT. One reasonable criticism of the 2010 study was our reliance on standardized test data at the national and state levels. We agree that a broader range of indicators— for example, 21st century skills or measures of creative productivity—would be helpful for understanding the nature and impact of excellence gaps. However, reliable data on such indicators, in our experience, do not currently exist. Access to these data could dramatically transform policy debates about excellence and excellence gaps.
  6. IDENTIFY THE FEDERAL ROLE IN ADDRESSING LOW LEVELS OF EXCELLENCE AND EXCELLENCE GAPS. Federal support for excellence in K-12 education is largely nonexistent. The one federal research and intervention program in this area was eliminated mid-cycle, and federal education law, specifically the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, does not address advanced achievement or excellence gaps.


The researchers conclude their report with a really important question that I urge all educators and policy makers to deeply consider:

“The irony of the United States having an excellence problem is not lost on us, but it appears to be lost on the general public and our policymakers. In California, roughly 1% of Hispanic Grade 4 and Grade 8 students score advanced on the NAEP reading and math tests. In North Carolina, in Grade 4 math the percentage of Black students scoring advanced rounds to zero. In Texas, an impressive 17% of Grade 4 students not eligible for free/reduced priced lunch scored advanced in math … but only 3% of eligible students scored advanced. If comparable results existed at the minimum competency level, there would be a furious, sustained uproar.

Why are such results at the advanced level acceptable?”

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Note: Portions of this post were excerpted from an official press release sent to me by Jonathan Plucker. Thanks to Plucker for bringing this important report to my attention.

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Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rationalrevolution 3:22 pm 10/22/2013

    “pretending we can close achievement and opportunity gaps in the absence of poverty reduction is a puzzling response to the issue.”

    Indeed. The problem we have is that in truth, the primary factor driving academic under-performance in our population is NOT the schools, it is poverty, something that the schools have no meaningful control over.

    If we want to address “academic competitiveness” we have to start addressing economic inequality.

    Instead what we are doing is acting like it’s all teacher’s fault that they aren’t able to completely reverse the effects of the rising tide of poverty in America, a rising tide created by 30 years of right-wing economic policy….

    Link to this
  2. 2. genevehicle 11:46 pm 10/22/2013

    I have to agree with a lot of what rationalrevolution said. But I also have to offer an unfortunate, and possibly heretical, opinion.
    While it is reasonable to assume that growing up poor can contribute to academic under-achievement, it is also reasonable to assume that lack of brain-power can contribute to lower income levels. The question is, which is the chicken and which is the egg?
    Of course this issue is much more complicated than just raw intelligence and how it relates to income. There are a number of other personality traits that can contribute to success, or failure, in a meritocracy. If we ever want to find solutions to these questions, we are going to have to admit the truth: different genetic groups have different learning abilities.
    I know this is scary to some people, but it doesn’t have to be. While such beliefs have been used in the past to rationalize the establishment of a racial underclass, this is a new age. If we truly want a society in which everyone is given the tools to succeed, we have to build our policies upon a foundation based upon scientific truth instead of misguided, wishful thinking.
    Just my opinion.

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  3. 3. rkipling 12:19 pm 10/23/2013


    While your points shouldn’t be excluded because you are a political correctness heretic, I have wondered for a long time how much influence the individual’s culture may have. We know that not all of these low income children are ethnic minorities. If cultural influences could be excluded, there may not be noticeable talent differences among races. Perhaps that study has been done many times, and I’m just ignorant of it? Given how genetically similar all people alive today are, it’s difficult to understand why there would be noticeable differences in the distribution of talent based on genetics.

    Cultures, families, or individuals that value education offer an escape for low income but talented children. I had all the advantages derived from humble beginnings. Neither parent had completed high school. At a career guidance presentation, chemical engineering was listed as the highest paying job. I didn’t know what those folks did, but the price was right. (Yes I know there are other jobs that pay more, but that was what was up on the screen.) I worked to put myself through school (as so many do) and became a ChemE. My children both have PhDs. One is an engineer. The other one went to the dark side: the humanities.

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:19 am 10/24/2013

    Even the most extreme and questionable claims on human intelligence cannot explain for 0% of poor students getting high grades.

    I suggest Americans look at countries like Scandinavia, which have much more success in educating poorer students. They don’t explain a failed system by “they just have poor genes” though.

    Link to this
  5. 5. RedRoseAndy 9:07 am 10/24/2013

    Making education free would help, having education fees just marginalises the poor.

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  6. 6. bucketofsquid 2:11 pm 11/6/2013

    @genevehicle – Genetics has far less to do with income level than does family and environment. Just a cursory check of countries that offer free education, basic and advanced, shows that such countries tend to have a much more balanced distribution of advanced performers in the STEM fields.

    Poverty is self replicating in that people expect life to be like what they have already experienced. The ways of improving economic status that are promoted to the poor tend to be crime, sports and entertainment. All three of which have very small sets of successful participants.

    A solid education has a much larger percentage of successful participants. It takes no more work than the other 3 options but has the notable characteristic of not being commonly promoted in popular culture by simple virtue of studying being dull to watch or sing about.

    Link to this

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