During a high-visibility Supreme Court hearing last week on the Fisher v. University of Texas admissions case, Justice Scalia made some ill-considered comments on race in higher education: "There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well." Then, referencing a case filing, he added, “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas,” he said. “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
Myriad commentators went after him. Others came to his defense. And still others landed somewhere in-between. We don’t view Scalia as a racist, but there’s no denying that his statements can be interpreted as suggesting that black kids are inescapably destined for the slow track. It’s not surprising that people are offended.
It ought to go without saying, but of course there is nothing inherently inferior about poor and minority students. Individual kids are not equally adept or eager learners, but it’s as wrong for a Supreme Court justice to suggest that entire racial or ethnic categories are slow as for a presidential candidate to propose that entire religious groups be barred from the United States.
Yet an inconvenient truth also lurks behind Scalia’s observations and all the subsequent to-do: There is a fast track in American education. It runs all the way from kindergarten through graduate school. And we’re getting far too few black students onto it. Schools, communities, and parents are failing to do right by many African American (and other poor and minority) youth, particularly those with the greatest academic potential. The disproportionate number of black students who are well prepared to succeed in selective universities is just a symptom; the disease is systemic failure in the K–12 system.
First, a great many black kids attend high-poverty schools awash in low achievement—places where all the pressures on teachers incentivize them to equip weak pupils with basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Such schools invest most of their resources in boosting low-achievers, which has been the central focus of our public policies, private philanthropies, and moral sensibilities for decades. Such schools are also apt to judge teachers by their success in getting low-achievers over the proficiency bar. They therefore have little energy, time, incentive, or money to spare for students already above that bar.
Instead of putting high-ability and high-achieving students in classes that propel them onward as fast as they can move, a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless found that high-poverty schools had almost twice the percentage of de-tracked students as low-poverty schools. In America’s leafy suburbs, white and Asian kids are far likelier to attend schools that understand acceleration, fast-tracking, ability-grouping, and “gifted and talented” education. Their schools are also likely to be well resourced—and are under lots of parental pressure to help their students travel to the Ivy League and prestige public universities like UT Austin. As Ford Foundation President Darren Walker recently remarked, “[E]ven though talent is spread evenly across America, opportunity is not.”
The proper course of action, obviously, is to extend similar opportunities to poor and minority kids. As we argue in our new book, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, there are better ways to maximize students’ potential, including universal screening, mastery-based progress, and more opportunities outside the classroom.
First, schools, districts, and states should use extant assessments—such as the standardized tests that kick in by third grade—to screen all kids. They should then use those results to identify the top 5 percent or so of test takers in each school and give them opportunities to partake in accelerated, deeper curricula that better capitalize on their potential and prior achievement. This will diversify the qualifying population and not just favor upper-middle-class kids. Recent research by economists Laura Giuliano and David Card proves that this works, especially for minority students.
Teachers in every elementary school should also be asked to nominate additional kids who, though they are not top scorers, earn excellent grades or show uncommon potential. Classroom professionals need to look with extra care for children from poor, minority, and immigrant families—and they should look holistically, instead of just at grades and scores. Districts will need to provide the teachers themselves with screening tools to help with such identifications and invite students and parents to come forward if they would like to be considered. But they should also urge principals to develop schoolwide methods for dealing with parental pressures, outside influencers, and allegations of favoritism or discrimination. Combining this with universal test-based screening would identify perhaps 10 percent of students who are already high-achievers or, in their teachers’ eyes, could prove to be. This is a generous enough definition to benefit those pupils who lack prepared or pushy parents.
Second, we should allow students to move through school based on mastery rather than age. The single best thing our education systems could do for high-potential students—and everybody else—would be to make it possible for them to progress through curricula at their own pace. Instead of age-based grade levels (all eleven-year-olds belong in fifth grade, where they’re all held to the same performance standards) kids could proceed one unit or module at a time, subject by subject, with no obligation to move through all at the same rate. Mark Zuckerberg’s personalized learning initiative is suggesting this very thing. And indeed, technology can help make this a reality. But only if schools alter time-honored structures and familiar schedules, make smart use of technology, encourage team teaching, use tutors and aides as well as teachers, and wean themselves from grade-level textbooks. They’ll also have to wean parents from stubbornly insisting that simply because a given child is eleven, she must be in fifth grade.
Third, students should be offered more learning opportunities outside the regular classroom. We ought to create after-school or weekend enrichment classes and online options so that high-ability pupils (and others) can engage in independent study beyond their standard curricula. Especially in the middle grades, schools should provide comprehensive pull-out opportunities for entire subjects, not just a period or two per week. In high school, where students are better able to study on their own, they need “blended” and “virtual” learning options akin to the fast-evolving offerings of higher education. There also ought to be dual-enrollment plans, honors programs, schools-within-schools, beefed-up AP and International Baccalaureate sequences, specialized magnets, “exam schools,” early college high schools, gifted-centric charter schools, and more.
Do this for a decade and the “over-matching” problem on Justice Scalia’s mind will diminish if not disappear. It will also help solve the “under-matching” problem whereby high-achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t even apply to competitive colleges because nobody in their school is paying attention to them. Today’s K–12 system showers undue advantage on those who already have advantages. High-ability poor and minority kids are among the most neglected populations in American public education. Yet they too deserve an education that meets their needs and enhances their futures. They have their own legitimate claim on our conscience, our sense of fairness, our policy priorities, and our education budgets. Those kids depend more than upper-middle-class youngsters on the public education system to do right by them. And instituting these reforms will get more of these kids onto the fast track and into elite universities. The day will come when Supreme Court justices have no grounds to opine that black students are better off in “slow-track” schools. And that’s a day worth dawning.