Middle School

When we look at low-income, high-ability students at the start of formal education and then again on the college graduation stage, we see the importance and challenge of the K-8 years for shaping the future trajectory of these students.

At the start, high-achieving first graders from lower-income families demographically and geographically mirror the population of all U.S. first grade students. Year after year, that picture changes. Those numbers and the potential they represent begin to erode.

Somehow, in the world's largest national economy, only one in 10 of these low-income students will go on to graduate from college. In contrast, half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor's degree by age 25.


Data tells us:

Low-income students now make up 51 percent of all (K-12) students in the United States

Researchers count more than 3.4 million (K-12) students achieving in the top quartile academically come from families earning less than the median income

Only 56 percent of lower-income students maintain their status as high achievers in reading by fifth grade, versus 69 percent of higher-income students

While 25 percent of high-achieving, lower-income students fall out of the top academic quartile in math in high school, only 16 percent of high-achieving upper income students do so


Key Factors:

Teacher Recruitment and Training

It’s a simple fact that America’s (K-8) school population is changing faster than its pipeline of culturally and economically diverse teachers, and that training for established teachers is inadequate. Teaching for a new American population asks a lot of all teachers. Acquiring both a personal and professional multicultural perspective is challenging, and gaining the added nuance of recognizing diverse expressions of “giftedness” even more so.

Outdated Identification

In a changing America, educators have not kept pace in terms of assessment tools or teacher training to identify advanced learners from low-income and culturally diverse families. Once overlooked, the fate of low-income, high-performers can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy because students are then precluded from differentiated instruction at the advanced level and are not provided with resources.

Social/Psychological Issues

Students who are labeled as advanced learners early on often resist the designation for social reasons. They can be isolated and bullied, particularly in middle school, and in contrast, fail to meet the expectations of others because of high-stakes testing. Unable to resolve such disparities, and otherwise unmotivated to do so, some simply withdraw.

Gaining Parental Trust

Multiple studies show that sustaining advanced learning across the long span from early childhood into college takes a monumental and coordinated effort involving teachers, mentors, community and youth leaders to build trust with each family. Parents under great economic stress or without language skills can’t be expected to advocate for their high-performing sons or daughters in the same ways as higher-income families.


What works:

Improved Course Offerings

The growing availability of e-learning opportunities may enable low-income schools to offer advanced courses and guidance for advanced learners in earlier grades. Students who do not take algebra by 8th grade, for example, struggle in successive years with mathematics courses needed for college.

Multiple Identification Techniques

A wider range of quantitative and qualitative data, including teacher input, can account for factors like creativity that a test may not pick up. Group-specific norming could help alleviate some of the factors above; perhaps the top 10 percent of students in each school get services regardless of their scores on a test. But more assessments also need to be implemented to find the “diamonds in the rough” instead of just those who are already advanced.

Parental Outreach

The qualitative data that is too often missing is parents’ assessment of their own children. Navigating the public school system for low-income families frequently remains a labyrinth, so parental advocacy suffers. Parents may instinctively know their child is an advanced learner, but if they don’t get a letter home stating so, they don’t intervene. Schools need to provide parents with better information and access and proactively ask them for their input to aid in better identification.

Teacher Accountability and Support

Strong school alternatives for low-income students are characterized by consistently strong school supports and sensible accountability. Supports include opportunities for teachers and school leaders to improve their skills, and a culture in which teachers are expected to demonstrate to their colleagues that they share the collective mission of educating every student well.


Further Reading / Research

Unlocking Emerging Talent: Supporting High Achievement of Low-Income, High-Ability Students.
Olzewski-Kubilus, Paula and Jane Clarenbach. National Association of Gifted Children.

Mind the (Other) Gap! The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education.
Plucker, Jonathan, Nathan Burroughs, Ruiting Song (2010). Center for Evaluation & Education Policy.

Achievement Trap: How America Is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Lower-Income Families.
Wyner, Josh, John Bridgeland and John J. Diiulio, Jr. (2008). Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students.
Xiang, Yun and Michael Dahlin et. al (2011). Fordham Institute.