The College Board released statistics today showing that black students across America take Advanced Placement (AP) tests at significantly lower levels than whites, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students take the test at disproportionately low levels as well. Unfortunately, this news isn't much of a surprise. In many low-income schools—as well as those that serve high levels of racial minorities—the focus is often on bringing struggling students up to a minimally adequate level of education, not on preparing top students for college-level work.
Of course, giving all students an adequate education needs to be a priority. But schools that focus on bringing low-performing students up to speed often wind up neglecting the needs of the gifted and talented students in their population. Even when schools do maintain classes and programs for gifted students, these programs are often first on the chopping block when money is tight. With budgetary shortfalls plaguing schools across the country, the tension between catching students up and providing a challenging education for high achievers is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon. Federal stimulus dollars are unlikely to help: as today's New York Times editorial points out, the money earmarked for education in the stimulus package is mostly meant to forestall layoffs and programatic cuts. But as the Times notes, even that won’t happen "if the states adopt the familiar strategy of cutting their own contributions to education...while using federal dollars to plug the hole."
Part of what we're trying to do here at The Generation Project is to use donors' ideas to ensure that gifted students continue to receive the rich and challenging experiences they deserve. Few of us have the ability to dictate schools' hiring or programatic priorities, but we might be able to provide books and supplies for an after-school program that prepares some low-income students for the AP test. Or we might sponsor a kid's summer internship at a local hospital, research lab, or museum, or fund an after-school debate team. (As an aside: if you're interested in seeing what extracurriculars like debate can do for low-income students, check out the HBO documentary Resolved, which follows two brilliant inner-city kids' attempts to take on the orthodoxy of high school debate world). Gifts like these admittedly won't resolve schools' budgetary shortfalls or reform the systematic challenges that are facing American schools, but they can definitely have a tremendous impact on some of the talented students out there that can benefit from these experiences.