Home > news, rant > Do we really want elite youth to get more elite?

Do we really want elite youth to get more elite?

December 16, 2013

I don’t know if you guys read this recent New York Times editorial entitled Even Gifted Students Can’t Keep Up: In Math and Science, the Best Fend for Themselves.

In it, they claim there’s some kind of crisis going on in this country for smart kids (defined as good test-takers). Mostly their evidence for this is that, among other countries, our super good test takers aren’t as prevalent as in other countries. Turns out we’re in the middle of the pack in terms of super scorers. From the article:

On the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment test, the most recent, 34 of 65 countries and school systems had a higher percentage of 15-year-olds scoring at the advanced levels in mathematics than the United States did.

Why is this a problem? As far as I can see they’ve come up with two reasons.

First, it’s “bad for American competitiveness,” whatever that means. Last time I checked we were still pretty dominant in various ways in terms of technology and science, and there are still plenty of very well-educated young people trying desperately to get visas to enter or stay in this country.

As an aside: it’s a super interesting question to think about how we, as a country, are increasingly ignorant about how our technology works, because so much technical knowledge has been off-shored. But that’s not the crisis these guys are addressing.

Second, it’s bad for the smart kids in this country, because “when the brightest students are not challenged academically, they lose steam and check out.”

I’ll pause in my summary of their article to make the following point. If that’s true, if bright kids who aren’t academically challenged at school start checking out more and more, then it makes just as much sense to me to see if there’s something they can check out towards.

In other words, what else is there for bright teenagers to do besides school? I’ll speak as a former bright teenager. When I lost interest in school, I got a lot of odd jobs in town cleaning houses and raking lawns, and then I used the money to buy lots of softcover books from a local bookstore. I don’t know why I didn’t just take them out of the library, where I also worked. It just didn’t seem as cool as owning my very own Brother Karamazov.

I learned a lot with my odd jobs in high school, which included being a part-time secretary, a barista, a math tutor, and working on a truck at the New England Produce Center. In fact I learned way more about how the world worked than I would have if I’d followed the advice of this editorial, which was to take lots more AP classes and then enter college when I was 14.

My theory is that, instead of obsessing over math scores in standardized tests, we concentrate on allowing our children to enrich their lives with adventures and experiences that they come up with and that are reasonably safe. So let’s start by encouraging widespread internships for younger kids, and not just minimum wage jobs at fast food joints. And not just for super test-takers either. Enrichment happens when kids learn about stuff that’s outside their usual rhythm and when there are no adults scripting their activities and telling them what to do or how many laps to swim.

Notice my emphasis on letting kids choose stuff. What drives me nuts just as much as the idea of further separating and isolating and venerating great test-takers, which as far as I’m concerned is the opposite way you should treat future successful people, is the idea that there should be such a well-defined funnel for children at all.

Yes, kids should all go to school and learn basic things. But the idea that, just because someone’s good at tests they should be treated as if they’re already running the Fed only increases the weird worshippy aspect of how our culture treats math nerds.

Plus, it’s a bizarre time to come up with this idea, considering how many online and live resources there are for nerd kids now compared to when I was a kid. If I’m a nerd teenager now, I can find plenty of ways to share nerdy questions and learn nerdy things online if I decide not to work in a coffee shop.

Finally, let me just take one last swipe at this idea from the perspective of “it’s meritocratic therefore it’s ok”. It’s just plain untrue that test-taking actually exposes talent. It’s well established that you can get better at these tests through practice, and that richer kids practice more. So the idea that we’re going to establish a level playing field and find minority kids to elevate this way is rubbish. If we do end up focusing more on the high end of test-takers, it will be completely dominated by the usual suspects.

In other words, this is a plan to make elite youth even more elite. And I don’t know about you, but my feeling is that’s not going to help our country overall.

Categories: news, rant
  1. pjm
    December 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Cathy, lots of great points (especially how many online resources there are). I notice that when this type of argument is made, typically on the basis of rankings, there is no mention of the variance of the data, i.e., are the difference in test scores significant enough to mean anything (I suspect not).

    One point I especially like, you are spot on about is weird worshippy treatment of the math-nerd. It is arguably counter-productive given that there is a cultural bias to believe that achievement in math is (against the evidence) all about natural ability instead of motivation and effort.

    One point I would add is that it is not a given that producing more “elite” performers actually helps sustain our economic growth more than training larger numbers of students to competency (assuming there is some kind of resource tradeoff that makes only one possible) or is better than a mixture of the strategies. Now that the economics profession is beginning to take seriously the idea that economic inequality is injurious to growth, maybe we should have the same discussion about intellectual inequality.


  2. December 16, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Great post, Cathy. Here’s my comment on the PISA scores in the Portland (ME) Press Herald. I’m fed up with the idiotic fearmongering from the press and politicians over test scores. Frankly many our biggest policy disasters (Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the stock market crashes) were caused by our “Best and Brightest”.

    Tests have their usefulness, but they are not predictors of the personal qualities that really matter in life.


  3. Charles Eldridge
    December 16, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Agree very much with your post on test-takers, elites, etc. This nation and probably this world is facing a wisdom shortage in the ruling classes. The zeitgeist of out of whack, and I’m glad that you “keep your oar in the water” nonetheless.


  4. David18
    December 16, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    I attended a junior/senior high school located on the Univ. of Illinois Engineering campus where all students skipped 8th grade and which counts 3 Nobel Prize Winners of its 3,000 graduates (35 in my graduating class). Physician Ham Smith who isolated the first Type II restriction enzyme, Physicist John Anderson, “More is Different”, and Economist James Tobin who was the mentor to soon to be Fed Chairman Janet Yellen. If our grades were good enough, we were allowed to take university courses when we were 16. I started saving money for college programming computers at the university mentored by post-docs, research scientists, and junior faculty. Any university facility (save athletic 😦 ) that was available to university undergrads were available to us including e-journal access to library journals, computer labs and the NCSA supercomputer center, microbiology labs, etc. I feel many gifted students, this is an ideal environment. Unfortunately, neither Columbia, NYU, CUNY, seem to offer such facilities for junior/senior high students.

    In the article, there is much worry about math scores compared with other nations, but they are looking at averages. We have 300 million people in this country. We only need the top couple of percent or at most 5 percent (say 6 million to 15 million) to have very, very high math and science scores in order to run the innovative industries in the US.

    Those students who are truly gifted do not need to be pushed by parents — they pull their parents. Any student who truly wishes a gifted education should be offered it.


    • M. Winslow
      December 19, 2013 at 6:53 pm

      Not a big deal, but I believe you meant the physicist Phil Anderson who worked on theories of magnetism and superconductivity.


  5. glovideo
    December 16, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Bravo Cathy. You are right on with all of your comments in this post.


  6. December 16, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    I fell in love with you just a little more with this post.


    • December 16, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      Your tv program with Heather will air tmw. Tuesday, december 17, 2013 at 9:30 PM
      on the internet: mnn.org,click on channel 1
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  7. Arthur Wilke
    December 16, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Bob Somerby who blogs at The Daily Howler (http://dailyhowler.blogspot.com/) has a sustained criticism of the reports about how U.S. students fare comparatively on international tests. At the extreme are news reports that reveal a failure to read the reports at issue. In other instances, when controls can be found regarding the data, U.S. top performance is far less bleak than popularly portrayals of overall U.S. performance.

    Attention to primary and secondary school mathematics appears strange given that unless concern is about a general education, The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010 – 2010 job projections for mathematically trained personnel (including actuaries and operations research) for new and replacement positions is about 20,000 with the modal degree requirement being the master’s. The Digest of Educational Statistics reports that in the 2010-11 academic year, 5,843 master’s degrees in mathematics and 19,446 in computer and information science were awarded. The same year 1,585 doctorates in mathematics were awarded and 5,490 in computer and information sciences.

    Before becoming involved with the hysteria over K-12, more probing of the occupational structure and prospects along with advanced degree production would appear to be a more fruitful step. In addition, if there is, as neoliberal thinkers maintain, market solutions, bidding up the price of mathematical labor in the global marketplace should take care of domestic needs. The latter is already a tactic among some domestic hi-tech firms using and seeking to expand the authorization to hire foreign-born workers.

    Finally, as O’Neil suggests, providing for a safe, decent and engaging environment for children (and adults) continues to be a worthy aim for those not crushed by inordinate preoccupations with conventional economic thought and practices that produces corporatism and growing socio-economic inequality.


  8. DJ
    December 17, 2013 at 1:56 am

    I’m usually with Cathy, but I don’t agree with everything here.

    First, let’s get the testing issue out of the way. Standardized tests, and results from such tests, are nonsense. Life does not consist of standardized tests.

    But assuming that we have properly identified the intellectual elite, yes, we absolutely should be spending proportionately more resources developing their capabilities. The required amount of resources is negligible in absolute terms: we’re talking about a very small fraction of the population, and a very small amount of investment in each person, in return for huge gains in future productivity. For example, the cost of an NSF graduate scholarship is almost laughably infnitesimal in relation to the benefits to society. I’m not complaining about graduate school, which we mostly get right, but why are there no equivalents of NSF graduate scholarships for students at the high school level and below?

    I think if we can workably identify the best graduate students, then we certainly should be able to come up with some viable system to identify deserving high school and elementary school students.

    I also don’t agree with the advice to just throw our bright kids onto the internet or into real life and let them make the best of it. Sure, they will come out ok, because they’re competent and talented and hard-working, but “ok” hardly seems like the optimal outcome when “spectacular” is achievable with a little more investment. My own experiences in summer math programs would not have been possible in an online-only environment or on my own in real life. Again, these kinds of programs really don’t cost all that much money. Even in a zero-sum situation, I would argue for spending this money on gifted students instead of redirecting it to (say) anti-poverty programs. That investment will repay itself in one generation once those bright kids use their training to start solving real problems.

    The analogy to economic inequality is inappropriate. You can fix economic inequality instantly by redistributing money. Intellectual aptitude cannot be redistributed in this manner, and requires long-term investment to develop. Let’s not deprive ourselves of future stars for the sake of short-term savings.


    • December 17, 2013 at 6:07 am

      If I really thought we shouldn’t have awesome stuff for nerd kids I wouldn’t teach at math camp so often. I loved it when I was a kid and I definitely think there should be stuff like that.

      And I guess, in the scenario where we did have a way of finding real talent versus our current scheme, I’d be all for full scholarships to college. But actually I’m all for high quality education for everyone now, not just for the elite.

      I guess what’s particularly bothersome is the idea that we should pluck smart people out of their current environments and into a really good environment rather than improve the quality of environments for average people.


    • Guest2
      December 17, 2013 at 8:41 am

      DJ, Why are u assuming this is always to the good? duh …..

      “we’re talking about a very small fraction of the population, and a very small amount of investment in each person, in return for huge gains in future productivity.”

      What gains?

      These folks could just as well end up as criminal-quants, the smarter bank robbers, and thieves. Look at what all those Harvard MBA’s just did to the country, the world????

      None of your argument makes any sense.


      • DJ
        December 17, 2013 at 1:22 pm

        I take it for granted that educational efforts, done properly, have a net constructive effect. If this is false then we ought not to spend any resources at all on education, elite or non-elite.


        • Guest2
          December 17, 2013 at 3:40 pm

          I agree — before higher education took over everything, we had other social institutions, such as apprenticeship, that worked to transition youth into adulthood — both morally and vocationally. Now we have nothing, because, as pointed out below, without jobs, we are all just “millennials in the basement.”


    • Guest2
      December 17, 2013 at 9:11 am

      In his recent chapter, “The End of Middle Class Work — No More Escapes,” Randall Collins focuses on a more specific mechanism challenging the future of capitalism: the political and social repercussions of as many as two-thirds of the educated middle classes, both in the West and globally, becoming structurally unemployed because their jobs are displaced by new information technology.

      Economic commentators recently discovered the downsizing of the middle class, but they tend to leave the matter with a vague call for policy solutions. Collins systematically considers the five escapes that in the past have saved capitalism from the social costs of its drive for technological innovation. None of the known escapes appears strong enough to compensate for the technological displacement of service and administrative jobs. Nineteenth- and twentieth- century capitalism mechanized manual labor but compensated with the growth of middle-class positions. Now the twenty-first century trajectory of high-tech is to push the middle class into redundancy. This leads us to another hypothesis: Might capitalism
      end because its political and social cushion of the middle class?

      (Note: In 1980, Collins famously predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now he is predicting the end of work for the middle class.)

      PS. Increases in productivity, as this argues, are no panacea, but the reverse for society. Although shareholders in corporations may benefit from innovations, there is no guarantee that these “trickle down.” Assuredly, they do not.


  9. December 17, 2013 at 5:02 am

    This country is facing a wisdom shortage in the ruling classes. And we need only few percent of people with very high math and science scores in order to run the innovative industries in the US.


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