America, Upward Mobility, and Gifted Education

August 9, 2016

by Brianna Safe, Resource Coordinator

I take it as true that a high percentage of American optimists out there still believe social and economic upward mobility is possible. The American Dream. The belief that if you start at the bottom, you can – through hard work and a can-do attitude – make a vertical leap and change your life significantly.

But is this true of the country we live in today? Over the past century, researchers and academics have attempted to understand upward mobility in America, to make sense of what seems like a stasis of migration between classes and a real lack of resources for those who might need them most. In a 2014 article, James Surowiecki, staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote about The Mobility Myth. Surowiecki references a study co-conducted by researchers at Berkeley and Harvard that revealed: “Social mobility is low and has been for at least thirty or forty years… Seventy percent of people born into the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it into the middle class”.

This question of mobility becomes more complex when you consider the gifted kids at the bottom of the ladder. There is a myth alive and well in American culture that individuals with a natural intellectual ability and prowess somehow have a “leg up” in life. “They’re smart; they’ll be fine.” As though gifted kids are somehow invulnerable to the ordinary woes of childhood and adolescence, not to mention the difficulties most gifted children experience with regards to social and emotional development, anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, and depression – to name a few.

Another point worth considering is the fundamental relationship between learning and challenge. All children deserve to be challenged – even gifted kids. The foundation of learning is growth, a measurable change in behavior and comprehension through challenge and experience. For gifted kids, the process of learning is often an atypical feature of their everyday classroom experience. And for these kids, learning is crucial to their sense of well-being and place in the world.

Maybe this is why the dropout rate among gifted students is estimated at almost 25 percent. Because the myth that says, “You’re smart; you’ll make it” fails to take these facts into consideration. Add to this the disappointing truth that a disproportionate number of gifted dropouts stem from lower socioeconomic and minority backgrounds, and we’ve got a problem worth talking about.

This is what Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of books like Blink and The Tipping Point, discusses in his new podcast, Revisionist History, a podcast dedicated to going back and reinterpreting something from the past which was overlooked or misunderstood. In a recent three-part installment on the American education system, Gladwell asks important questions about the system as it stands and how, if at all, it supports this idea of upward mobility. Can those at the bottom really rise to the top? Is the system set up to help students succeed – even the “smart” kids?

The first episode of the series tells the story of a kid named Carlos. A math-loving kid from a small, disadvantaged enclave of West Los Angeles, Carlos was identified for his exceptional ability by a local nonprofit organization, the Young Eisner Scholars (YES), a group dedicated to maintaining America’s promise of equal opportunity for equal talent. Supported by YES, Carlos is able to attend an elite private school with challenging curriculum and advanced learning opportunities. But even with the support and advocacy of YES, life isn’t easy. As Gladwell probes beneath the surface, the listener is confronted with hard truths about the experience of kids like Carlos in America.

I should qualify: I am definitely not saying that gifted kids born into money don’t also deserve to be challenged, receive a transformative education, or be encouraged to reach their fullest potential. Every child deserves to be challenged. Every gifted child deserves (and needs) to be challenged.  The point of Gladwell’s podcast and this blog is not to shame those with more resources – like time or money –  or imply that gifted kids from wealthy backgrounds have things easier. The focus of this conversation is whether upward mobility is as common as we would like to believe. Being smart doesn’t guarantee success, especially if you are a kid like Carlos. The greater the gap, the greater the need for resources to leverage the playing field and help these brilliant students tap into their academic and personal potential.

To hear this episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, visit their website at: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/04-carlos-doesnt-remember. You can also access all three episodes of Gladwell’s inquiry into the American education system (which I highly recommend) directly on their site. 

Like the Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA), YES is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing advocacy, support, and resources for our nation’s most promising students. For more information about Young Eisner Scholars and the incredible work they are doing in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Appalachia, visit them online at: http://www.yesscholars.org/.

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IEA Staff