JKCF Executive Director in Richmond Times-Dispatch

Empower high-achieving, low-income students across Virginia

richmond_times-dispatchBy Jeffrey McGee and Harold Levy
April 11, 2015
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Much has been made of the growing need for skilled workers in Virginia. There’s no doubt that Virginia’s next generation workforce will measure up. Our concern is, will it be innovative?

Will it have that special, once-in-a-lifetime talent that is truly visionary? We’re talking about the entrepreneurial and inventive kind that not only creates jobs, but builds entire industries and drives societal progress.

We won’t if we fail to develop and nurture the best minds in our schools today. The fact is, too many of the brightest children in Virginia who are raised in poor areas never reach their full potential because they are not given the help they need to blossom.

There is a profound and widening excellence gap: a measurable difference between lower-income and higher-income students who reach and remain at “advanced” levels of academic performance. It’s not just that rich kids test “advanced” at a higher rate; the problem is that kids who test “advanced” and are poor tend to backslide the longer they stay in the public schools, don’t graduate at the same rate as other smart kids and don’t go on to graduate school in comparable percentages.

The message: Being smart is not enough to succeed if you are also poor.


That’s because Virginia doesn’t do nearly enough to support the most gifted low-income students, according to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s new study, “Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities: A Report Card on State Support for Economically Vulnerable Academically Talented Students.”

The “report card” assessed state-level policies and student academic outcomes in order to assign each state a grade according to its commitment to fostering the talents of high-achieving, low-income students. Unfortunately, no state earned an “A”; Virginia received a “C+” for its policy inputs and a “C” for its students’ test performance.

This may come as a surprise. After all, fresh approaches for gifted students, like the Young Scholars Programs in Fairfax County Public Schools, the commonwealth’s largest school system, have captured headlines and attracted admirers.

But meaningful change doesn’t need to happen only in Northern Virginia, it needs to happen across the commonwealth. Education policies for high achievers aren’t comprehensive, leaving local school boards to address these vulnerable students’ needs instead. This typically yields inconsistent outcomes in districts, which likely contributes to the statewide excellence gap. So while economically vulnerable, academically talented students in Fairfax may have a shot, those in say, Martinsville, likely do not.


Virginia successfully identifies gifted students from all income levels, and monitors local districts’ gifted and talented programs. However, the state accountability system doesn’t include growth measures for high-achieving students or other indicators of excellence and, when smart students aren’t monitored, eventually they are ignored.

Maybe the explanation is that Virginia’s teacher-training and licensure programs don’t require coursework in gifted education. Perhaps educators are so concerned with the standards and measures of basic proficiency that they ignore the high achievers. Perhaps they believe the Darwinist notion that these talented students don’t need extra help and can “write their own ticket.” Nothing can be further from the truth — high-achieving, low-income children need help in order to continue to excel.

With inadequate policy inputs, it’s quite predictable that the difference in student outcomes for excellence between middle- and high-income children and low-income children is abysmal. Consider that higher-income students from Virginia were six times more likely to score at the “advanced” level on national math and reading tests than low-income students. That is one of the largest excellence gaps in the country, and it is wholly unacceptable.

It is past time for Virginia to correct this injustice. Smart kids should be able to achieve their full potential regardless of their family’s wealth. State and local policymakers, administrators and educators must take what is working in places like Fairfax and require the same in every district.

The right mix could mitigate the disparities fueled by the educational advantages high-income students receive, including having well-educated parents who know how to impart learning skills, benefiting from extracurricular enrichment and attending schools with more experienced teachers and smaller classes. Narrowing Virginia’s excellence gap merely by half would result in tens of thousands of additional students performing at advanced levels.

State government must make supporting its high-achieving, low-income students a priority. Let’s put policies in place that will help us find those future innovators and leaders and give them the tools to succeed — and let’s do it before another generation slips away.

Jeffrey McGee, Ph.D., is the director of the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond. Contact him at JMcGee@gsgis.k12.va.us.

Harold Levy is the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation in Lansdowne. Contact him at hlevy@jkcf.org.