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Get on Board for Academic Excellence

Julia Roberts was guest writer for Stu Silberman's blog Public Engagement and Ed Reform originally posted on April 3, 2014.  You can find the original post at

Julia Link Roberts is the Mahurin Professor of Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University. Dr. Roberts is the Executive Director of The Center for Gifted Studies and theCarol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky. You may contact her at

Americans have long celebrated excellence in athletics and enjoyed excellence in the arts. However, they have been far more reluctant to celebrate and enjoy excellence in academics. In fact, barriers are often intentionally or unintentionally placed in the way of children and young people reaching excellence in mathematics, science, language arts and social studies.

Over the past decade, as schools have singularly focused on reducing achievement gaps, they have overlooked the potential for high achievement among students who were ready to learn at advanced levels. Students in the "gap" groups - children from families who are eligible for free and reduced lunch as well as children who are African-American and Hispanic - have so seldom achieved at advanced levels that barely 1-2 % of these students score at the advanced level on NAEP tests, while 8 - 12% of white students and those not eligible for free or reduced lunch are reaching those achievement levels of excellence. (NAEP tests are administered to a sample of students in all states.) Unfortunately, the gaps between subgroups on state assessments are similar to the gaps on NAEP. Mind the (Other) Gap (2010) and Talent on the Sidelines (2013) , produced by Jonathan Plucker and a team from the University of Connecticut, provide rich descriptions of the Excellence Gap. The data are discouraging and appalling for the future of our country at a time that our country has greater percentages of children from these gap groups than ever before. Now, in some states, more than half of their population is from these groups who are no longer the minority.

So how do we get academic excellence ratcheted up as a priority in all of our schools? How do we remove barriers, intended and unintended, to elementary, middle and high school students learning at advanced levels?

  1. We talk with school board members, superintendents, principals and other educators about the importance of students learning new things every day they are in school, and that includes children and young people who are already proficient or way beyond proficient in whatever is being studied; for some, they know the concepts and skills even before the year begins.
  2. We celebrate high academic achievement in addition to exceptional achievement in athletics and the arts.
  3. We examine decisions and policies being considered and ask:

 * How will this [decision] impact our highest achieving students?

 * How will the proposed [decision] help more students achieve at the highest levels?(Plucker et al, 2010, p. 30)

* How do we identify students with high ability in every population and support them to become high achievers?

Students with gifts and talents - both manifest and latent - deserve opportunities to learn at appropriately challenging levels every day they are in school; just as every other student expects and deserves to do. Students from the "gap" groups have the potential to achieve at the highest level if educators develop their skills and enhance their understanding in mathematics, science, language arts and social studies from the time they start school.

Our country cannot afford to leave talent on the table. Our country cannot succeed if only a small percentage of students achieve at top levels. It is time to get the conversation going about achieving excellence, in all academic areas, in all schools across the United States. Let's start the conversation about academic excellence and celebrate all steps along the way as students work for and achieve excellence. Focusing on excellence bodes well for the future of our country!

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