Your Child and Elitism

Quick: look at a room of ten year-olds and tell me which one will have the most successful life, by the conventional definition of happiness and prosperity.

Is it the kid who scored the highest on the IQ test? Not when the boy in remedial reading is growing a 6' 5" frame and can catch a football one-handed.

Is it the kid who puts the most hours into each project and test? Not when their parents can’t afford to send them to SAT prep and instead need their child to go into the workforce to keep the mortgage.

Is it the kid who can afford SAT prep and extra study time? Not when the subjective markers of high school don’t translate to professional skill.

By now you’re done with the dumb rhetorical scenarios, but I’ve made my first point: you simply can’t predict success at an early age. Talent can trump work ethic which can trump environment which can trump talent, and in reality, as Malcom Gladwell would love to hear, it’s more circumstance than any real advantages a child possesses. So let’s beg the question: why is their such an emphasis on segregating students into advanced classes at an early age?

We’ve all seen the jokes and memes about “gifted and talented” students and classes, but the reality is much more serious. As early as preschool in some cases, children are given the opportunity to take advanced courses, move up a grade, or even offered scholarships to prestigious private academies. At first glance this seems innocuous or even beneficial; it gives students the opportunity to climb up the ladder based on their own hard work and talent, right?!

No way, Jose. These kids, barely out of diapers, in the elite curriculum come from two distinct subgroups: children born at the beginning of the school year, and upper middle class to wealthy parentage. These two demographics have unique advantages compared to their peers.

Being born at or near the beginning of a school’s cutoff date has one massive advantage: it groups children with peers who are almost an entire year younger, and sets a low baseline for comparison. If a child has had 15% more time to exist, of course they’ll appear to be the best and brightest. This random advantage of birthdate skews what should be a normal distribution of talent hard to the left, making those who popped out of the womb earlier seem smarter and more mature than their peers.

But what about the upper class? Wealth and capability are independent, right? The children of well-to-do, involved parents can get a massive advantage that pushes their demographic into the gifted and talented schools. The coaching for tests, backdoor meetings with administration, and prioritization of academic success provided by parents is invaluable when students are being stacked against each other. While it’s not truly unfair, it is a path to elite schooling that most of the population has no access to.

The law of averages does not work when we segregate students at such an early age. Teachers and parents (not to mention the children themselves) see kids who take basic or remedial classes as lacking talent or viable future. This often incorrect perception affects how students treat their own academic career, often with less motivation. By being at or below average, they’re surrounded by twenty other kids who think the same of themselves: I’m just not good at school stuff. Lumping students into lower level classes than their peers creates an environment that continues to promote apathy and indifference to schooling, along with limited help from a school system that loves to promote it’s most gifted of youth.

The opposite takes place for those who, by circumstance of birth, ended up in special programs or elite schools. Their early success is a magnet for teacher attention, their ideas and projects are praised and promoted, and the parents continue to justify being heavily involved in their child’s learning. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. Whereas a random sampling of students should yield talent and success from all ages and backgrounds, early stratification renders a natural distribution useless.

In my high school AP classes, I noticed this trend to be true. I always had one of the latest birthdays. My parents were invested enough to send me to a private Montessori school for my formative years. My classmates were strongly skewed to the upper middle class, and a disproportionate amount of them had attended local private schools. I know for a fact that equal and greater intelligence was left on the outside of my advanced classes, many of them for factors that no one can control.

The simple conclusion to a long rant is that young students need to spend their formative years with the spectrum of their generation. The sense that elitism needs to be promoted in the public school system is ridiculous and disposes of a disturbing amount of potential. If environmental differences are reduced, the true talents and abilities of American youth will be able to emerge without being constrained by early success or failure.

Special Shoutout to Malcom Gladwell who’s research and theory provides much of the inspiration and logic behind the developmental psychology in this article!

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