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US Failing its Top Science Students

High-achieving students unrecognized or underserved in nation's classrooms

President Barack Obama speaks to students at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Sept. 14, 2010.
President Barack Obama speaks to students at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Sept. 14, 2010.

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Rosanne Skirble

A new report from a government advisory panel says U.S. education is failing many of America's best and brightest young people.

The National Science Board, which advises Congress and the president on science and engineering issues, says potentially high-achieving young students often go unrecognized or under-served in the nation's classrooms.

In a back-to-school speech in Philadelphia a few days ago, President Barack Obama told high school students to study hard, even at subjects in which they don't think they can excel.

"Even if you don't think of yourself as a math person or a science person, you can still excel in those subjects if you're willing to make the effort. And you may find out you have talents you never dreamed of."

Overlooked and underserved

Those words are echoed in the National Science Board report: Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators: Identifying and Developing Our Nation's Human Capital.  The study explores ways to promote so-called "STEM" careers, the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

A new report finds the nation's brightest students are often overlooked in an attempt to raise math and science achievement overall.
A new report finds the nation's brightest students are often overlooked in an attempt to raise math and science achievement overall.

Camilla Benbow is dean of education at Vanderbilt University and co-author of the report. She says finding and nurturing tomorrow's innovators is essential to keeping the country competitive in an ideas-driven global economy. The nation's brightest students, she adds, have been too often overlooked in an attempt to raise math and science achievement overall.

"They weren't being identified. They weren't being developed and so their potential and their contributions were potentially lost. And so that's why we put the report out so that we could also be focused on this group of individuals."

Benbow disagrees with the popular notion that students are either academically gifted or they are not. She says it is possible to promote more innovative thinking in a general student population, but it is a process that requires a lot of hard work.

"And that is kind of a mind change and an attitude change that we need to have here in America to focus on how much effort it takes to develop skills to a very high level. And how much support society needs to provide for that to happen."

'Accident of birth'

According to the report, America's most talented students face a number of roadblocks, some simply an accident of birth. The authors point to one national study that shows 72 percent of the highest-achievers in first grade were from higher-income families.

Benbow finds that a startling statistic. "Before we have even begun our educational background, she says "the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has estimated that we loose [academically] about 200,000 kids a year and that to me is inequitable."

Benbow says schools must be held accountable for the progress of all students. That doesn't necessarily mean more funding, she says, but rather, better coordination of existing resources and flexibility for top students to move across the curriculum at their own pace.

"Because otherwise they are bored. These kids are advanced. And if they don't have a chance to play with advanced curricula and be learning at the levels at which they are functioning, then they lose that spark, inspiration and passion."

Challenging bright students

Benbow says the report makes three broad recommendations: First, to challenge bright students with advanced-placement "…whether these are AP [college level Advanced Placement] courses, whether these are enriched courses, whether this is working in labs, working in industry, mentors and so on."

Secondly, the board recommends that schools: identify and nurture students no matter their gender, race, ethnicity or economic circumstance, with a commitment to equity and diversity. Thirdly, schools must foster an environment that celebrates learning and rewards innovative thinking.

Benbow says turning the National Science Board's recommendations into reality is going to require hard work and political will - and a recognition that the country's future depends on it.

That's a point President Obama stressed in his speech to the students in Philadelphia.

"The further you go in school, the further you go in life," Mr. Obama said. "And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success. It's going to determine America's success in the 21st century."

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