The true path to social mobility

Theresa May wants education to be the catalyst for social mobility, but Jonathan Wai and Frank C Worrell believe the research suggests she is going the wrong way about it. What we need, they argue, is more and broader testing
1st October 2017, 2:00pm


The true path to social mobility

There is nothing meritocratic about standing in the way of giving our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential. In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence.”

In her speech “Britain, the great meritocracy” (1), prime minister Theresa May articulated a vision of education reform that she argued would ensure a good school place for every child. She emphasised that social mobility meant that we should help “the brightest among the poor”.

We share her sentiment. We, too, believe adequate resources should be provided to all students regardless of their abilities and, as we argue in a recent American Enterprise Institute education policy paper (2), a focus on the brightest among the poor is important to help level the playing field of opportunity, especially if we want to inject diversity into leadership positions.

But how should this focus work in practice?

It is debatable whether the specific reforms that May outlined in the above speech would be the most effective in helping the brightest among the poor to have the most fair and just chance to climb the social ladder (3).

There is a research base that can form the foundation for the beginnings of an evidence-based and opportunity expanding system, one in which there is an emphasis on the basic distribution of talents in the population as a leverage point for improving social mobility.

Research findings can also aid us (4) in working out the fairest method to select gifted students from all backgrounds and the most effective way to enhance their development through educational opportunity.

As we detail a synthesis of this large body of research and offer our analysis of it, we politely request that you keep an open mind. Some of the research may run counter to common intuition.

How can we accurately identify the “academically gifted”?

There is tremendous natural range in academic talent (5), as there is in athletic talent (6) and in other domains. Students with learning disabilities perform well below the typical student and students with learning gifts perform well above.

The vast majority of academically gifted or talented students can be identified by selecting those who score highly on typical standardised tests. Though this idea runs directly counter to common intuition, research evidence suggests that nearly every standardised test, including those designed to measure achievement, also measure academic ability or gifts to a large degree.

This is because all mental tests measure general intelligence (g) (7), and g is central (8) to any definition of academic giftedness (9). Academic giftedness is essentially g plus maths, verbal and spatial abilities (the ability to understand, reason with and recall spatial relations). Research has shown links between an individual’s ability in these three areas and their long-term educational and occupational outcomes.

In the UK, the key stage 2 Sats - given their focus on maths, grammar, and reading - will likely measure general ability in addition to basic mathematical and verbal abilities, even though they are not typically seen this way (10) nor intended or marketed to measure such abilities.

What do we typically see in terms of distribution of academic giftedness among a population?

Nationally representative samples (11) of the US population indicate that more academically gifted students tend to come from higher-income backgrounds. Part of the reason this may be the case is that we are not doing enough to help the brightest among the poor. Families with higher incomes can and do provide more enrichment opportunities for children from early childhood onward.

Maths and verbal ability are more strongly correlated or tied to socioeconomic status than is spatial ability in the population - the first two being more prevalent in those from higher-income backgrounds. Thus, there are likely to be more bright poor students who have high spatial talents than maths or verbal talents, based on this population-level research.

Spatially talented students, however, are under-identified. The school system does not provide enough challenge for these students.

The way academic giftedness is distributed in the UK (12) is likely quite similar. Indeed, research in the UK (13) confirms this, with tests used in the UK assessing for general ability in the form of maths and verbal ability measures, but not spatial measures.

Why care about helping academically gifted students?

Investment in the gifted is an investment in the future of the UK. There is a large body of global research (14) showing that academically gifted students contribute disproportionately to societal innovation and GDP as adults. Research from a major US sample of the gifted (15) shows that adults who were gifted make substantial intellectual (16) and technological contributions, such as registering patents at rates two-to-eight times higher than the general population, publishing fiction and non-fiction at higher rates and earning doctorates and university tenure at higher rates.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman showed that early investments in high-ability students in comparison with low-ability students result in much greater rates of return many years later (17).

Extending this work (18) suggests that even a small investment in academically gifted students would result in a huge payoff in terms of intellectual and technological innovations and GDP.

But we are not doing enough to develop our gifted students - and we are particularly bad at identifying and developing the brightest among the poor.

Many academically gifted students are performing well above grade level (19), but because of the way schools are aligned to age-related expectations these students are not developing academically. Consequently, many of them are not reaching their full potential. Gifted students need help to ensure they are challenged academically, remain engaged and retain their love of learning.

The brightest among the poor (20) are especially vulnerable, because they do not have resource-rich parents to help develop their gifts when the school system does not.

The lack of identification and nurture of spatial ability in the school system adds to the issues of this group - it is as important as verbal or mathematics ability. More than a half-century of research (21) shows that spatial talents are linked to maths and science innovation, over and above maths and verbal talents. Spatial ability is therefore critical to scientific advances that have a lasting benefit to society (22). For example, MIT Technology Review (23) has routinely identified advances that rely on spatial reasoning that will likely transform our future.

What reforms would help academically gifted students?

We need to assess all students on maths, verbal and spatial ability and do it early. It is difficult to develop talent fully if you do not identify it early and it needs to be done in a systematic way.

What age would be most suitable? That is a difficult question to answer. Heckman’s work shows that early investment is important (24), which suggests early identification is important, but individual children can have different developmental trajectories. Identification that is too early might pigeonhole students into a lower or higher academic pathway - officially through streaming or unofficially through teacher planning - when their talents may not yet be fully developed.

A solution is to have universal screening measures at multiple ages and the ability to move fluidly in the school system from one academic path to another, to ensure that students have the opportunity to have their talents captured and developed at many stages of development on an individualised basis.

Currently, that is not happening. We are not testing children universally. Research shows that a lack of universal testing means (25) gifted but poor students are not being identified systematically. Without universal testing, we are relying on parents and teachers to be the first step in identification. We often believe that, as humans, we can be a better judge of students and pick out those who have great potential from disadvantaged backgrounds. But the research shows (26) that when parents or teachers tend to be the first line of selection, they don’t identify the disadvantaged as well as the tests do.

In the UK, the key stage 2 Sats could be the first universal screening measure that might be the most reliable and valid for this purpose, given that these exams are externally marked.

However, because schools are evaluated based on these tests and this produces unproductive incentives towards coaching, it might be more effective to provide a universal screening measure in the UK for which schools are not evaluated.

But for any test to be effective, spatial measures need to be included in addition to the maths and verbal measures. Much underappreciated talent from the “working class” (27) will also include bright but poor students who have spatial rather than mathematical and verbal strengths. For an example of items used to measure spatial reasoning, see Project Talent (28).

Including spatial, maths and verbal reasoning measures early in identification and testing regularly would be an effective strategy to cut through environmental issues that can delay the development of talented kids. We must do this. By not challenging these talented students, they are likely to fall behind their resource rich peers.

Research findings are clear (29) on which educational interventions work for academically gifted students. The key is to provide individualised interventions that challenge students at the appropriate level and pace and are sustained over a long period of time.

Students should be exposed to educational opportunities that are available and interesting, at the upper limit of their current capability. Though some interventions are likely more impactful than others, research on appropriate educational dosage (30) suggests that students can enhance their long-term achievement through a variety of educational opportunities and that educational interventions are, to some extent, interchangeable because there is no single winning formula (31) for everyone.

The broad intervention of educational acceleration (32) - essentially moving the gifted through the curriculum at faster rates - has been supported by decades of evidence. In the US, acceleration can range from more intense forms of advancement such as grade skipping (33) and early entrance to college (34) to less intense forms, such as moving ahead in individual subjects.

These interventions have been shown to be beneficial academically and occupationally in the long run. On average, they do not have detrimental social and emotional effects (35).

The decades of evidence (36) on what works for the academically gifted does not support the idea (37) that these students should be placed along with all other students throughout the intellectual distribution. Not allowing gifted students to advance at their own pace almost certainly ensures they will not learn something new each day (38), nor have the opportunity to be adequately challenged (39) and developed.

Systematically identifying academically gifted students and providing educational interventions requires an understanding of the existing body of research (40).

Researchers have known for decades that testing all students is the fairest and least biased way (41) to find giftedness from all backgrounds and that moving students ahead in the educational curriculum at the level and area in which they are naturally functioning helps keep them challenged and engaged.

However, many educators may not know about this research. In fact, there appears to be a strong resistance or uncertainty (42) about universal standardised testing and effective interventions such as grade-skipping (43) or early entrance to university.

Educators likely do not know about what researchers have established (44) as the different types of basic abilities and their association with income background.

Thus, they may not realise that many talented students - especially the spatially gifted and those from low-income backgrounds - are frequently overlooked.

Helping the brightest among the poor pursue excellence

Using universal identification and targeting resources (45) primarily towards the brightest among the poor would greatly enable social mobility. These strategies would also do the most to move society towards more of a meritocracy, or in the words of Theresa May, “a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege. Where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.”

Jonathan Wai is research fellow at Geisinger Health System in the Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute and a visiting researcher at Case Western Reserve University in the Department of Psychology. Frank C Worrell is a professor of school psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also holds an affiliate appointment in the personality and social psychology programme. A current member-at-large of the board of directors of the American Psychological Association (APA), Dr Worrell is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the American Educational Research Association, five divisions of APA and a former editor of the Review of Educational Research.



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