What about the poor smart kids?


At the recommendation of a dear friend and incredible educator, I recently listened to an episode of the Revisionist History podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called “Carlos Doesn’t Remember.”  This first episode of a three part series addresses issues playing out in public and higher education impacting the very thing public education promises to do–provide an equitable education to all.

In this episode the listener follows a young man named, Carlos, from an area of L.A. called Lennox.  Lennox lies right across LAX where the median household income is $35,000 a year and the streets are laden with gang members. The school resembles a concentration camp.  Here, Carlos meets his saving grace, a man named Eric Eisner who runs a program seeking out poor smart kids to ensure they get the chances necessary to capitalize on their talent.  Because of Eric, Carlos is able to rise above the system and circumstances from which he has come to get a shot at something better than Lennox.


But this story only saves one Carlos in middle school and there are a lot of Carloses throughout the public education system with very few Eric Eisners to help pull them up. Which leads to the fundamental question underlying this issue- How are the Eric Eisners of the world even necessary in a society that touts itself as being capitalist?

In the podcast, Gladwell speaks to this very notion,

“This is what civilized societies are supposed to do.  To provide opportunities for people to make the most of their ability, so that if you’re born poor you can move up.  If you work hard you can improve your life.  There’s even a term for this–capitalization.  A society’s capitalization rate is the percentage of people in any group who are able to reach their potential, capitalize on their potential.  And right from the beginning, Americans have told themselves that their really good at capitalization, really good at social mobility.  That any kid can grow up to be president.  That’s what is supposed to set America apart from everywhere else.”

But does it?  And if not, what do we do about it?

Following along in the work of Eric Eisner two important findings bubble to the surface.

  • There are roughly 35,000 poor smart kids in our country that are not going to the high-level ivy league institutions to which they could be accepted.
  • In light of this information, ivy league institutions have reached out through guidance counselors, letters to the high-achieving student and their family, special recruiting events, and university level initiatives to allow students to attend their college for free or at a significantly reduced tuition.  The result? Meager.  Perhaps 10-15 more kids out of 35,000 that apply to the Harvards and Browns of the world.


Recruitment happens far too late.  As it turns out, 35,000 is a low estimate of the number of poor smart kids out there.  Waiting to recruit students who have taken the ACT and SAT at age 17 assumes these kids are not only going to stay in school, but also have enough money to pay for the test.  More often than not, this is not their reality.  By 17 too many have been lost to gangs, drugs, boy/girl relationships, or even worse, an underdeveloped learning identity that never made being smart a priority or something they thought they could attain.  In short, these students have never envisioned themselves as the kind of kid that can go to any college, much less an ivy league one, and be successful.  

“Smartness is like any muscle.  It atrophies.  If it hasn’t been encouraged, made into a shiny exciting thing, it goes away.  That’s why there are 35,000 poor smart kids not going  to colleges they deserve.  Too many things get in the way.

So, if 17 is too late then when? Ultimately, the findings show the recruitment of the poor smart kids needs to begin in the 4th grade.  I’ll repeat that–4th grade at the age of 10.

This age is the sweet spot because students are at the cusp of developing their identity as a learner.  Educators spend an enormous amount of time developing reading and writing identities. Asking students, “Who are you as reader or writer?”  We take those answers and work to have students internalize those ideas and skills.  To own and employ them daily.  And from this identity building (and an inundation of data) we label kids.  In America we love labels.  In education we love them even more.  Don’t get me wrong, labels are necessary.  They help us organize our world into a place that makes sense.  Yet they can also be marginalizing.  When we think about the labels we assign students in education, they often highlight student deficits, not assets.  They don’t make smart shiny.  They perpetuate a message of “not good or smart enough,” automatically setting the stage for an identity of less than.  In a world of numbers, and standards, and an obsession with outcomes we actually forget about the kid and who they are.  We work to build their identities but then use that information in such a way that we still often lose sight of who they are and how they learn.

Just think about it for a minute.  What are some of the most common labels in public education that set kids apart in a way that doesn’t make smart shiny?  IEP, 504, SpEd, Self-Contained, BD, ED, ELL, Reading Support, Math Support, Intervention Blocks, and the list goes on.  Now, what are the labels we put on students that do make smart shiny?  Gifted and AP classes.  Let’s take it a step further.  Let’s walk into those classrooms.  Who do you see in the SpEd, ELL, reading and math support, self-contained, etc. classrooms?  Who sits in the seats of your gifted and AP classes?  By and large we are damning already marginalized groups under these labels, adding additional layers of stereotypes they have to overcome, labels that develop a weak learning and success identity within a child.

It’s time to underplay the labels and overplay the assets. To highlight a kid’s brilliance in whatever form it may exist. To be their advocates, their Eric Eisner.  We have to help them shape their identity, and then we must actually honor it.  We can do that by thinking about creating learning experiences that capitalize on this very talent that is so crucial to their social mobility.  We have to guide them to develop a strong sense of who they are as a learner and what success looks like for a person with those skills.  We must make smart shiny.  More importantly we must make smart tangible by communicating to each kid, “It is in you.  You are smart.  You have this thing called intelligence. I’m going to teach you how to show it off and then you’re going to own it!  Don’t let it go to waste.”  We empower kids by building them intrinsically and then use our connections and privilege to show them what is possible extrinsically, because,

“That’s the difference between being privileged and being poor in America–how many chances you get.  If you’re wealthy all kinds of things can happen and you’ll be okay.  You can drop out of school for a year, you can get addicted to painkillers, you can have a bad car accident.  No one says of the upper middle class high school kid whose parents get a terrible divorce, ‘I wonder if she’ll be able to go to college?’  She’s going to college!  

Disruption is not fatal to life chances.”  

It’s time to level the playing field of chances.