Beyond the True Believer

Mass movements, and cultural changes in general, are driven by True Believers, people who are committed to their cause with religious zeal. But the core of the movement is often too small to make much progress without mobilizing others. Beyond that core of True Believers, I think, is a much larger group of people who are self-interested and will follow along with the True Believers, not because they believe as the zealots do, but because they see advantages in doing so.

There is currently a nation-wide movement to eliminate gifted programs for high-achieving students. As my son has been progressing though his education, he has routinely been in the last cohort in the school’s advanced programs, moving though his school years like Indiana Jones exiting a temple, with the structure collapsing just behind him. Activists are pushing Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia to drop the test requirement and move to a lottery, New York is dropping the admission tests for its specialized high schools, San Francisco has stopped offering pre-algebra to advanced students in the 8th grade, and similar stories are playing out elsewhere throughout the country.

In all cases, the arguments activists offer for these changes are inclusion and fairness. They believe that the advanced classes take opportunities away from under-served students, who will somehow do better in school if other kids don’t have a gifted program. I have no doubt that the True Believers are actually motivated by this sense of fairness, as broken as it is. But I think that the movement to remove gifted programs would not advance if there was not another, larger, group that is pursuing their own interest.

In nearly all of the cases I mentioned, Asian student are over represented in the schools, often by a facto of 5 or more. Removing the tests for admission to the specialized schools and programs may increase the number of black and Hispanic students, but it will decrease the number of Asian students by far more. And, if the number of Asians decreases by a lot, and other minorities increases a little, who gets the remaining seats?

White kids. Specifically, affluent, urban white kids of highly educated parents, the sort of people it is common to refer to as “elite” and who have been criticized as being ruthless in their pursuit of advantage for their kids for decades. In this case, these parents found a way to maintain their anti-racist bona fides while kicking poorer Asian kids out of the best school they can afford.

So, I think the True Believers are aiming for exactly what they say they are aiming for, but the people rowing the boat are in it for themselves.

The negative implications of removing gifted programs could be large. Nearly all of the advancement of a society is driven by the top decile of performers, and there are a lot of students ( I was one of them ) who are very capable, but do poorly in school because they are bored. While removing educational opportunities might harm the high performers, expecting poor students to get a boost by being exposed to top performing student is about as sensible as an obese person trying to lose weight by training with Olympians.

These efforts to remove advanced programs are a toxic combination of misguided religious zeal and racist opportunism, dressed up as diversity and inclusion.

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