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America Must Work Harder for Homegrown Talent

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In 1943, Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Harvard University declaring that “the empires of the future are empires of the mind.” The America of the time hardly needed a British statesman, however great, to teach it this lesson: The U.S. postwar establishment duly consolidated and extended its position as the world’s leading knowledge economy, doing everything it could to attract the best minds from across the world. The result was a golden age of innovation-driven growth and global supremacy.

Yet today America is in danger of forgetting all about “empires of the mind.” As I wrote in the first part of this series, America faces a talent recession caused by a demographic squeeze and a concatenation of other internal and external factors. China is pulling ahead in many of the cleverest technologies, such as artificial intelligence. Competition from its peers and the emerging world means that Uncle Sam is no longer guaranteed the pick of the world’s brains. America’s education system is becoming stratified by income rather than talent. All this is happening as elite talent becomes even more important to commercial and military success.

China’s challenge to America as the world’s leading knowledge economy is not only the natural result of its dynamism but also of a concerted, decades-long program of recruiting and promoting talent, which President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called China’s “first resource.”

To preserve its position as the world’s leading talent superpower, America needs to launch a talent strategy of its own — to build on what it does right, abandon what it is doing wrong and make the most of the allure of freedom. One obvious solution is to make it easier for outstanding postgraduate students to obtain green cards or other visas. Why not just staple a green card to every Ph.D. awarded to an “alien”? But America can no longer import its way out of its talent problems: It needs to make better use of its domestic resources of brainpower. Before it can produce winning policies, the U.S. needs to start by rethinking its broad approach to talent.

American education has always involved a tug of war between those who emphasize equality and those who emphasize opportunity. But in recent years, the egalitarians have been winning decisively, and their mantra of “diversity, equity and inclusion” is in danger of crowding out serious thought.

The U.S. is right to celebrate diversity and inclusion. Diversity is one of the country’s great strengths compared with China’s Han-Chinese ethnocentrism. “Inclusion” is a precondition of a civilized and cohesive society. But what about “equity”? “Equity” is a code word for “equality of result” as compared with “equality of opportunity.” Societies and institutions that have emphasized the first rather than the second of these two versions of equality have historically produced only equality of failure: Given individual differences in ability and energy, you can only produce equality of result by depriving people of their freedom and confiscating the fruit of their labor.

The word “equity” needs to be replaced by another “e” word: “excellence.” All Americans need to be given equal opportunities to achieve excellence, not only because excellence is an ennobling aim but also because the individual pursuit of excellence raises collective living standards. Even those who don’t eventually excel benefit from the trying. You don’t achieve social justice by subjecting everyone to a uniform education system. You achieve it by allowing everyone to make the most of their innate talents — by leveling up, not leveling down.

The U.S. also needs to think more deeply about what “diversity” and “inclusion” mean. A country that has been so scarred by slavery understandably puts much emphasis on race. Addressing the long-term legacy of slavery remains a moral imperative. Yet America also suffers from a growing problem of class divisions. Social mobility rates are low compared with both the postwar norm and with other advanced countries. America’s elite is increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity but monochrome in terms of class background. The idea, popular with some progressives, that you kill two birds with one stone by recruiting ethnic minorities is a snare: Coming from an ethnic minority is no longer a reliable proxy for poverty.

Policy makers also need to think more seriously about a third type of “diversity”: diversity of intellectual ability. The pre-university system is based on the unexamined assumption that the best way to classify children is by chronological age. Many schools don’t even divide age groups into ability groups, instead following a one-size-fits-all approach that imposes enormous strain on teachers without really fitting any students.

The notion that some children are “gifted” seems to clash with the country’s egalitarian ethic: If talent is allowed to exist at all in the American imagination, it is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, as Thomas Edison put it, or the result of 10,000 hours of work, as Malcolm Gladwell argued. This mind-set dictates that the job of the state is to help the disadvantaged rather than to allow fast learners to run ever further ahead. Yet many gifted children suffer from psychological problems or are bullied because they seem a bit odd. (Albert Einstein didn’t speak in complete sentences until late in his early childhood — a characteristic of some gifted children now known as “Einstein syndrome.”) Hostility to the idea that gifted children are “better” than other children is preventing America from recognizing that they are “different.”

The questions of socioeconomic diversity and intellectual diversity reinforce each other. The people who fare the worst under the current system are gifted children from poor backgrounds. They have a low chance of being discovered and provided with an education suitable for their needs. Often the first courses to be cut in poorer areas are courses for the gifted. They have a high chance of being bullied as freaks who don’t conform to the ethos or ambitions of their neighborhoods. Equality of opportunity properly understood implies the opportunity to become unequal, provided that inequality is based on natural ability rather than social advantage.

Universities as capacity-catching machines

In the past decade or so, America’s elite universities have become more sensitive to the charge that they are plutocracies modified by affirmative action — in other words, that, whatever they are doing to address their diversity problem when it comes to race, they are doing too little in terms of class.

Harvard’s decision in 2004 to introduce “zero cost” education for students whose parents earn $40,000 and below started a national trend. Other elite institutions either followed or offered better deals. Today you can get a scholarship if your parents earn the median income, with free room and board thrown in. Admission tutors also comb through underprivileged populations to discover signs of talent — examining SAT scores, reading personal statements, considering school resources, cultivating contacts with schools in poor neighborhoods and so on.

What could be more tempting than a free education at the world’s most exclusive institutions, particularly if admissions officers are standing by the doors welcoming you? Yet the takeup of these opportunities has been disappointing. In two related papers, Caroline Hoxby of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and her co-author, Christopher Avery of Harvard, have demonstrated that Harvard’s new policies had surprisingly little effect on the social composition of its intake, adding just 15 low-income students to a class of 1,600. The problem doesn’t lie with Harvard’s failure to act in good faith, but with the failure of poorer students to apply: For every high-ability low-income student (or high-low), about 15 high-lows do not apply. More than half the high-lows apply exclusively to nonselective four- or even two-year colleges. Many students who would have qualified for a free education at Harvard if they had bothered applying ended up instead paying for their educations at state universities.

The reasons for looking these gift horses in the mouth are complicated. Poorer students are put off by both the sticker price of Ivy League schools and by their general ethos: They just don’t think places like that are for people like them. They are also demoralized by the complicated admission process. But just as important is their lack of personal connections with elite institutions: no teachers who have Ivy League links, no friends or siblings who have been to elite universities, no neighbors who run alumni associations.

To change this, universities need to do much more to get the message across to poorer Americans. They need to make better use of alumni networks. University alumni are widely dispersed and often have deep local roots. What better ambassador could you have to a poor community than someone who comes from such a community themselves? They also need to do more to tailor their literature to poorer students. At the moment, all students get the same generic marketing material regardless of their circumstances. Material addressed to high-lows, replete with personal stories, might have much more effect.

More generally, universities should establish much closer relations with “the other America.” Four programs specialize in identifying bright children at an early age and providing them with enriched classes at school: the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern, the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins, the Talent Identification Program at Duke, and the Center for Bright Kids in Denver. Princeton, once the most aristocratic of the Ivies, provides students from underprivileged backgrounds with two main types of support: a seven-week residential course before the start of incoming students’ first term and a four-year fellowship program that offers continuing mentorship and enriched education. Fellows have opportunities to act as research assistants and enroll in summer schools, and they are treated as exceptional scholars rather than charity cases.

Many other elite universities have first-generation programs designed to develop feelings of mutual support among their students. But they are too often subsumed within boilerplate programs designed to promote diversity and inclusion in general — including inclusion for undocumented immigrants — rather than to deal with the specific problems of poorer Americans. By its name alone, Stanford’s First Generation and/or Low-Income Office hardly seems intended to tackle impostor syndrome.

Stanford’s Hoxby notes that the presence of an outstanding school is the one thing that makes a difference in terms of getting high-lows into elite universities. Where good schools are available, high-lows are likely to behave in line with their (high) abilities rather than their (low) economic status. Outstanding poor students who attend well-known elite schools, such as Stuyvesant High School in New York or Thomas Jefferson in the Washington, D.C., area, have close to a 100% chance of going to an elite university. Where such schools are absent, they are likely to behave in line with their (low) socioeconomic status rather than their abilities.

Outstanding schools succeed not only because they stretch their pupils academically. They are successful because they raise expectations, too. They have everything that they need to convince their pupils that they will be judged on their intellectual merits rather than their parents’ incomes: alumni who prove that you can succeed despite lack of wealth, guidance counselors who can teach you to navigate the admissions process, contemporaries who are going through the same application process and can therefore provide a critical mass, and regular contact with admissions officers from elite universities. They are a bridge between two worlds.

Outstanding schools come in two varieties. The first are exam schools that only admit students who can pass a demanding admissions exam and offer accelerated learning and, for their older pupils, college-level classes. Stuyvesant High School only accepts 3% of the children who take the entrance exam (making it slightly harder to get into than Harvard this year) and largely ignores the arm-twisting and social connections that count for so much in private schools (which is why so many rich families don’t even bother putting their children up for the exam). The school is a haven for immigrant “strivers” who don’t have the money to pay for elite education but want their children to compete with the most storied names in the city.

The second are networks of charter schools that offer enriched educations to all their pupils. The Basis charter school network, which has 10 campuses in Arizona and a few elsewhere, uses an accelerated curriculum. Basis negotiates an initial salary with each teacher and offers performance-based incentives — for example, so much money for each student who earns a good grade on an Advanced Placement exam. (“There’s no magic here,” says co-founder Michael Block. “We just work harder here.”) The Great Hearts Academies, which also started in Arizona, try to surround their pupils with “greatness” — great books, great music and great moral examples.   

The most obvious problem with the elite-school solution to America’s talent problem is that in a country with 42,000 high schools, there are only about 160 exam schools. Eighteen states, concentrated in the upper Midwest, have no examination schools at all. Sadly, charter schools are banned from selecting pupils based on ability. The elite schools that do exist are concentrated in the big cities and their suburbs. About 70% of high-lows come from the 15 largest metropolitan areas. Large swathes of the country are disconnected from America’s talent-catching machine.

One of the U.S.’s great strengths is its vast number of voluntary institutions that aim to correct the manifest failures of both the state and the market. Thankfully, this is decidedly true of talent, where voluntary institutions are providing both ideas and resources.

One of the most venerable of these philanthropic organizations is the Center for Excellence in Education, founded in 1983 by the late Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, and Joann DiGennaro, who continues to run it. The center’s mission is to identify the next generation of outstanding students in STEM subjects and give them a helping hand in their careers. The center looks for talent beyond the obvious markers, such as high-school grades. A particularly rich hunting ground has been the various academic Olympiads in mathematics and science, where brilliant students come together from all over the world to compete for prizes. (The center even filled a gap in the market by founding an American Olympiad in the biological sciences in 2002.)

Every summer, the center brings 80 high school students, chosen from about 16,000 applicants, to Boston for a six-week intensive course in its Research Science Institute, housed in MIT and taught by leading academics. It extends scholars a helping hand throughout their academic careers and practices a policy of “passing it on,” whereby its 2,000 or so alumni look after up-and-coming scholars.

These alumni include the inventor of Crispr gene-editing technology, the co-founder of Pinterest and the first female mathematics chair at Harvard. Alumni report that even more thrilling than meeting leading scholars who could stretch their minds is meeting people like themselves — and learning that, far from being “freaks” and social rejects, they were part of a national, indeed global, community. A spell at RSI creates friendships that are preserved for years in internet chat rooms and reunion parties.

Avi Nash, a retired investment banker, and his son, Nicholas, a venture capitalist, have founded a new iteration of the CEE, the Mehta Fellows Program, which searches for talent in poor families in emerging markets, and brings that talent to America to work alongside the CEE scholars. Avi Nash admits that he was influenced by his father, who built a successful career in India despite growing up in poverty and belonging to a persecuted minority. But he also has a theory to explain what he’s doing: Whereas most philanthropies try to make a small difference to a large number of people, he wants the fellowship program to make a big difference to a small number of people, because those people, being super-talented, may eventually make a big difference to the welfare of humanity.

Several other charities help poorer children get into elite schools and colleges. Questbridge matches talented students with elite universities while they are still in high school, then encourages those universities to take the high-fliers under their wing. New York-based Prep-for-Prep recruits about 225 students of color a year out of 6,000 applicants on the basis of IQ and SAT tests, sends them to academic boot camps, and then gets them places in the city’s private high schools or elsewhere in boarding schools. Prep-for-Prep prides itself on being “unapologetically elite, but not elitist.” The Steppingstone Foundation does a similar thing but with a combination of boarding schools and Boston’s examination schools. John Malone, the cable TV entrepreneur, tried a different tack by offering the country’s most academically rigorous private schools an endowment — typically $2 million — that they could use to create merit scholarships for students with high potential but limited income.

“Give me a child until he is 7 years old, and I will show you the man,” goes the maxim attributed, variously, to Aristotle and the founders of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. Regardless of who said it, it very much holds true: Give a gifted child a good start in life and he or she will turn into a gifted adult, but ignore their abilities and force them to walk in lockstep with their less gifted peers, and you may well produce a misfit.

A successful American talent program needs to identify gifted children as early as possible, then construct an educational system that moves at their pace rather than forcing them to move at the median pace of the educational system. This clashes with two of America’s deeply held prejudices: its prejudice against gifted children and its prejudice against starting education too early. It also clashes with one of its most profound anxieties — that African-American children will be underrepresented (and Asian children overrepresented) in gifted classes.

These prejudices are just that: For gifted children, advanced classes lead to faster educational progress and better social adjustment. True, gifted programs have been dominated by children from affluent White and Asian-American families — and far too few low-income Blacks have been included. But this is largely because they have relied on nominationsfrom parents and teachers, a system that favors the privileged and pushy. A system of universal screening by examination would all but eliminate the problem. Florida and Illinois are boosting the number of minorities within their gifted programs while continuing to accept the desirability of such programs. Two leading giftedness scholars, Jonathan Plucker and Scott Peters, have explored interventions to improve primary-school education so that children have a chance of being accepted into high-school gifted programs regardless of race or class.

Laboratories of meritocracy

For most of the postwar period, other countries have studied America to learn how to get the most out of talent. DiGennaro has spent much of her career traveling the world advising emerging countries on how to establish programs for gifted students. Today, with the U.S. regularly producing mediocre scores on international examinations such as PISA, Uncle Sam must return the pedagogic compliment. Three countries in particular deserve study.

Singapore is a case study in the power of elite talent. A tiny sliver of land that was poorer than Sri Lanka in 1960, the country has turned itself into one of the world’s richest by harvesting and then harnessing its best minds. Lee Kwan Yew and his successors have transformed the island state into a giant capacity-catching machine that makes maximum use of ability tests, high-performance schools and gifted-education programs. All children are assessed at the age of 8 or 9 in mathematics, English and reasoning; the top 1% are transferred to a gifted education program, then given personalized education plans and advancement placement. Selective schools stretch children to the maximum. Raffles College, which sits at the summit of the system, sends perhaps 40% of its graduating class to elite universities in the U.S. and the U.K.

Singapore provides elite graduates with scholarships, which they repay by agreeing to spend a certain number of years working for the state. Teachers are required to finish in the top third of their class (as they are in Finland and South Korea, which also shine in international league tables) and are promoted quickly if they are successful. Headmasters are often appointed in their 30s and paid far higher salaries than their American equivalents.

Israel suffers from some of the same educational problems that America does. Its world-class university system sits on top of a rickety secondary-school system. Yet Israel has the advantage of one institution that is dedicated to ferreting out talent in the population: the Israeli Defense Forces, particularly its elite divisions, such as intelligence unit 8200, and smaller, ultra-elite units that focus on hacking encrypted codes (“they’re the Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo of the computer world,” an insider told Haaretz).

Inbal Arieli, a former lieutenant with 8200, points out that the IDF doesn’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for the right balance to present itself. Every day could be its last. It must search proactively for talent wherever it exists — among literature students as well as mathematics prodigies, and underrepresented populations as well as the children of Israel’s elite. It must look at potential rather than past achievements — “you never recruit on the basis of a CV,” says Arieli — and must broaden its definition of talent to include the ability to solve problems in innovative ways: to “think out of the box,” as the cliché has it. 

Almost all Israeli school-leavers are expected to serve in the IDF (the exemption for members of the Orthodox population is being eroded). They take a battery of psychometric tests to determine their placement, which has also produced a cottage industry in preparing people for army entrance tests. High scorers then enter boot camps that assess their physical and mental endurance and their ability to learn rapidly and to solve problems collectively. Academic smarts count for nothing if you don’t possess the flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances or the social skills to work with others. Promotion is highly meritocratic: The 8200 unit is 50% female, a much higher proportion than in U.S. tech companies, and even includes a cadre of ultra-Orthodox women. Promotion is rapid: Israel doesn’t have a system of officer training schools but instead recruits officers from the ranks of conscripts. Ninety percent of IDF soldiers are replaced every five years.

The graduates of elite groups are at the heart of Israel’s startup economy. They have set up some of the country’s most storied tech startups, including Check Point Software Technologies, an Israeli-American cybersecurity firm. Through their alumni associations, they also fund high-tech projects and scout for talent among teenagers in “peripheral areas of Israel.” Established tech firms such as Google and Facebook frequently recruit entire teams straight out of 8200, without expecting them to go to university, because their work is so cutting edge and their team spirit so powerful.

The U.K. has also done a better job than the U.S. in diversifying recruitment into elite universities in terms of both race and class. While America’s progressives were waging war on exam schools and gifted programs, British politicians, Labour as well as Conservative, were democratizing excellence, supporting the creation of academies and free schools to deal with the problem of “bog-standard comprehensives,” and allowing sixth forms to select pupils on the basis of academic ability. In 2019, three academies in the East End of London — Brampton Manor in East Ham, the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford and Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney — sent 100 pupils to Oxford and hundreds more to the other 22 world-class, research-intensive universities of the Russell Group. Brampton Manor regularly gets more children to Oxbridge — 89 of them with conditional offers this year — than Eton, yet many of its pupils come from ethnic minority backgrounds and qualify for free school meals.

Britain has introduced the idea of the “foundation year”: a preparatory year for underprivileged students who are treated as full (and cherished) members of the academic community while catching up with their more privileged peers. This approach was pioneered by a handful of farsighted Oxford Colleges, notably Lady Margaret Hall and Hertford, but has now spread to the Russell Group universities and 150 higher-education institutions in general.

British universities have also created feeder schools and courses, particularly in STEM subjects. King’s College, London, and Exeter University have both set up “mathematics schools,” i.e., sixth-form colleges specializing in mathematics, to compensate for the generally weak standard of mathematics teaching in the public sector. Imperial College, London, has also created a “maker space” at its new campus in White City, a deprived area of west London, replete with 3-D printers, laser cutters, and wood- and metal-making machines, to demonstrate the practical applications of mathematics and science to a broader audience — “reaching into the supply chain,” as Alice Gast, the president of Imperial, puts it.

Closing the meritocracy gap

Daniel Markovits of Yale University has lamented that the U.S. has fallen into “the meritocracy trap.” Too many Americans are spending their lives in the ceaseless pursuit of excellence. If only! America’s real problem is the meritocracy gap: A tiny sliver of people at the top reap the rewards of meritocracy even as much of the population is trapped in a world of low expectations and low achievement. The great challenge of the meritocratic elite is to close the meritocracy gap — and to extend the ladder of opportunity downward.

The winners have three powerful tools at their disposal:

+ Philanthropists can use leverage to alter the dynamics of the system: By giving money to schools and universities on the condition that it goes to scholarships for high-ability low-income students, for example, they can get those schools and universities to do the work of search and selection.

+ Venture capitalists of the mind can produce extraordinary results with relatively small investments. By spotting brilliant students early and guiding them through an elite education, you may be able to revolutionize entire worlds of knowledge and production, benefiting everybody in the process.

+ Alumni associations can narrow the gap between the two Americas by providing underprivileged children with examples, mentorship and connections. Here we have the making of a self-reinforcing circle: The more successful society is at promoting social mobility, the more mentors it will have available.

You can’t build an empire of the mind without winning the war for talent. Start fighting.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• End the Federal Attack on Charter Schools: Michael R. Bloomberg

• America Is Facing a Great Talent Recession: Adrian Wooldridge

• Hiding Ivy League Acceptance Rates Won’t Make Applying Less Stressful: Stephen L. Carter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a writer at the Economist. His latest book is “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

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