Opinion

Opinion | Lawrence H. Summers and Emily McCann

Lost Einsteins: What does it take to realize every child’s potential?

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IN A KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY, our greatest natural resources are not pulled from the ground. They’re in the minds of our children. But while we have continued to invent clever new ways to extract natural capital, a recent report from the Equality of Opportunity Project makes the case that we’ve been less successful in tapping the potential of our students.

The study brought together patent application data with federal tax returns to give us a unique look at the geographic background and educational pathways of inventors. Most alarming, the report showed that students from low-income families who performed well in math were no more likely to become inventors than their low-performing peers. That suggests that millions of students are held back despite their aptitude.

Creating equal opportunity for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM — i.e., girls, students from low-income households, and students of color — could quadruple the country’s pool of inventors.

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“High-scoring black kids and Hispanic kids go into innovation at incredibly low rates,” said Raj Chetty, a Stanford economist and MacArthur Fellowship recipient who led the research team. “There must be many ‘lost Einsteins’ in those groups.”

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The research suggests that to create learning environments that work for every student, we need to give young people access to social networks and role models. Classroom teachers can’t do it alone. That’s why, in October, Citizen Schools launched a national competition modeled on the XPRIZE, challenging cities to identify ambitious but achievable goals that bring together the people, organizations, and resources needed to increase the quantity and quality of hands-on STEM education and maker-centered learning and to surround children with role models of invention.

The Challenge was met by 92 communities from 35 states, representing more than 1,700 nonprofit, corporate, and local government partners.

What characterizes a learning environment where every student has a chance to thrive? Our selection process adapted lessons from the Strive Network in isolating four key questions: (1) Do partners from all sectors share a common agenda? (2) Are there meaningful examples of collaborative action? (3) Do communities make evidence-based decisions? (4) Are there sufficient resources to ensure that partnerships continue to thrive and grow?

In Pittsburgh, for example, an organization called Remake Learning has brought together leaders from schools, museums, higher education, and industries in the five counties surrounding the city to articulate pathways for STEM learning for every student from early childhood to postsecondary education. The coalition has developed a regional vision and measures for continuous improvement with a focus on reaching underserved communities. Their model recognizes that hands-on experiential learning with mentors helps foster curiosity, creative confidence, self-expression, invention, and collaboration. It also inspires young people to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math — the disciplines most associated with the jobs of tomorrow.

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Mitch Kapor, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, once said: “Genius is evenly distributed across zip codes. Access and opportunity are not.”

In order to reverse the decline in student engagement, we must find more effective models of collaboration to connect students’ learning to real-world, personally meaningful problems and more role models to inspire them. Because while it’s often acknowledged that inequity in our education system is an injustice — a moral imperative — we’re only now beginning to understand the extent to which it’s an economic imperative, too.

Lawrence H. Summers is president emeritus of Harvard University and former secretary of the US Treasury. He chairs the Board of Citizen Schools. Emily McCann is the CEO of Citizen Schools.