Back to school: Doing right by the 'strivers'

In all the attention that is being paid to improving basic skills in American schools, the best and brightest students are too often overlooked. That's bad for them -- and worse for us.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Vishvaas Ravikumar and Sterling Alexander play cards after lunch at the Davidson Academy in Reno, Nev.

Meet the strivers. They aren’t in the news much. Most education stories involve standards, testing, curriculum, and social issues. You also hear about 8-year-old math wizards, musical prodigies, superstar quarterbacks, and the trendy worry of the moment – mean girls, goths, slackers, bullies, and assorted schoolyard subcultures.

Striver may be an unfamiliar term to you, but I’m guessing that you’ll see one if you look in the mirror. A lot of Monitor readers are or were strivers. You may not have been the next Mozart or Einstein, but you paid attention in class. You may have sighed when homework was assigned, but you did it and learned from it. You enjoyed being challenged by teachers, books, and ideas. Light bulbs lit up when you got a geometry concept or encountered a poetic truth or became conversant in another language. Sure, you liked recess and summer vacation, but you probably read recreationally and weren’t all that disheartened when “back to school” merchandise showed up at the store. You might not have wanted to admit it to certain friends, but you kind of, sort of, actually loved school.

As Stacy Teicher Khadaroo writes a Monitor special report (read it here), most teachers today don’t have time or training to pay attention to the strivers. While strivers from affluent backgrounds have access to tutors, private schools, and extracurricular activities, those from families with modest means can get stuck in one-size-fits-all classrooms. One estimate of dropouts found that 1 in 10 earned mostly A’s before they got bored and quit.

The good news is that all that brightness usually finds an outlet. Many artists and innovators have been dropouts. Herman Melville, Henry Ford, and Irving Berlin never completed high school. There are millions of people with high IQs working in machine shops, on sales floors, in child care. They invent better ways of doing things and excel at their avocations. They play amateur saxophone, build houses for the homeless, plant amazing gardens, start unthought-of businesses, and make fascinating friends.

Formal education isn’t a panacea. But formal education is a wasted opportunity if bright kids aren’t encouraged to be brighter. That doesn’t necessarily mean separating strivers from underachievers, especially if the latter get stigmatized. But strivers are the knowledge workers of the future, our competitive edge globally. Strivers will survive. Don’t worry about them too much. Worry about us if we neglect them.

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Feedback loop: A few weeks ago we misidentified Nelson Rockefeller as Barry Goldwater in a photo. The letters are still coming in. Thanks! The news service that provided the photo misidentified him, and on quick review our younger editors didn’t catch the error. By the way, both men wore the same thick-rimmed black glasses and had similar slicked-back hair. Must have been the GOP look back then.

A recurring peeve about our website,, is excessive use of headlines in the form of questions. Under “Most viewed” the other day, seven of 10 headlines ended in a question mark (“Firefox 6: Is it really faster?” “Can Rick Perry maintain his good ties with Muslims as a GOP candidate?”) If you looked elsewhere on our home page, you would have seen mostly declarative sentences. What’s going on? Only a handful of our articles each day ask questions. But think about the Web. Millions log on to use search engines. They are in a question-asking state of mind. They gravitate to headlines that ask questions, even if these are minor stories and blog posts. That makes those articles popular (more clicks), which lands them in “Most viewed.” Does that make sense?

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. To comment on this column or anything else in the Monitor, please e-mail

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