Magnet Schools, Innate Talent and Social Justice

[Once again the Akron Public Schools are facing a fiscal crisis and the response is to make drastic cuts while simultaneously maintaining specialized magnet schools. The result is that general or comprehensive schools will see cuts in the arts and language curriculum. In this paper I take issue with the whole idea of specialized schools, particularly those that justify providing some students with access to more resources based on ‘talent’. The following paper was published in Theory and Research in Education Vol.9 No. 1 (March 2011)]



“In the minds of many people it is a clear and simple fact, not to be questioned, that certain men and women have been born with innate talents that make them capable of high attainments.”1 


It has been a settled view in the philosophic literature that there are such things as innate talents or abilities are distributed arbitrarily by nature. This acceptance of talent as an innate has been generally accepted as an axiom for philosophic discussions about justice. Disparate thinkers such as Rawls and Nozick have attempted to address the influence these talents have on theories of distributive justice. In the case of the former, while there is nothing unjust about the arbitrary distribution of nature talents, this distribution can result in underved benefits within a particular social arrangement. In the case of the latter, since natural talents are not unjustly distributed, the affects of those talents on the distribution of goods is not morally problematic.2 

While the role of natural talents and abilities has implications for various theories of distributive justice, it also has serious implications for real-world distributions. One area where natural talents and abilities underpin our decisions regarding the allocation of scarce resources is in the area of public education. Beginning in the 1970s, many school districts reallocated their already scarce resources from local schools to specially created magnet schools.

Magnet schools are specialized forms of public schools that differ in their educational approaches or focus. These differences in approach are intended to entice parents to remove their children from their home school and place them in one that is normally geographically further from home. Magnet schools are an alternative to mandatory local schools which attempt to attract a racially diverse group of students. They are also viewed by many as a way of incorporating an element of choice (and possibly competition) into public school systems.3

Magnet schools generally have a specialized focus outside of standard educational objectives. They may have a curricular focus on such things as the visual and performing arts, math, science, technology, language, or music. They may also define themselves by the type of instructional method they employ. For example, some some schools may employ a Montessori method, an international baccalaureate approach, or the Paideia philosophy. In recent years, magnet schools have also been established as a way of accommodating  both gifted and special needs children by providing a specialized curriculum or lower teacher–student ratios.4 

Approximately one third of all magnet schools, what some have termed ‘selective magnet schools’, have some sort of entrance exam, portfolio, or audition requirement that students must pass in order to gain admission. Selective magnet schools are predicated on the idea that there are certain students that have natural talents and abilities that justify their inclusion in these programs. Such programs are seen as simple meritocracies that look beyond race, gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status, and focus and encourage the innate talent of certain individuals. It is the assumption that such innate talents exist that I take issue with in this paper. The assumption that selective magnet schools are simply rewarding talent ignores the overwhelming amount of research that shows that talent is not innate, but is a combination of opportunity, encouragement, and deliberate practice. Based on this research, I argue that selective and competitive magnet schools are fundamentally unfair to students generally and constitute an unjust use of public resources.

In arguing against selective magnet schools, section 1 examines the history of magnet schools and the rationale for their creation as a response to decades of segregated schooling. While magnet schools began as a remedy for racial inequality in education, they have of late become the cause of a different form of inequality.

Section 2 presents the recent research on the nature of talent and expertise. Numerous studies performed over the last 30 years have consistently shown that genius, talent, or ability has more to do with training and opportunity then it does with innate talent. 

Section 3 examines the justice implications of the research on talent and ability. While magnet schools were initially created to foster equality, the end result is a perpetuation of injustice and inequality. Racial segregation is supplanted by a socio-economic segregation.

Finally, section 4 considers the broader implication of accepting the idea of innate talent.

1. Magnet Schools

Before discussing the problems with magnet schools it is helpful to have a clear idea of what differentiates a magnet school from other types of public schools, the history of the magnet schools and the direction many of these schools have taken in school districts that have already complied with desegregation orders, or who use magnet schools for other purposes.


1.1 History of Magnet Schools

Magnet schools have taken on different forms since their inception in the mid to late 1970s, though their original purpose has remained constant, namely, the desegregation of public schoos. In order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, Kansas, school districts across the country took a number of different approaches to the desegregation order. Magnet schools were seen by many as a way of encouraging voluntary desegregation. As Kurt Stemhagen writes: 


Magnet schools were utilized for the somewhat related purposes of offering an attractive option to entice parents (often white) to keep their children in public schools and, as a means of, desegregating school districts without submitting to court-ordered busing plans (Blank, et al, 1996).  School districts seeking a voluntary demographic redistribution often patterned magnet school programs thematically after the highly selective public schools that pre-ceded this era (Blank, et al., 1983; Hunter 1994).5

The effectiveness of magnet schools as an approach to desegregation has been debated almost since their inception. Several studies have questioned whether these schools are truly effective at creating a more equitable school system. This concern will be addressed in greater detai
l in section 3.

1.2 Admissions

While the original purpose of magnet schools was to foster district-wide desegregation, demand for admission to magnet schools quickly outpaced the availability of spots. The response of many districts was to institute a lottery approach to admission often coupled with reserving a certain percentage of seats for minority applicants. Approximately two-thirds of magnet schools use a lottery based system.

In contrast to the lottery approach, one-third of magnet schools are what Stemhagen has termed “selective or competitive magnets”6 Selective and competitive schools require some form of entrance exam, audition or portfolio in order to be admitted or be placed on a list for admission. Some of the most highly regarded magnet schools fall into this category. For example, the The High School of Performing Arts now known as the Fiorello H. LaGuadia High School of Music & Arts and Performing Arts accepted 664 students out of an application pool of 9,000. In order to obtain a spot at the selective public school students were required to meet general academic requirements, as well as pass  an audition in one of the six areas: art, dance, drama, instrumental music, technical theatre and/or vocal music. Similarly, Bronx Science, another selective New York city high school requires both a strong elementary and middle school academic record as well as adequate performance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. Additionally, the school finds that students that are admitted typically have these additional characteristics:

We have found that the following qualifications are common to students who are most often successful at Bronx Science: academically successful in the lower grades, involved in extra curricular activities, have a good attendance record, are serious about school-work and homework, are well behaved, and whose parents are actively involved in their child’s education.7

While selective magnet schools may have diversity or desegregation as their goal, there main focus seems to focus on giving their best students educational opportunities they could not obtain in their home school. The basis for this differential treatment are the talents and abilities these students demonstrate. In such instances, this differential treatment is justified on the grounds that though we may not be treating all students equally, equality doesn’t require that we waste resources on those that lack the talent or ability to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them. It is this   underlying assumption that appears to underpin selective magnet schools that I will take issue with in section 2.

2. Questionable Foundations

In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin notes how the idea that some individuals are naturally endowed with certain talents dates back to the Greeks myth of the gods or the muses bestowing gifts on some individuals and not others. While we have given up other beliefs from the ancient world, a modified version of talent as a kind of natural gift has remained. As Colvin writes:

We’ve changed our views on a lot of important matters since then—how the planets move, where disease comes from—but we have not changed our views on what makes some people extraordinarily good at what they do. We still think what Homer thought: that the awesomely great, apparently super-human performers around us came into this world with a gift for doing exactly what they ended up doing—in the case of Demodocus, composing and singing. We use the same words that that the ancient Greeks used, simply translated. We still say, as Homer did, that great performers are inspired, meaning that their greatness was breathed into them by gods or muses.8

The problem with this view is two-fold: 1) research spanning the last 30 years indicates that this view is false, and 2) as I will discuss in section 3, this belief leads to specious justifications for the unequal distribution of resources and opportunity in selective magnet schools.


2.1 Innate Talent 

The classic example of innate talent is that of the young prodigy in music. The teenage musician that outshines all his or her peers in with seemingly effortless playing. While we acknowledge the work that must have accompanied the performance, in many respects it takes a back-seat to the raw talent that is obviously there. Probably the most famous musical example is that of Mozart. In “The Making of an Expert” K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely challenge the idea that the Mozarts of the world are actually born with some mysterious innate ability that mere mortals appear to lack. Taking the case of Mozart they note that his ability was anything but accidental: 

Nobody questions Mozart’s achievements were extraordinary compared with those of his contemporaries. What’s often forgotten, however, is that his development was equally exceptional for the time. His musical tutelage started before he was four years old, and his father, also a skilled composer, was a famous music teacher and had written one of the first books on violin instruction. Like other world-class performers, Mozart was not born an expert—he became one.9

It is not only in music that “talent” can be attributed to something other than an inborn trait. In study after study, genius, talent, expertise—whatever name we want to give it—consistently proves to be an elusive trait. In families that seem to produce more talented individuals, researchers have shown that the environment in which the child was raised accounts for his or her ability, and not the genetic poor from which they came. In Developing Talent in Young People, a group of researchers led by Benjamin Bloom  studied individuals that by all accounts would be considered exceptional in their respective fields. Included were concert pianists, accomplished sculptors, Olympic swimmers, world-class tennis players, mathematicians, and neurologists. Each individual chosen as part of the study was under 35 at the beginning of the study and had already achieved some level of success as measured by international competition, publication, award etc.  After questioning the subjects of the study, Bloom questioned both their parents and teachers. What he found was that the initial natural talent attributed to individuals across disciplines had very little if anything to do with their successes later in life. As Bloom writes: 

Our present findings point to the conclusion that exceptional levels of talent development requires certain types of environmental support, special experiences, excellent teaching, and appropriate motivational encouragement at each stage of development. No matter what the quality of the initial gifts, each of the individuals we studied went through many years of special development under the care of attentive parents and the tutelage and supervision of a remarkable series of teachers and coaches.10 

Similar findings appear in other studies of genius or exceptional talent. In Genius Explained, Michael J. A. Howe argues that individuals from Darwin to Einstein were not born exceptional, but developed those traits people would later attribute to genius. Numerou
s other studies have failed to find evidence for anything like natural talents or abilities as the basis for later success in a given occupation or field. This striking lack of correlation between success and natural talents has led researchers to look more closely at the environment of exceptional individuals—and it is here that they find a plausible explanation for why some individuals become accomplished and other do not.11

2.2 Explaining Exceptional Ability

If talent isn’t innate then how do we explain those with exceptional ability? It turns out the answer is fairly simple. Children that exhibit the most “talent” are those which have had the most training and practice. As Michael Howe notes:

Researchers have looked for, but failed to observe, differences in performance between ordinary children and ones thought to be innately talented. The findings point to a lack of differences between supposedly talented and supposedly untalented children at various indicators of progress, including the length of the training period necessary to reach high levels of competence and the gains achieved following a given amount of practising. The sheer amount of training and practise a person has undertaken turns out to be the best available predictor of his or her level of expertise.12

While training and practice are at the core of exceptional ability, the initial engagement in these activities does not occur spontaneously in children. A child’s engaging in a particular activity is dependent upon the encouragement and later the support of his or her parents. Without the initial push from someone else, the child is unlikely to have taken an interest in, or had the resources to continue in an activity. So while intense training is important, equally important is family support and dedicated teachers. What follow from this is that children with less exposure and fewer opportunities are less likely to achieve the same levels of expertise as other more fortunate children.13 

It is difficult to overstate the importance that opportunity and support play in the creation of supposedly gifted individuals. But, while opportunity, access to quality teachers, and family support are necessary for achieving expertise, the individual must also expend a substantial amount of effort in their chosen discipline. This effort consists of more than brute practice, but consists of something referred to as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice consists of a “high level of concentration and the structuring of specific training tasks to facilitate setting appropriate personal goals, monitoring informative feedback, and providing opportunities for repetition and error correction.”14 There are two salient features of deliberate practice. First, deliberate practice on the part of children requires discipline that is normally instilled by parents. Children aren’t born with the type of discipline required for deliberate practice, but develop it over time and with support from others. Secondly, deliberate practice requires support over an extended period of time. In order for a individual to develop an exceptional ability, somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are necessary.15 

There is an additional point about expertise which further reinforces the idea that what we take to be natural talent and abilities is really just the result of deliberate practice, namely, that talent is not linked to mental ability or I.Q. It also turns out that talent in one area, say music or mathematics, doesn’t translate into exceptional ability in another. Since the training needed to achieve superior ability in one area requires deliberate practice over several years, few people have the opportunity to focus on more than one area of specialization. As Ericsson has noted:  

In a recent review, Ericsson and Lehmann (1996) found that (1) measures of basic mental capacities are not valid predictors of attainment of expert performance in a domain, (2) the superior performance of experts is often very domain specific, and transfers outside their narrow area of expertise is surprisingly limited, and (3) systematic differences between experts and less proficient individuals nearly always reflect attributes acquired by the experts during lengthy training.16

2.3 Rejection of Innate Talent 

One of the consequences of holding to the traditional view of natural talent and ability is that we tend to overlook the role society plays in who gains access to the resources necessary for achieving high levels of success. We tend to think that differences in natural talents and abilities justifies differences in access to resources. So when a child exhibits a natural talent that other children lack, providing the resources necessary to developing that ability in the talented child is justified. This specious view of talent or ability as innate leads to distributions that are more a reflection of chance or fortunate circumstances rather than any innate talent. As Bloom writes: 

It was the child’s small successes and interest in the early learning in a talent field that teachers and parents noted. It was these small successes that resulted in the child’s increasing interest and greater commitment to the talent field, the parent’s increasing encouragement and support for the child, and the search for better teachers and better learning experiences in the talent field. These early minor achievements, rather than evidence of unusual gifts and qualities, were the basis for providing the child with further opportunities to develop in the talent field.17

This chain of events that begins by conflating interest with talent—eventually leading to further encouragement and commitment of resources—would not be problematic if it were not for the social justice issues that arise when public money goes to some children and not others.18

3. Fostering Social Inequality

There are serious moral consequences to the findings on natural talents and abilities. By ignoring how talent develops— and how it can be developed—we arbitrarily disadvantage certain children over others. The ingrained notion that talent is innate affects the way we structure the distribution of resources in society. As Howe writes:

The fact that the talent account is widely believed in has consequences that affects the lives of numerous young people. Within certain fields of expertise, such as music, unquestioning acceptance of the talent account is almost invariably accompanied by the belief that excellence is only attainable by those children who are innately talented. A frequent result of teachers and other influential adults having this combination of beliefs is that when scarce educational resources or opportunities are being allocated they are likely to be directed exclusively towards those young people who are thought to possess a special talent. Young children who are believed to lack innate talent are denied resources that are vital in order for a child to gain any chance of succeeding.19 

This phenomena is evident in the design of selective magnet schools.

3.1 Opportunity and Advantage

The most obvious consequence of ignoring the constructed nature of talent is that some children are given opportunities that others lack resulting in unequal life prospects. Selective magnet school in particular privilege one group of students over others based primarily on factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view. If we follow the line of thinking in the previous section, we can see how initial starting points lead to increased opportunities which in turn lead to social advantages for some and disadvantages for others. Children that happen to have families with the resources to expose them to art, music, literature, science etc., are also going to be the children that demonstrate some initial “gift” in a particular area. The recognition of that supposed gift is then encouraged with additional resources that provide the deliberate practice necessary for its further development. The more developed the talent, the more recognition and hence more resources. 

It does not follow from this series of events that parents should not be allowed to expose their children to the arts, or that they cannot use their resources to provide music lessons. A certain amount of parental partiality may not only be justified, but may in fact be required. What is morally problematic is the partiality society shows toward some children over others, particularly partiality based upon natural talent. When magnet schools admit students based on talent, they inadvertently disadvantage children in both a relative and absolute sense.20 The distinction between relative and absolute disadvantage will be discussed below.

Relative Disadvantage

In “The Morality of School Choice”21 Adam Swift discusses the morality of school choice in Britain. Although his concern is with the effect private school choice has on British education as a whole, many of his arguments work equally well against the practices found in selective magnet schools. According to Swift, private schools have two negative affects, the first of which he refers to as a relative disadvantage.

A relative disadvantage occurs when a good for one individual necessarily comes at the expense of another. In the context of education, the advantages one child gets from additional educational resources will affect the opportunities of other children. As Swift notes: 

Education is, in part a positional good. As an instrumental means to jobs and the money that goes with them, what matters is  not how much education one has, or how good it is, but how much one has, or how good it is relative to the others with whom one is competing for jobs. This gives education something of a zero-sum aspect: the better educated you are, the worse for me (and vice-versa).22


Selective magnet schools provide the same relative advantage that Swift associates with a private school education. Students that are provided with greater resources, more competent instructors, and additional deliberate practice time are more likely to advance in their chosen discipline. A child that begins with a selective grade school magnet has a far better chance of being accepted at a selective high school. A student gaining the extra support in high school is more likely to be accepted at a better or more selective university, which translates into a greater chance at a job. Thus, the relative advantage that one student receives can translate into greater opportunities later in life. Of course, there is no guarantee that one child will ultimately do better than another, but those that lack the additional educational opportunities are clearly at a disadvantage relative to those that received them. By privileging some student over others based on talent, we inadvertently disadvantage student that may have the same potential but simply lack resources.

Absolute Disadvantage

While children can be relatively disadvantaged, there is also the added absolute disadvantage experienced by the students that are not admitted to a selective magnet schools. Ignoring the relative differences, selective magnet schools have the additional affect of changing the very nature of the school environment for the students that remain in their home school. 

The absolute disadvantage stems from the types of parents, and consequently the types of students that take advantage of magnet schools. Regardless of whether the magnet school is selective or based on the lottery approach, the parents that tend to take advantage (or attempt to take advantage) of these programs tend to hail from a more highly educated and higher socio-economic class.23 As Swift notes: 

Allowing affluent and influential parents to opt out is one way to depress standards, as is creaming off those children of the relatively advantaged, who are more likely to have been socialized into aspirations, skill and attitudes conducive to educational success. . . All in all, peer group effects—the fact that children’s educational experiences and achievements depend, in part, on who they go to school with—mean that the this kind of filtering process has a negative impact on the education of those in the state [in this case the home school] system, where the quality of that education is understood absolutely and not comparatively.24

One final way in which selective magnets schools contribute to an absolute disadvantage is by siphoning off resources that would or could have gone to other schools in the system. The specialized programs associated with magnet schools require additional financial and staff resources. For example, rather than having art once a week, such schools may require a full-time art department. The same might hold true for music, computer programming, dance, etc. On average magnet schools receive 10% more funding from their school district along with additional staff positions. In addition to this, many magnet schools are able to take advantage of Federal programs that provide additional financial support—resource not available to non-magnet schools.25

System-Wide Benefits of Magnet Schools?

It should be noted that there is another way of viewing the apparent negative impact of magnet schools, such that a justification could be given for their continued existence. The argument is based on the idea that one of the advantages of having magnet schools within the public school system is that they provide various system-wide benefits. First, magnet schools may keep the very parents that can best financially support and advocate for the public system, within that system. While individual schools and students may not benefit directly, the system as a whole benefits from greater overall support. Secondly, the maintenance of a two-tiered system has the added benefit of eliciting competition between magnet and non-magnet schools. This competition results in the increased performance of non-magnet schools.

In addressing the first point, it is necessary to keep in mind  the type of magnet school that I find morally problematic. Such schools exist within the context of traditional public school systems in which the school a student attends is determined by his or her home address. Also, in traditional systems, the money does not follow the student as it does in voucher or choice systems. In other words, st
udents are restricted to the school within a certain radius of their home, and thus the money the school receives is guaranteed since the parents do not have access to any other school. Finally,  in traditional systems, only a  small percentage of students can take advantage of magnet schools, especially selective magnet schools, since both available seats—and the already mentioned parental resources for specialized training—are not available to all students.

Assuming this standard arrangement, the view that magnet schools may be beneficial to the system as a whole is questionable. While the non-existence of magnet schools might compel some wealthier parents to remove their children from the system, this would not remove their money from the system. Opting out of the public system would simply mean that the school system would receive money without having an extra student to educate. In such a case there is a net financial benefit to the public school system when parents voluntarily opt out of the system, while still having to pay into the system. 

While there may not be an immediate financial hardship caused by some parents opting out of the public system, there still remains the issue as to whether these parents will be less inclined to support further tax levies, and take less interest in the system as a whole. Although this is a possible response, it is questionable whether this would be the standard response. While parents my be dissatisfied with the public school options available to their children, they may wish to continue to support the public system for other reasons. Since the health of a school system often affects property values and the economic strength of a community, parents have self-interested reason for being concerned about the overall health of the system—even if they no longer make use of it.

Similarly, the argument that magnet schools indirectly improve other non-magnet schools in a district presupposes 1) that parents have a choice amongst the various public schools within a district, 2) that the magnet schools are not selective, thus giving disadvantaged students the same odds of acceptance as the children of more affluent parents, and 3) that the money a school receives follows the child. Competition presupposes that schools run the risk of losing funding if they cannot make their programs attractive to parents and students. While this may be true in choice systems, the same does not hold true in systems with selective magnet schools and no choice.  Furthermore, even in systems where parents can choose to send their child to any school in the district, admissions to selective magnet schools may still deny some advantages over others.

It appears the objections that magnet schools may actually benefit public school systems as a whole do not appear persuasive given the way the majority of school systems are structured. Of course, this suggests that the structure itself may require substantial revising, a discussion that is too extensive to adequately examine here. Still, even in a school system that allows for choice, my objections to selective magnet schools make such institutions morally problematic since the entrance exams, auditions, portfolios etc., would still disadvantage some children over others based on what I have argued is a fallacious notion of innate talent. So, while these arguments do draw into question some aspects of current public school funding practices they do not address the underlying assumptions that are unjustly privileging some children over others.

3.2 Diversity

An additional consequence of the establishment of selective magnet schools is that they end up working against the original purposes of desegregation  and diversity. While many selective magnets do put in place mechanisms to ensure racial diversity, a different type of segregation occurs, namely, socio-economic segregation. This segregation can be traced back to the reliance on natural talents and abilities as the main criteria for admission. As I argued in section 2, natural talents have been shown to be an indication of early family support, opportunity and practice or effort (itself a function of instilled values). The child that is given the resources to achieve his or her potential will necessarily show more promise and be viewed as gifted or talented. But, the development of ability requires resources that many parents lack. In order to gain admission to a selective magnet school, a child must display a significant amount of ability. To acquire a significant amount of ability a child must be provided with dedicated teachers or coaches. Acquiring a good teacher or coach requires financial resources that many parents cannot afford. Those that can afford to give their child the training necessary will most likely come from higher socio-ecnomomic class. 

In fact, this is exactly what studies of magnet schools show. Whether we are examining magnet schools that rely on a lottery system or those with selective admissions, the children that apply tend to come from more educated, more affluent households. A parent’s decision whether to attempt to gain access to a magnet program is a function of the level of the parent’s educational and economic attainment. For example, in “Public School Choice in San Antonio: Who Chooses and with What Effects?” Martinez, Godwin and Kemerer found that the parents that tend take advantage of alternative schools tend to be more educated. As they write: 

One of the criticisms of choice programs is that better-educated, more affluent families are more likely to participate. Our data support this expectation. Both sets of choosing parents—those whose children were enrolled and those whose children were not admitted—are more than twice as likely as nonchoosing parents to have attended college. In addition, enrollees are more than twice as likely as either nonadmits or nonchoosers to have annual incomes above $35,000.26

Similar studies that looked at Milwaukee’s choice programs, and a proposed program in Detroit, also concluded that the children whose parents would or did take advantage of school choice were more educated and had higher incomes then those who did not or would not take advantage of such programs.27

The majority of studies reveal a trend toward socio-economic stratification in selective magnet schools. In time selective magnet schools will result in a pattern of self-selection. The children of parents with higher educational achievement are provided the resources necessary to be admitted to a selective magnet school. These children will more likely exhibit greater overall achievement than their counterparts that remain in their home school. As these children age and have their own children, they too will be more likely provide the resources necessary for their children to attend the more selective schools, and so on and so forth. In the end, the selective magnet schools reinforce socio-economic stratification. What is worse, rather than being a product of parental choice—as is the case with parent who send their children to private schools—this stratification is publicly funded on the federal, state and local levels.

Benefits of Stratification?

While the stratification caused by selective magnet school may work against diversity within a public school system, one could argue that the same stratification works to maintain diversity amongst school systems. As was noted, selective magnet schools are more likely to be taken advantage of by children of m
ore affluent parents. As I have argued, these parents are more likely to use their resources to ensure that their children develop the skills to gain access to these more elite schools within a given district. If such schools were no longer available to their children, then (the argument goes) these parents may choose to move to a system that better meets their educational desires. This could have the effect of not only decreasing diversity within a school system, but it would physically remove these more affluent parents from one city to another causing a stratification between entire school districts. Wealthier parents would cluster around better schools and school systems, leaving behind those who cannot afford to relocate.

To some extent, this is already the case in public education. Since school systems are funded primarily by property taxes, the more affluent the area the more money schools receive. Many parents already choose neighborhoods based on the quality of the schools. Although money doesn’t guarantee that one system will be better than another, it is likely that parents will seek out systems that are better funded and in better neighborhoods. So socio-economic stratification already occurs amongst various schools systems. Nevertheless, the existence of selective magnet schools may keep more affluent parents within a given district. With the knowledge that they have access to selective magnet schools, these parents may not feel the need to relocate to other school districts.

While diversity amongst school districts may be important, I do not believe it should trump the inherent injustice of selective magnet schools. What this argument essentially holds is that public school systems should create a pseudo-private system to cater to more affluent parents and their supposedly more talented or gifted children. The net effect would not be to diversify anything, since the diversity between school districts would be cosmetic at best. The children within a system would not benefit from the interaction with children of higher socio-economic classes, nor would keeping the more affluent in the system result in improvement to non-magnet schools in the district. At best the existence of the selective magnet schools would create a two-tier system that maintains the status quo for the majority of students within the district.

Furthermore, this argument purports to offer a pragmatic approach to maintaining diversity without addressing the underlying problems inherent in many of our public school systems. Rather than viewing each child as having the potential for achieving success, on this account the system should simply continue to allocate scarce educational resources on the specious distinction between the talented and untalented students. This solution perpetuates the very inequality I have argued against throughout this paper. Rather than looking to the sorts of educational reform that has been shown to work in some of the most impoverished inner city neighborhoods, this argument embraces a form of educational triage determined by the economic distributions and market forces.28 Children are not responsible for the socio-economic class to which they are born, nor should we allow such arbitrary starting points to determine the type of educational opportunities children receive. So while there is good reason to believe that major reform is needed to solve the problems inherent in many public school systems, selective magnet schools do not offer the correct solution.

4. Conclusion

The fundamental assumption behind the special treatment of some children over others is based upon a faulty notion of talent that results in an unfair distribution of educational resources. This unfair distribution results in inequitable access to various types of resources and opportunities for those children not fortunate enough to be enrolled in magnet schools. These deficiencies early in life further impede the overall life prospects of the non-privileged children in both relative and absolute terms. Rather than redistributing resources to magnet schools, school districts should focus on providing the same opportunities for children in all the schools within a district. As many magnet schools demonstrate, with the proper support, children can exceed the expectations we currently have for them in non-magnet school environments.

Finally, there is a more general consequence to ignoring the way talent develops in children (and individuals generally). Once we disabuse ourselves of  the notion that talent is innate, we open up a vast resource of creative potential. It is no longer the case that only a select group of young people are capable of exceptional ability, but every child has the potential for achievement. The arbitrary distinctions that have been drawn between the supposedly talented and non-talented ends up costing society in the lost productivity, and the possible future accomplishments of a far greater number of children in math, science, music, and the arts.


1 Michael J. Howe, Genius Explained (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999) p.189

2 In the case of John Rawls, see A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), and also Robert Nozick’s  Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

3 Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, School Choice in Urban America: Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999)

4 Guide to U.S. Department of Education Programs: 2008 (Office of Communications and Outreach, Washington, D. C.) p .236

5 Kurt Stemhagen, “Clarifying Differing Aims, Eliminating Conceptual Muddle, and Acknowledging Political Bias” Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC), Virginia Commonwealth University 2007 p. 2.

6 Stemhagen p.5

7 The Bronx High School of Science website:

8 Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2008) p.4–5.

9 K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert” in Harvard Business Review:Managing for the Long Term July-August 2007 p. 7.

10 Benjamin S. Bloom ed. Developing Talent in Young People (New York: Ballantine Books 1985) p.543

11 The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

12 Michael J. Howe, Genius Explained (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999) pp.195

13 K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert” in Harvard Business Review:Managing for the Long Term July-August 2007 pp. 1-7.

14 Ch.39 “Development and Adaptation of Expertise: The Role of Self-Regulatory Processes and Beliefs” Barry J. Zimmerman pp. 705 in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)p.705.

15 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little Brown and Company 2008)p.40   holds that the number is about 10,000 hours; K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert” in Harvard Business Review:Managing for the Long Term July-August 2007 pp. 1-7 hold the number to be closer to 7,500. Either way the time required still amount to several years of practice, requiring several years of support and encouragement.

16 K. Anders Ericsson Ch.1 “An Introduction to Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance Its Development, Organization, and Content, in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)p. 10.

17 Benjamin S. Bloom ed. Developing Talent in Young People (New York: Ballantine Books 1985) p. 544.

18 For a more detailed account of how different approaches to parenting have a substantial impact the way in which children learn to navigate and (for some) take advantage our social institutions and opporunities see Annette Laureau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Berkeley: University of California Press 2003). Particularly intersting is the contrast between the middle-class child studied in Ch.3 and the working-class child studied in Ch. 4 along with the author’s conclusions found in Ch.12.

19 Michael J. Howe, Genius Explained (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999) p. 191.

20 Harry Brighouse, and Adam Swift, ‘Legitimate Parental Partiality’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 37(1) Winter 2009

21 Adam Swift, “The Morality of School Choice” Theory and Research in Education Vol. 2(1) (2004)pp.  7-21.

22 Ibid.  p. 11.

23 Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, School Choice in Urban America: Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999) p. 28.

24 Swift, p. 11.

25 Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, pp. 7-8.

26 “Public School Choice in San Antonio: Who Chooses and with What Effects?” in Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects of School Choice eds. Bruce Fuller and Richard Elmore with Gary Orfield. (Teachers College Press: New York, 1999) pp. 57-58.

27 Again see Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects fo School Choice eds. Bruce Fuller and Richard Elmore with Gary Orfield. (Teachers College Press: New York, 1999) especially Lee, Croninger and Smith “Equity and Choice in Detroit”pp.70–94; Witte, “Who Benefits from the Milwaukee Choice Program?”pp. 118–137.

28 The programs I have in mind are those such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Harlem Children’s Academy in New York. In the case of both schools 

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