Gifted students have ‘special needs,’ too

Tony Bennett
You don't have to search hard for evidence that teachers and school systems are neglecting gifted students.
Photo by Krissy.Venosdale cc

Are our national education-reform priorities cheating America's intellectually ablest girls and boys? Yes—and the consequence is a human capital catastrophe for the United States. It's not as dramatic or abrupt as the fiscal cliff. But if we fail to pay attention, one day we'll be very sorry.

In a recent New York Times column, I explained how America could benefit from more schools and classes geared toward motivated, high-potential students. Here, I want to look more deeply at why such initiatives are unfashionable, even taboo, among today's education reformers.

We'd like to believe that every teacher can do right by every child in each classroom. But let's be serious: How many of our 3 million–plus teachers are up to this challenge? The typical class is profoundly diverse in ability, motivation, and prior attainment. In most cases, instructors—under added pressure from state and federal accountability regimes—end up focusing on pupils below the "proficient" line, at the expense of their high achievers.

You don't have to search hard for evidence that teachers and school systems are neglecting them. Take, for instance, our longstanding failure to get more than a few percent of U.S. students scoring at or above the National Assessment's "advanced" level—in any subject or grade level. Study the data showing how far our students' scores lag behind those of many competitor countries. Consider the ongoing need of high-tech employers to import highly educated personnel from abroad.

Despite plenty of evidence that America is failing to nurture its gifted students, the problem fails to awaken much interest from education leaders and philanthropists.

Then look at the unmet demand for "gifted and talented" schools and classrooms (and teachers suited to them). For many years, Washington's only sign of interest in this portion of the K–12 universe was the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program. Since 2004, however, Congress has steadily decreased funding for the program; last year, that contribution dropped to $0. And despite plenty of evidence that America is failing to nurture its gifted students, the problem fails to awaken much interest from education leaders and philanthropists. Why is this so?

Consider these possible explanations.

First, there's nervousness about elitism. This is fed by the small percentages of low-income black and Hispanic youngsters in many gifted-and-talented classrooms and specialized schools. In reality, however, this underrepresentation reflects the education system's own failure to identify such kids and counsel them into a sufficiency of classrooms, schools, and programs—a failure that inevitably advantages upper middle class youngsters with pushy, well-educated, well-connected parents.

Second, there's the widespread belief—originating on the left but no longer confined there—that "equity" should be solely about income, minority status, handicapping conditions, and historical disenfranchisement. Most of American society does not seem to believe that giftedness constitutes a "special need" or that inattention to it violates some children's equal rights.

Third, there is a mistaken belief that high-ability youngsters will do fine, even if the education system makes no special provision for them. This mindset is particularly convenient in a time of budget crunches, when districts feel pressured enough focusing on low-achieving kids at failing schools.

There are too many bright students whose families don't have the information or means to navigate the system.

Fourth, the definition of "gifted" itself has been hazy. We have concrete numbers regarding kids who live in poverty or suffer from disabilities. We even know that 10 percent of the population is left-handed. But how many students are gifted? There's little agreement on this key point. Some people talk about "the talented tenth," others about the "top one percent." The Templeton Foundation is bent on finding the one person in a million (its own estimate) who qualifies as a genius. Meanwhile, some prefer to advance the woolly claim that everybody is gifted in some way—a notion that doesn't help matters, at least in policy circles.

Fifth, the field of gifted education lacks convincing research as to what works. My coauthor, education expert Jessica Hockett, and I became more aware of this problem when researching our recent book, Exam Schools. We found just two smallish studies focusing on the actual effectiveness of selective-admission public high schools. (Those two studies found scant advantage for the selective-admission schools.)

This means the burden of proof is now on such schools and their backers to generate data and analyses. In the past, these schools have been able to trade on reputations, friends in high places, and evidence of strong demand. Maybe that was sufficient yesterday, but not in today's world of rigorous evaluations and comparisons.

Sixth, whether due to elitism angst or a shortage of resources, the gifted education world has been meek when it comes to lobbying and special pleading—not to mention heavier-handed political engagement, such as financial contributions and doorbell-ringing on behalf of friendly candidates.

Seventh, and finally, we return to bad ideas in Educatorland. I noted earlier the wishful proposition that "differentiated instruction" would magically enable every teacher to succeed with every kid in a mixed classroom. This is a close cousin of other false beliefs—for instance, that tracking, even ability grouping, is inherently pernicious; that competition is bad for kids; that selective admission should be forbidden in public schools; and that every opportunity should be open to every child regardless of actual preparedness, prior attainment, or other qualifications. Another culprit is the "multiple intelligences" claim that everyone learns differently and is surely gifted in some way, even if some forms of intelligence aren't reflected in test scores. One could easily extend this list.

How many millions of high-potential young people lack support and are therefore falling by the wayside?

Some are convinced that such ideas have merit. Of this, however, I'm certain: They rule our education system, and they are bad for gifted children. And those likeliest to be short-changed are poor kids and those without savvy, obsessive (and generally upper-middle class) parents. There are too many bright students whose families don't have the information or means to navigate the system, prep their children for admission into gifted programs, lean on the political system, or, if need be, move to another district or into the private sector.

I'm not worried about my three granddaughters, all of whom (I will posit) have immense potential. Their parents can navigate this system and, if they need backup, my wife and I and sundry others are available for additional pushiness, navigation help, or resources. But how many millions of high-potential young people lack such supports and are therefore falling by the wayside? Today's education system is missing the motivation to find and counsel and push them, much less to do right by them in class, much less to provide them the additional help they may need outside school. If you stick with the "talented tenth" view of giftedness, we're talking about roughly 5.5 million school-age kids. How many of them do you suppose are currently being educated to the max?

Whose responsibility is it to tackle this problem? It's hard to picture many liberals getting worked up about the plight of smart kids—even those who are poor—for fear of being labeled elitists. For them, "lifting the floor" will continue to be the top education priority, along with micromanaging the system. Instead, conservatives should take up this cause, and Republicans should heed the advice of David Brooks:

What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity? ... Let Democrats be the party of security, defending the 20th-century welfare state. Be the party that celebrates work and inflames enterprise. Use any tool, public or private, to help people transform their lives.

That ambitious kid in Akron—and millions more like her—are ready, willing and able to transform their own lives, to benefit from America's long (but now waning) promise of upward mobility, and to boost the country's futures along the way. But they and their families can't do it on their own. For better and worse, it's our public education system that must serve as the primary engine of their advancement and opportunity—and it's conservatives who should press it to take this responsibility as seriously as the education of children who can barely read.

It's morally correct. It's educationally sound. It's economically beneficial. And to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, it has the additional advantage of being politically shrewd.

A version of this article appeared on Atlantic.com.

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