Does every child have the right to be educated to an extent that is appropriate for their abilities? Should money be an obstacle when educating high-potential children? Is there a way to reach a balance between “raising the floor” under low-achieving students and “raising the ceiling” for those already well above the floor — remembering, of course, that while these students need more intervention, they are far outnumbered by those in the thick middle of the bell curve. Is there room to meet the needs of children across this curve? Or are we intent, consciously or unconsciously, on pushing them to the mean, and holding back gifted and talented students instead of cultivating their abilities? It seems that the majority of educational institutions are doing just this.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. addresses the topic in his September 18th op-ed titled “Young, Gifted, and Neglected” in the New York Times. Finn is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and chairman of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He was also a presenter at the National Association for Gifted Children’s National Research Summit on High-Income, Low-Ability Learners in Washington, D.C. in May of this year.
In his piece, Finn decries the “systematic failure” of our country’s public education system to educate a diverse gifted population – those students who are hard to identify and whom the country fails to appropriately educate, often due to their socio-economic and/or minority status. He says that this neglect of high-ability students, and ultimately “our country’s supply of future scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs” takes three forms. First, gifted and talented students are not identified early, especially if they come from poor or minority families and they do not have “savvy, pushy” parents. Second, we lack classrooms for gifted education at the primary and middle school levels with suitable teachers and curriculum. Finally, Finn argues that many high schools offer only a few honors or Advanced Placement classes, which do not necessarily mean the student taking them is being challenged to the appropriate extent. Further compounding this issue, Finn observes, is the fact that the U.S. Congress has “zero-funded” the Jacob J. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program while no alternative program exists. The only hope is for the TALENT Act, which as I have talked about will support education for gifted children, to be enacted.
Finn’s strongest characterization of today’s state of affairs is also the simplest, and leaves no doubt as to whether or not we are serving these students’ interests — and our own: “leaving no child left behind means paying as much attention to those who’ve mastered the basics – and have the capacity and motivation for much more – as we do to those who cannot yet read or subtract.”
While a few public schools and programs do focus on high-ability, highly motivated students, there are not nearly enough. Shockingly, in the entire country, there are only 165 public schools for gifted children. Nineteen states do not have a single public school for the gifted student population. It is no surprise that each of these precious few schools have far more qualified applicants than they are able to accept.
Finn’s piece describes the distressing lack of options for those gifted students who lack the resources to pay to attend a prestigious private school. Sierra Black, a blogger whose work appears in Babble and The New York Times, offers a poignant example that further illustrates the difficulty with attempting to find an appropriate education for a profoundly gifted child. Her friend’s daughter, at the age of six, is able to read and write on at least a fourth grade level. Black writes, “There’s no good place in our city’s education system for a kid like her. Last year, this city of 100,000 people got just $7500 in state funding for gifted education. There are no resources to meet her needs even if they knew how to. And the evidence is that they don’t. Dealing with gifted kids is a challenge our educational system just isn’t rising to.”
Finn is clearly justified in his assertions regarding our public education system: as a nation, we are neglecting the vast majority of our gifted student population, not to mention those students who are not even being identified as having higher potential. He advocates for more public schools — such as exam schools — for the gifted, and additionally insists that students should not be turned away from appropriate schools and education because there is “no room” for them. He elaborates that high-potential students not challenged with a rigorous curriculum by their public schools often have no alternatives if they lack the means to attend a more suitable private school, instead.
While Finn has an excellent point here, it is also critical to clarify that the words “private” and “elite” or “prestigious” are not synonymous with “rigorous,” and access to private education is no panacea. Even gifted students who do have the opportunity to attend private schools can still be left without a suitable teacher or curriculum to educate them at a level truly appropriate to their aptitudes and abilities. Just as students with disabilities require teachers who are open-minded and who can focus on the unique educational strengths and needs of each child, gifted students also require teachers with special skills and training, and a qualitatively different approach. Unfortunately, private schools can at times be very rigid in what they believe to be a quality education. Public schools and private schools alike continue to lack mandates for professional development for the teachers of the gifted they do employ. The Davidson Academy is a rare and remarkable example of a private school that truly does meet the needs of its gifted students — but one school is certainly not a solution to a nationwide phenomenon. Ultimately, this country is in serious need of public AND private schools equipped provide gifted students with appropriate education.
I was recently invited to attend the 2012 NBC News Education Nation Summit, where parents, educators, and students met with leaders in politics, business and technology to explore the challenges and opportunities in education today. One of the more inspiring sessions was led by Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, and a leading researcher in motivation, and Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a series of studies on grit and perseverance. They stressed the importance of teaching children the concept of “grit”:
We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut loses, the gritty individual stays the course.
Finn touches on the fact that many public high schools do provide higher-level and Advanced Placement classes that are attended by students who are “bright but truly not prepared to succeed.” Academics are, of course, important, but we must also think about how we can teach students to fully embrace their giftedness so they may come to realize their potential. The words of Orison Swett Marden, an American author and philosopher who continually urged the cultivation of one’s own personal development, are equally well-suited to contemporary America as they were nearly a century ago:
There is genius in persistence. It conquers all opposers. It gives confidence. It annihilates obstacles. Everybody believes in a determined man. People know that when he undertakes a thing, the battle is half won, for his rule is to accomplish whatever he sets out to do.
How much longer can we ask our gifted and talented youth to wait, sit still, and be content with the status quo while our neighboring countries continue to surpass us every single day? All of these stories, research, and op-ed pieces point to the same confounding yet critical questions, answers to which seem still frustratingly out of reach: How long will we continue to tamp down the unique abilities and gifts possessed by our brightest students? How much longer can we tell our gifted and talented youth just wait, sit still, and be content with a status quo that continually neglects their potential, telling them over and over that their gifts are not valued? And how much longer still will we tolerate this state of affairs without demanding the sort of systemic radical change and support that these students not only need, but deserve?