Having authored a dozen or more columns on gifted education, it’s easy to predict reader response. It’s unfailing, in fact. There is a well-organized parent advocacy army associated with educating our brightest kids, always at the ready to respond to published commentary, claiming anything less than a full-bore endorsement of extra resources and programming for gifted kids is Not Enough. Because they deserve it.
Essentially, I agree with them. In fact, I got a Masters degree in Gifted Studies, back in the day (way back), because I thought I wasn’t challenging my most accomplished students and wanted new ways to deepen their musical learning. I actually thought I represented the ‘talented’ part of ‘Gifted and Talented.’
Stepping into Gifted World was revelation, however. Educators in the field were mostly interested in whether curriculum for the gifted should focus on acceleration or enrichment. (Acceleration won.) And, of course, the core disciplinary question was just who was entitled to such enhanced curriculum. I learned about the range of testing tools to identify giftedness and creativity. There were cutoffs and variables and labels. There was a fair amount of dissent, even hostility. And nobody was talking about kids with exceptional talents in the arts.
My thesis involved surveying music teachers around the state, who were very kind and willing to respond (in the days where that involved paper and the US Postal service). Most of them offered excellent ideas on strengthening and expanding musical excellence in their own classrooms, as well as special instruction, camps, honors ensembles and other challenges.
Although musical talent is overlooked in the ‘gifted’ discourse, I remain interested in gifted programming in public and private schools. I have taught any number of genuinely gifted students over 30+ years, kids whose interests and capacities, across the academic board, were extraordinary. I saw bright students who didn’t fit in formal programs for the gifted and sank like stones. I saw kids whose parents seemed to have one goal: winning non-existent academic races. I saw children whose unique and remarkable gifts seemed unrecognized—by everyone, including their own teachers.
Gifted programs have come and gone over the intervening decades (mostly gone, as funding dries up and the focus shifts to data-based accountability). But this week, I read an article from Hechinger that took me right back to grad school and the never fully-clarified question: Who is gifted?
The most troubling aspect of gifted classrooms is that they tend to be disproportionately filled with white and Asian students while bright black and Hispanic students often get overlooked. Indeed, gifted and talented programs can sometimes look like a clever tool to separate children by race or ethnicity in school. In New York City, for example, white and Asian parents who have the resources and/or inclination to prepare their four-year-olds to excel on standardized tests snag almost three quarters of the coveted seats. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students make up more than 65 percent of the public school system.
The article focuses on slicing and dicing test data, asking insulting questions about whether ‘watering down’ a talent pool by allowing kids who test in the 92nd percentile to take classes with kids in the 99th percentile is ‘fair’–a word that presumes precise, certain numerical identification of ability and potential based on one test score (the MAP test, in this case). Fair to whom?
There are lots of presumptions in the article—that only certain students deserve to be offered special instruction, that students who missed a couple more questions on a computer-delivered test are inherently less capable than students who may have had two lucky guesses, and that segregating students in racially-similar schools makes identifying gifted kids and offering them tailored instruction easier.
The tsunami of readily available testing data has led to articles and arguments about percentages of a human quality as slippery and ill-defined as giftedness. It makes sentences like this possible:
Education experts, like the rest of us, argue endlessly over whether it’s a good idea to accept the trade-off between achievement and diversity.
Think about that. Should any educator—let alone an expert—see ‘accepting’ diversity as an option, and then only if it doesn’t get in the way of faster delivery of the same content? Or meaningless higher scores? There are a lot of questionable value judgments embedded in this one sentence.
It’s questions like these that make people skeptical about the value of exclusive programming for gifted children. If programming for the gifted is just another data-driven contest, a prize to be won, then it’s a waste of resources. There needs to be a solid rationale for offering bright children across the spectrum—rich and poor, black, brown and white—rich and stimulating curriculum, distinctive instruction and unique programming.
It was that rationale—kids deserve opportunities that match their capacities and talents—that drove me to study education for the gifted. It’s enough. But only if we can avoid excluding and ranking children, and hoarding opportunity through the use of achievement data.
Nor can we demand allocation of more resources for the gifted on the basis of ‘national security’ or ‘the Chinese are doing it,’ as this article does. National security is an important goal for every American citizen, no matter what their achievement test scores reveal. We’re not going to accomplish security (not to mention life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) without offering a meaningful education for every single child, no matter what they bring to the table.