Nobody Hates the Gifted

Apparently, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of NYC (at the moment, anyway) is promoting a plan to overhaul the Gifted and Talented program in NYC schools. The old G/T program would be replacedby a program that offers the possibility of accelerated learning to students in the later years of elementary school. And the test given to kindergarten students to screen for the gifted program, already suspended in part because the city’s advisory school board refused to renew it last year, would be permanently ended.’

This action has– predictably– made some people really mad.

Headlines about de Blasio ‘hating’ the gifted and the ‘war on the gifted’ popped up. New Yorker magazine re-ran their archived article on How to Raise a Prodigy. Eric Adams, who won the NYC Mayoral primary, has suggested he would keep the program as it is now—which seems to be more about tweaking de Blasio than any principle-driven stand on education policy.

As noted, all of this is unsurprising. America has been arguing about gifted education for at least half a century, without actually addressing the problems associated with setting aside assets to select our brightest children and develop special programming for them.

In the case of NYC schools, most of this boils down to inequities—the appalling idea that intellectual ‘merit’ is quantifiable and much more likely to turn up, for some unknown reason, in well-off white children. Or that rising kindergarten students ‘gained access to the program via a high-stakes exam that some families pay tutors to help their children prepare for. Or that all of this was a response to a particularly well-organized and vocal group of privileged parents.

Let me say it again: NYC was testing children as they entered kindergarten, and siphoning them off to special classes for the gifted. Given the unprecedented education issues in play right now, beginning with a deadly virus and a lack of qualified staff, NYC was right to put gifted education in the back seat, as a problem to be better addressed later.

To be clear, I believe we could do a much better job of encouraging and challenging our gifted students. I am strongly in favor of every teacher in America looking for students’ strengths, pushing them to develop that potential, encouraging them to find new passions and interests.

I taught many flat-out brilliant students, and have a master’s degree in gifted education. Giftedness is a real thing—although it is vastly broader and more comprehensive than a skill set ascertained by testing five-year-olds.

I have never met a teacher or school administrator who ‘hated’ the gifted or resented children who bring special talents and assets to the classroom. Nor do I believe it is harmful for bright children to spend their days with peers who learn differently.

We will all spend our lives living and interacting with people who are both smarter and less capable than we are. That’s a core value of public education.

A couple of years ago, Andy Smarick wrote a piece for Atlantic, entitled The Contradiction at the Heart of Public Education. Tag line: Gifted education puts in tension two equally treasured American ideals: egalitarianism and individualism.

Smarick starts out with some good points about competing philosophies—should we honor individual gifts rather than seeking first to level a playing field? Then he shifts to all the reform efforts that supposedly addressed that level playing field: Charter schools. Vouchers. Teach for America. School-finance lawsuits. No Child Left Behind.

He says this: In hindsight, it is striking how little discussion we had in the reform community about how these efforts did or did not address the needs of kids who were excelling, or how these initiatives were landing on non-disadvantaged communities—places where parents liked things just as they were. That lack of self-reflection led to a decade of humbling for reformers.

He winds up with the cliché you see in all the literature put out by organizations supporting specialized programming for the gifted: When schools don’t foster the growth of the highest-potential young people, the public loses something. Beneficial technologies might not be invented, and profound works of art might not be created.

Clearly, Mr. Smarick has not been in many public schools lately, with their (sarcasm alert) cutting-edge technologies and comprehensive arts offerings for children.

But–on the subject of what we’re losing by not skimming off the most academically capable while they’re still wearing sneakers with flashing lights: Think about the most gifted and inspiring people you know. The folks who developed the vaccines that are saving our lives, perhaps, or the MacArthur Genius awardees.  

Did they owe their overwhelming success to taking part in a selective program in middle school? Or was it something else nurturing the spark that drove them to succeed?

I’ve been reading a lot about Colin Powell this week, who graduated from a public high school in the Bronx, then went to City College, where joining ROTC led him to a path of outstanding national and international public service. Would being identified as gifted as a first grader have changed anything about his trajectory?

I believe there are two core issues that should–yes, should–make us cautious about special programming for the gifted: Resource allocation and identification.

Resource allocation is the variable that all schools, districts and states must wrestle with, putting their money where their values are. Paying to test academically promising children, then isolating them for ‘special’ instruction, is arguably a misuse of education’s most valuable resource: attention and instruction from a creative and skilled teacher. Nobody ever talks about the middle-of-the-pack child and what precious contributions they won’t make to society unless they get instruction custom-tailored for their needs.

I could name a dozen things that need urgent attention in public education, beginning with recruiting and fairly paying more of those creative and skilled teachers, and addressing the deplorable state of school funding. It is not wrong to prioritize educational needs—and it’s more like triage in 2021. The worst strategy is using scarce resources to avoid parent complaints. When you’re juggling more needs than available solutions, it’s important to see the big picture, not just respond to demands.

Earlier, I mentioned my degree in gifted education. I took a graduate-level class in Identifying the Gifted as part of my coursework, in which we took some of the tests available at the time, studied IQ distribution charts and argued about who was and was not ‘gifted’.

In sixteen weeks, the class never developed a consensus about giftedness, who was deserving–a word I came to loathe–of more consideration, unique instruction, special academic goodies. Giftedness is an incredibly difficult concept to define—and many children don’t come into or fully realize their abilities until they have gone to school, met a mentor, or had a revelatory experience that leads them into a lifelong passion.

After completing the master’s, I worked for about a decade on programming for G/T students. I was mostly interested in my student musicians, some of whom were exceptionally talented and creative. I pushed for G/T programming at my school and in the region, and sought special, challenging experiences in the arts for these kids.

We finally got a commitment from a local university to host a weekend program for gifted middle schoolers, who would stay overnight in the dorms (it was May; university students had gone home). They would choose one of three tracks to explore—the environment, great literature or the arts—and meet professionals from their field, engage in some challenging activities and discuss what they’d learned.

I submitted one of my students’ names—a girl whose proficiency and love for her instrument was extraordinary. The program coordinator called me up and told me to choose someone else, because the student I nominated ‘wasn’t gifted.’ I’m looking at her scores right now, she said. She’s barely above average.

I talked about her exceptional ability as a musician. I don’t know, the coordinator said. I hate to waste the money on someone who may not benefit. And there it was: resource allocation and identification.

Nobody hates the gifted. In fact, we may not even know who they are.