In the Press

September 28, 1983 11 min read
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Given profiles of hypothetical candidates for a “gifted and talented” program, teachers in an Arlington County, Va., experiment chose only three of the six possibilities. Basing their choices on I.Q. scores, teacher recommendations, family background, class performance, and other factors, the teachers rejected Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The exercise, described by Randy Sue Coburn in an article on the education of gifted children in the September issue of Science 83, typifies one of the central dilemmas of establishing such programs: the methods used may miss children whose potential is not readily measured on tests.

“Generations of psychologists have fought over the very definition of giftedness--with very little resolution,” she writes in “Schooling the Precocious.” Similar battles occur in school systems, where some parents--and educators--may argue that programs for the “gifted” are elitist.

Today, most schools rely heavily on I.Q. scores in choosing children for special programs and do not use the tests of creativity--such as those developed in 1958 by E. Paul Torrance, an educational psychologist at the University of Georgia--that might identify children with different gifts, Ms. Coburn says.

The author looks also at the question of whether children who participate in such programs ultimately achieve great things. Citing a study by Lewis Terman, a pioneering researcher in the study of highly intelligent children, the article notes that the children studied did not achieve “exceptional success” or “marked creativity.”

A study now under way by Joseph Renzulli, an educational psychologist at the University of Connecticut who has proposed a new model of education for the gifted, may produce different findings. Mr. Renzulli is using a broader definition of “giftedness.”

Others see the issue as one of equity, the author says. Mr. Torrance argues that exceptionally bright children who do not take part in special programs are not given a fair chance to develop their potential.

“When you insist that a 6-year-old who reads at the 6th-grade level do all things a regular first grader does, you are not giving that child a fair chance to use his or her abilities,” Mr. Torrance is quoted as saying.

Athletic Rules Are Not

Stiff Enough, Scholar Says

Like many blacks, Harry Edwards takes issue with the new academic standards for freshman college athletes, passed in January by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

But the complaints outlined by Mr. Edwards in the August issue of The Atlantic are radically different from those of many leaders of black colleges and civil-rights groups. Mr. Edwards says the standards are not strong enough.

Mr. Edwards, who is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, attacks what he says is a popularly held belief--namely, that athletics provide blacks with unrivaled opportunities for social advancement. He says that notion is a myth that has deluded young blacks into thinking that they do not need an education to meet their material and spiritual needs as adults.

Noting that fewer than 2,400 black Americans make a living in professional athletics, Mr. Edwards writes: “Despite the fact that American basketball, boxing, football, and baseball competitions have come to look more and more like Ghana playing Nigeria, sport continues to loom like a fog-shrouded minefield for the overwhelming majority of black athletes.”

What, then, is to be done?

As a start, Mr. Edwards suggests that educators accept the ncaa’s rule, commonly called Rule 48, despite its faults. Rule 48’s academic requirements for freshman athletes, he argues, are too low. And they do nothing to address the educational problems of blacks once they have enrolled--"which is where the real educational rip-off of collegiate student athletes has occurred.” But, he insists, the standards are at least a first step toward reform.

In the final analysis, Mr. Edwards writes, the nation needs to launch a major effort to make fundamental improvements in all schools, especially those in poor areas. That means, he suggests, that schools must spend more for qualified teachers and facilities--and that the federal government has to play a greater role in financing education.

Why Academe’s Leftists

Today Are Left Out

Though many “left-wing activists” found jobs as college professors during the 1960’s--entering such fields as sociology, psychology, philosophy, and black and feminist studies--the prospects today in academe for such activists are “a series of no-tenure jobs,” according to an article by Suzanne Gordon appearing in the October issue of The Progressive.

“The conservative political climate of the Reagan era, the fiscal restraints resulting from economic decline, the attack on the tenure system and increasing reliance on temporary faculty, and the resort to outright political discrimination, all these have combined to jeopardize the hiring and promotion of left-wing academics and to foster a return to political orthodoxy among more liberal young faculty members.”

She cites the case of Peter Drier, a Tufts University faculty member who led protests against the school’s president for accepting financial support for the institution from Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines. Mr. Drier was then denied tenure by the Tufts president that same year, Ms. Gordon notes, adding that many other “progressive’’ scholars “meet their university’s disapproval when they come up for tenure or promotion.”

She says that “the assault on leftists in academia” has kept many untenured professors from getting involved in “campus politics” or “community struggle.” Moreover, she argues that this situation has “imposed severe constraints on campus political activity, professor-student relationships, and the quality of intellectual discourse not only on campus but throughout the society.”

But political repression, in Ms. Gordon’s view, is not the major reason for the decline of student activism.

“In today’s cramped economy ..., the campus is perceived as an incubator for the marketplace, and professors assume their job is to train students to adjust to the world rather than to understand and transform it,” according to Ms. Gordon.

Business Views the

Public-School ‘Monopoly’

The drive to reform public education could easily fail, writes Peter Brimelow in the Sept. 19 issue of Fortune magazine, because the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education “doesn’t address the systemic cause of U.S. education’s inefficiency: monopoly.”

And, according to Mr. Brimelow, unless some measure to stimulate competition is introduced--such as the Reagan Administration’s “modest plan” to strengthen private schools--the next education crisis may again be Fortune’s cover story in the year 2010.

“The public-school system is the American version of Soviet agriculture, beyond help as currently organized because its incentive structure is all wrong,” Mr. Brimelow writes. Some of the symptoms he cites are: “constant mismatching of supply and demand, so that a shortage like the current dearth of science teachers is inevitably followed by a glut; prices administered without regard to incentives so that all teachers must be paid on the same scale,” a search for panaceas, and “inexorable growth.”

Mr. Brimelow argues that the “cure for problems of a socialized monopoly is a good dose of competition. One way to accomplish this is the voucher system.” Despite its free-market inclinations, Mr. Brimelow chides the Administration because it has shown “little appetite for taking on the teachers’ unions” by pushing for a voucher system.

Mr. Brimelow concludes that if the public schools were exposed to competition, the nation’s businessmen would be among “the chief beneficiaries as a better educated workforce renews America’s industrial vigor.”

“The high schools should stick to the job of giving firm foundations in academic subjects, expecting more from all students, not tracking slow or reluctant pupils into job-training courses,” writes Gilbert T. Sewall, former education editor of Newsweek, in the same issue of Fortune.

Mr. Sewall argues in favor of reserving serious vocational training for technical institutes, community colleges, and “other schools aimed at high-school graduates and older people.” Most employers, he contends, want literate, reliable workers, who come to work ready to profit from rapid on-the-job training, which high-school programs are unable to provide.

“By common agreement, high-school courses are scandalously poor; the Vocational Education Act is beset by ‘ambiguous objectives and inefficient administration,’ to use the words of analysts Benson and Hoachlander in their report to the National Institute of Education,” he notes.

Mr. Sewall contends that good vocational programs require “costly equipment, expensive teachers, and rigorous standards,” which most public-high schools are unable to afford.

Because the schools are unable to afford these costly programs, according to Mr. Sewall, “thousands of high-school shops” are filled with “antiquated drill presses and rusting lathes” that lend the facilities the air of industrial museums.

Although the vocational-education arena is full of disappointing programs, Mr. Sewall asserts, he points to “some gratifying success stories as well.” Two examples cited are New York City’s Aviation High School and the Ella T. Grasso-Southeastern Vocational Technical School in Groton, Conn.

“The demanding standards of the best technical schools are worlds removed from the attitudes in Washington and the state capitals where the semi-autonomous establishment that runs vocational education has been reluctant to push for tough standards,” Mr. Sewall writes. “For years, these vocational educators have sold hands-on training as a compassionate way to manage the nation’s least able students.”

“Vocational education can make people more employable, but first they need the mental basics and self discipline to learn skilled trades,’' concludes Mr. Sewall.

Living-Pattern Shifts

Forecast for the Young

Diversity in family structures will be the norm by the year 2000, according to the sociologists Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg Jr.

Writing in The Futurist, the magazine of the World Future Society, the sociologists suggest that three types of families will dominate by the year 2000--the traditional nuclear family, the single-parent family, and the family created by remarriage.

It will not be uncommon, they report, for children born in the 1980’s to follow this sequence of living arrangements: They will first live with both parents for several years, then with their mothers after their parents divorce, then with their mothers and stepfathers, then alone for a time in their early 20’s, then with someone without marrying, and then in a marriage; subsequently, they will get divorced, live alone again, get remarried, and end up living alone once more following the death of their spouses.

There is, however, no evidence of a large-scale rejection of marriage among Americans, the authors say. “To be sure,” they write, “many young adults are living together outside of marriage, but the evidence we have about cohabitation suggests that it is not a life-long alternative to marriage; rather, it appears to be either another stage in the process of courtship and marriage or a transition between first and second marriages.”

Much of the alarm about the family comes from reactions to the sheer speed at which the institution has changed in the last decade, they conclude. But many of the changes in family life in the 1960’s and 1970’s were simply a continuation, they point out, of long-term trends--the birth rate has been declining since the 1820’s, the divorce rate has been climbing since at least the Civil War, and over the last half-century a growing proportion of married women have taken paying jobs.

Whether these dramatic changes in family structure will have a negative effect on children is uncertain, but Mr. Cherlin and Mr. Furstenberg point to a recent study on the children of working mothers that was conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. " If there is only one message that emerges from this study,” the council reported, “it is that parental employment in and of itself is not necessarily good or bad.”

B.F. Skinner Reflects

On B.F. Skinner

“So far as I know, my behavior at any given moment has been nothing more than the product of my genetic endowment, my personal history, and the current setting,” writes B.F. Skinner, the Harvard University behavioral scientist, in the final volume of his autobiography. (An excerpt of the book--to be published next month by Alfred A. Knopf--appears in the September issue of Psychology Today.)

Mr. Skinner writes that he cannot find in his life any “type of personality a la Freud, or an archetypal pattern of living a la Jung, or a schedule of development a la Erikson.” He says he perceives his life as if he were one of the organisms that he studies. His autobiography is a “case history,” he says.

Mr. Skinner fondly remembers his teachers at Susquehanna High School and the freedom of study he was allowed at Hamilton College in upper New York State and in graduate school where he “had the advantage of scarcely being taught at all.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 1983 edition of Education Week as In the Press


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