Education Opinion

Cheating the Gifted?

By Nancy Flanagan — December 02, 2011 3 min read
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It’s an argument that seems to bubble up cyclically. It doesn’t matter what the hot policy idea du jour is, someone is bound to assert: What we’re doing right now does not serve the needs of the gifted!

The question was raised in the Rising Tide of Mediocrity era: What were we doing to nurture those promising leaders who would keep America #1? Debates about tracking have never gone away, pitting “low-achieving” students against “America’s brightest.” Even the recent flurry of interest in Finland’s great results is accompanied by little yeah-but digs: “High-flying students might get neglected in a system set up to improve the bottom and the middle.”

After a decade of federally mandated accountability, predicated on closing the achievement gap, Michael Petrilli is now fretting that Poverty Warrior educators haven’t been honest about their motives: “Their slogan has been ‘leave no child behind’ when it’s really closer to ‘take from the rich, give to the poor.’”

And where do we find all those “gifted” students who are being neglected as we focus on “low achievers?” Is this the Robin Hood Theory of Gifted Education: take back from the poor because the rich are really more deserving?

It’s a question of equitable allocation of resources, beginning with the (erroneous) assumption that there’s only so much to go around, so we’re better off as a nation performing a kind of triage, helping the most academically worthy. It’s also about identifying merit. Who deserves an extra helping of resources? Why, the high flyers, of course. And who are the high flyers? Well--let me pull out the data.

In a nation as technocratic, standardized and competitive as the United States, it’s not surprising that both Petrilli and Rick Hess would reference studies showing that bright kids lose 6 test-score points when they’re thrown in with the intellectual rabble, whereas struggling kids get a 5-point advantage from going to class with high achievers. What to do, what to do?

It’s also no surprise that special education for the gifted came into being at the same time as standardized testing. When we evaluate students’ potential--their prospective value to our diverse society--on the basis of numbers, we’re heading toward what you might call a reckless meritocracy. One where low test scores early in life keep kids slogging along in the basement, their unique human promise unacknowledged, even unrecognized.

Besides, there isn’t much evidence that we should count on academic superstars to fix our social problems. Being brilliant intellectually is no guarantee that your social consciousness or emotional maturity will support leadership, innovation or problem-solving--in any realm. A quick look at our most gifted leaders--Americans whose work has saved or enriched millions of lives--tells us that being identified as “gifted” is never a prerequisite for world-changing discoveries or great statesmanship.

While there are excellent reasons for nurturing all students’ unique gifts and talents, claiming that we could be overlooking the next Einstein without special resources for the academically adept is a specious argument. There are happy dog groomers with IQs in the 150s and influential legislators whose academic gifts might kindly be described as below average. And the hedge fund managers and Wall Street con artists who weaseled trillions to bail themselves out? Smartest guys in the room.

Increasing the numbers of good, sharp teachers who are committed to all their individual students’ learning needs would help motivate and focus bright kids far more effectively than labeling them or separating them from the pack. We can have it all--challenges for our brightest kids (who are not necessarily our best kids), and rich opportunities for everyone.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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