Education Opinion

Gifted Children Are Stepchildren in School Reform

By Walt Gardner — May 07, 2010 2 min read

It’s understandable why the debate over school reform focuses on ways to bring low-performing students up to proficiency. For too long, they’ve been written off, even though the cost to the nation of doing so has been steep. But this unrelenting obsession has hurt gifted students, who deserve at least as much attention. Explaining the reasons will trigger cries of elitism, but certain realities simply can’t be denied any longer.

First, no country can ignore its gifted students and expect to prosper. That’s because they will likely become the future scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and thinkers who will make an inordinate contribution to American society. Yet there is no federal law mandating special programs for them. As a result, they tend to be overlooked. The rationale is that gifted students will educate themselves. But that is not necessarily true. Of the 3 million K-12 students identified as gifted nationwide, 80 percent do not receive instruction geared to their needs and interests, resulting in a dropout rate of between 5 to 20 percent. This constitutes an appalling waste of talent.

Second, gifted students need teachers who are specially trained to challenge them. If the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that students who are disabled are taught by teachers certified in the field, then why is there no similar law for the gifted? Merely piling on extra work does little to engage these students. They need to be challenged and nurtured, particularly since many of them have emotional and social problems. High intelligence offers no immunity.

Third, gifted students are growing in number. Although there is still disagreement over the identification of giftedness, it is usually determined at the pre-school level by performance on a mixture of the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment. Recognizing that no single measure is advisable, Susan K. Johnsen, president of the Association for the Gifted, has urged the use of additional criteria such as observation, recommendations and student work. Her suggestion makes sense because of the early age of the children involved and the considerable fluctuations in IQ that can occur as children grow up. Sealing a child’s academic fate by two tests taken at the pre-school level is indefensible.

It’s time to pay more attention to gifted students, who constitute one of the country’s greatest assets. But it will be hard to change attitudes about them. The U.S. views differentiation as anathema to democratization. This is the opposite of the policy followed by America’s competitors. Singapore, for example, begins to separate children out beginning with its Primary School Leaving Exam, and continues to do so throughout their entire education. Not all students who are identified as candidates for an academic curriculum, of course, are gifted, but Singapore has no qualms about its overall practice.

Why we persist in squandering the talent of the gifted when so much depends on them is beyond comprehension.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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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