Education Opinion

Programs for The Gifted Are Not ‘Elitist’

By Linda A. Tammi — February 14, 1990 8 min read

When advocating programs for gifted children, I have often felt as if I were having to confront the world depicted in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s science-fiction story “Harrison Bergeron.”

In that tale, the year is 2081, a time when “everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. . . . All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the U.S. Handicapper General.”

Talented people of all kinds are required by law to assume handicaps. Into the ear of the main character--a “genius and an athlete"--a “little mental-handicap radio” has been installed to blast out complex or creative thoughts. Such devices prevent him and others like him from “taking unfair advantage of their brains.”

These tactics are necessary, the thinking goes, because it is elitist to promote the development of individual gifts--a threat to the national ideal of equality. Much better to have a Handicapper General and to institutionalize a national standard for mediocrity in education and industry than to applaud individual differences that might leave a “normal” person feeling less than “equal.”

Just such a confusion of excellence, elitism, and equality--a confusion that may be uniquely American--has contributed to the widespread misconception that programs for the academically gifted are elitist. Only half of the states mandate programs for gifted children under special-education legislation, and, in my experience, this view is the most frequently cited reason for failing to provide services. Many educators and policymakers wrongly believe that gifted students need no help in developing their talent, and that, because of their exceptional intellectual abilities, they rarely suffer from emotional difficulties.

It is neither elitist nor otherwise detrimental to children who are not included to offer gifted youths specialized programs. The parallel of the talented athlete is appropriate. Not all students have the ability or desire to participate on a varsity sports team, yet I have never heard any school official argue that singling out talented athletes for team membership to the exclusion of others is elitist. In fact, school districts and local community agencies go to great lengths applauding these athletes’ efforts and supporting them in their development. We back these youngsters with cheers and cheerleaders, regular media coverage, banquets, trophies, and booster-club activities, not to mention “star” status on campus.

While I’ve never encountered any worried tongue-clucking over elitist athletes, I have heard a school official admonish a gathering of academically gifted elementary- and junior- high-school students that they shouldn’t think that they are “better than anybody else.” This remark was made in the course of explaining why their special program was cut from the budget, even though it consumed less than 1 percent of the district’s total expenditures.

There were no rallies when Massachusetts eliminated its 1989 allocation--a modest $900,000--for grants supporting gifted education, an appropriation for which backers had fought for several years. One quarter of the state’s gifted programs were wiped out completely.

Those who subscribe to the notion that gifted children don’t need help perhaps think that their abilities develop all by themselves, without benefit of specialized groupings, training, or instructors. Again, the analogy of the athlete is revealing. Because gifted performers have exceptional talents, they are said to need special support. They are therefore provided with: a special grouping--the team; special training--preparation that goes beyond the regular physical-education curriculum; and a special instructor--the coach.

But the same premise is used against the gifted learner: Because a child is an able student, some argue, he needs no special accommodation in developing his talent. This line of thinking suggests that support services can help everyone but the gifted-they can do it all on their own! At best, such reasoning is illogical; at worst, it leads to the waste of many intellects and the abandoning of huge resources in the national talent pool.

The toll is also potentially great on a personal level for gifted students who must go without special services. A bright child caught in an unchallenging school routine is, in fact, at risk. For adults, boredom on a regular basis is uncomfortable; for young children, especially primary-age boys, it is unbearable. I have met several surprised psychological testers who had evaluated ''behavior problems” only to discover that these children tested in the superior range and acted out not so much from emotional disturbance as from frustration.

Adults often have little empathy for bored schoolchildren or do not take the matter seriously. One veteran administrator told me that “no elementary child feels bored.” But a researcher found repetitive, unchallenging schoolwork to be the most common complaint in a poll of gifted children’s gripes.

Boredom in school can lead to the more serious problem of underachievement. Gifted underachievers are a bane to their teachers, whose assignments may be poorly done or ignored altogether by the children most capable of excelling. Unproductive behavior may result from power struggles between teachers and students, or from children’s simply having lost all motivation to participate. Or, as they advance into higher grades, students may actually become incapable of performing the required tasks. Research skills, for example, must be learned and practiced by gifted children as well as others. Some students may be able to get by for so many years with a mediocre performance that they lose the habit of applying themselves fully to their work.

It is alarming to note that, for the third consecutive year, Americans are a minority in domestic doctoral programs in mathematics. By contrast, of the 1,000 doctorates in mathematics awarded 15 years ago, 75 percent went to U.S. citizens. Twenty years ago, 86 percent of all patents in the United States went to American inventors; now, only 46 percent do. Are fewer smart children being born in this country, or are we failing to motivate them to achieve?

One mother of an underachieving gifted student wrote, “My child’s performance has dropped each year . . . . He went to summer school this past year for math, and now most of his classes are career-development, not college-prep, because he has no motivation . . . . He has been seeing a counselor because he has developed some problems, some of which stem from low self-esteem . . . . I used to feel this child could achieve anything in his lifetime, and now I wonder if we can keep him in school long enough to graduate.”

Another gifted youngster I know managed to graduate dead last in his high-school class, his classmates applauding wildly as he strolled across the stage to receive his diploma. (This particular young man did not get a bad education; his refusal to perform landed him in the school library, where he happily consumed book after book without having to sacrifice his image to his peers. It’s not “in” to be brainy.)

Other talented children, however, are doing more than dropping out mentally--they are formally dropping out of school, in record numbers. One young man told me he just got tired of feeling different, of being called a “geek” by his classmates, so he quit making the honor roll, started drinking and taking drugs, and eventually dropped out. I encountered this highly articulate youth as he performed community service, telling other teenagers the story of his recovery from addiction and his conviction in the vehicular homicide of a friend.

In a study of dropouts in Chicago, the anthropologist Margaret LeCompte found that 25 percent ranked in the top quarter of their classes in reading and math scores; some were in the top 5 percent. She concluded that, although the national dropout rate has remained constant since the 1950’s despite numerous reforms, the demographics of those dropping out have changed. “‘lbe new dropouts include the very young, the middle class, the gifted and bored,” she noted, and “many dropout programs that appear to succeed are not aimed at the new dropouts.”

Not all gifted programs are perfect. Some offer little more than enrichment from which any child could benefit. Some merely accelerate the regular curriculum. Some place children with teachers untrained in gifted education, creating classrooms “of’ able learners, not programs “for” them. Some fail to identify poor, culturally disadvantaged, or minority gifted children. In these and other ways, programs can fall short of the mark. But districts should look to improve deficiencies, not eliminate much needed services to our talented young people.

The gifted need to have removed from their lives not “mental- handicap radios,” but the equally obstructive barriers to the full realization of their abilities. Although schools are in the habit of identifying students more by their weaknesses than their strengths, it cannot be wrong to focus on abilities, whether athletic, artistic, social, or cognitive. The gifted need understanding--from peers, parents, teachers, and school officials. And they need programs that, requiring mastery not only of many traditional content areas and skills but also such new ones as inventiveness, creative problem-solving, and ethics, will build on their strengths, challenge them, and help prepare them for future positions of leadership

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 1990 edition of Education Week