Education Commentary

The Calligraphy on the Wall?

By George Lederer — June 17, 1992 6 min read

A recent front-page article in Education Week reports that programs for the gifted are coming under fire in many districts throughout the country (“Budget Cutters, School Reformers Taking Aim at Gifted Education,’' March 18, 1992). While this news may be troubling, especially for those whose job title contains the word “gifted,’' it is not altogether negative, nor should it be surprising. For a number of reasons, the field of “gifted education’’ seems to be passing its peak in terms of funding, interest, and community support. Many of these reasons are outside the control, or even the influence, of practitioners, researchers, and theorists in the field.

  • (1) The most obvious of these is demographics. It has to do with the baby-boom generation, or more specifically, with their children. The first of the baby boomers began having children in the early 70’s, and these kids began arriving in public schools by 1978 or so. School enrollments grew consistently for the next seven or eight years, along with the bulge in the population.

This generation of young parents represented the most prosperous, best-fed, and best-educated group in American history. A larger percentage of them had graduate degrees than schools had ever seen before. This was the “yuppie’’ generation. This generation, which by the early 80’s had been clearly identified by marketers and advertisers, wanted--and to a large extent got--the best of everything.

It is not surprising that among these parents there was heretofore-unheard-of support for special programs for gifted students. After all, these were erudite, concerned parents who knew that their children were “special.’' They demanded, eloquently and vociferously, that districts attend to their special needs. By the early 80’s, they began to get results. The Reagan years were the boom years for the gifted.

But by 1990, these “baby-boom babies’’ were exiting the system. And the influx into the primary grades of children from this generation of parents has largely ceased. Demand for these programs is falling off, and, in the face of other issues, support is waning.

  • (2) In the last few years, some new trends in education seem to be in direct conflict with the goals of programs for the gifted. Buzzwords like “heterogeneous grouping’’ and “cooperative learning’’ are becoming commonplace. These movements stress the learning value of maintaining natural age groups, in which students interact with peers of varying intellectual and scholastic ability. While research is inconclusive, these movements are gaining popularity, especially in districts with changing socioeconomic population bases. It is becoming increasingly difficult for administrators, both philosophically and politically, to justify special programs, teachers, or materials for the “gifted.’'

Another important trend is the growing recognition of the importance of self-esteem in a child’s education. Children who do not feel good about themselves, who do not have high expectations for themselves, are not likely to accomplish much. Schools, it is argued, must do whatever is possible to foster a positive self-image in all students, regardless of our perceptions of their abilities. Separating students according to their abilities fosters a negative self-image in those students identified as having low ability. Programs for the gifted are seen, in an increasing number of districts, as being contrary to the goals of self-esteem.

  • (3) In this period of budgetary shortfall, superintendents everywhere are looking for “fat’’ to trim. Talented and Gifted programs are attractive places to cut. These programs, and particularly these staff positions, typically do not serve a large percentage of students, and they are often not mandated by the state. There is usually minimal out-of-district financial support, and a high cost-per-student. Furthermore, in most districts these programs and staff positions are relatively recent additions to the budget. Faced with alternatives that may increase class sizes or eliminate programs that are highly popular in the community at large--or that affect large numbers of students--superintendents find cuts to the T.A.G. program tempting.
  • (4) In the last few years, there has been wider acceptance and use of practices and theories made prominent by the Talented and Gifted movement. “Higher-order thinking skills’’ and “creativity,’' once the exclusive province of the teacher of the gifted, have found their way into the curriculum of the “regular’’ classroom. Opportunities for individual and small-group study and enrichment now exist in many classrooms. Interdisciplinary studies and “whole language’’ approaches to curriculum are also becoming commonplace. In fact, the trainers that promote these movements in professional-development workshops suggest activities and classroom-management strategies that sound remarkably familiar to practitioners of “gifted’’ education. And it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to reach the conclusion that with a flexible approach to curriculum, the needs of gifted and talented will, to a large extent, be served in the regular classroom. What is needed, it is argued, is not a special program for special children, but a general program that meets the needs of individuals.
  • (5) The last of these reasons is one we in the field have had some control over. To a large extent, practitioners and theorists in gifted education have failed--at least until fairly recently--to address the larger pressing needs of the school community. We have been isolated and self-involved. Major problems like violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, dropout rates, and vandalism have been perceived as outside of our bailiwick.

While we express concern over the “gifted underachiever,’' and even form national organizations devoted to the study of these individuals, we do little, in most districts, to work with student populations that have been labeled “at risk’’ or “socially and emotionally disturbed,’' even though we know intuitively that these are often the same students. We know that materials and techniques developed for the gifted can be very effective when used in an “alternative education’’ program, but rarely do we press to include students in this category, especially when they have not been formally identified as gifted. Perhaps even more than our colleagues at the other end of the special-education spectrum, we have been committed to boxes and labels.

A consistent criticism of programs for the gifted is that they are elitist. Insofar as the numbers of African-American, Latino, and other minority students identified as “gifted’’ remain statistically low, the criticism is well-founded. Efforts at resolving this problem have been late, and few, and largely weak.

But all this should not be perceived as bad news. Here in Oregon, a new mandate requires us to deal with gifted-and-talented students according to their needs and abilities, according to their “rate and level’’ of learning, at every stage of the school experience. Pull-out programs are largely unacceptable now. In a training workshop last year, one teacher asserted: “I don’t know who these kids are, and I don’t care!’' She’s right, of course. It really shouldn’t matter. It really should be our responsibility to deal with every child according to her or his specific needs.

Of course, we need to pay attention to gifted students. We need to make sure that they are challenged, and not bored. We need to make sure that what they already know is respected. We need to ensure that they have opportunities for leadership, original creative work, deep analysis, and “gestalt’’ holistic treatment of real-world problems. Sure. But isn’t this true of everybody?

Specialists in the gifted and talented should see as one of their major goals, in this rapidly-changing educational environment, to eliminate themselves. And whether we see it or not, it appears to be happening.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as The Calligraphy on the Wall?