Education Commentary

The Education of the Gifted and Talented: Nurturing a National Resource

By Lawrence V. Castiglione — June 06, 1984 7 min read

Americans believe that individual excellence ought to be recognized and rewarded. We also support the idea of an egalitarian commitment of our national resources to the welfare of the common man. These beliefs come into sharp conflict in one of the sensitive areas of personal concern and public responsibility: the education of gifted and talented children.

We want to reward manifest achievement and to cultivate the latent talents of children with high potential, but not if to do so means segregating them from their less able agemates or redirecting scarce resources from programs that now aid low-achieving children. Despite a longstanding educational tradition of strong public advocacy embracing the virtues of individual merit as the definitive criterion of permissible discrimination, observed merit--demonstrated in outstanding skills, achievement, and performance--has become suspect. For many educators, and much of the public, the notion of special treatment for youngsters who are especially talented smacks of elitism and runs counter to their native concepts of democracy.

A furor that erupted in Montgomery County, Md., is a fairly recent case in point. A teacher attempted to use portions of Aristotle’s Poetics and Machiavelli’s The Prince in his 10th-grade classes. These selections were to be used as an elective extra-credit assignment for the ablest students, and then only in those classes that had voted for their inclusion. The school principal ordered the teacher to stop using the books because they were not included in the districtwide syllabus for the 10th grade. When the teacher continued to use the unauthorized texts to enrich the students’ understanding of Shakespeare, a lengthy legal battle ensued.

The issue of interest here is not whether the teacher was in violation of school-district rules. Instead, the provocative question is why those rules, so rigorously enforced when an attempt was made to enrich the curriculum for gifted and talented students, are, by contrast, so routinely waived when teachers in that district introduce low-level reading matter that has not been formally approved in order to aid children who are not learning well.

Many Americans inappropriately equate ideas of political democracy and equality before the law by arguing that naturally occurring differences between individuals in ability and performance ought to be ignored in the name of equity. But equal treatment of equals implies unequal treatment of unequals. The Gifted and Talented Children’s Education Act of 1978 provides special treatment to the condition of giftedness, defining the gifted and talented population as those who by virtue of their exceptional abilities require enriching services and activities not ordinarily provided by schools. While enrichment is incontestably valuable for all, the fact remains that gifted and talented children require a higher level of intellectual or artistic stimulation than do average children.

In general, the pace, focus, and expectations in gifted and talented programs distinguish them from curricula designed for average children. Historically, gifted and talented programs have involved wholesale exclusion of the vast majority of students through the use of very narrow conceptual and operational definitions of giftedness. But broader and more inclusive definitions can be used, and abilities worth fostering--such as leadership, creativity, visual or performing talent, specific academic aptitudes as well as general intellectual ability--can be measured so that they only moderately overlap. When this is done, estimates of the numbers of children defined as gifted and talented become huge--as much as 20 percent of the school population. This approach fits with my general position to cultivate talent as widely as possible.

How can we give these children the kind of quality of education t heir abilities or performance merit? It costs money. The most powerful factor associated with the quality of a child’s education remains the economic status of the school district in which he or she resides. Most poor and minority groups live in poor school districts. Education is not financed as a national enterprise, so widely varying regional resources are employed to meet what are actually national needs. Once pupils have been evaluated and identified as having unusually high abilities, a local school board must wrestle with the problem of paying for special training. Currently, there is no escaping it--the expense of a differentiated curriculum, from development through implementation (along with costs associated with retraining teachers in instructional strategies capable of accommodating the learning styles of intellectually and creatively talented pupils) must be borne by taxpayers at the district level. But the economic problems of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, combined with real and substantial increases in defense spending, steep increases in Social Security takes, and high unemployment, have combined to produce severe reductions in general revenues used to finance education. The consequence for educational policy and practice in general have been disastrous. The gifted and talented in particular are not seen as especially needy in contrast to the ample evidence of suffering among the most disadvantaged in our population.

Thus, the financial pie has decreased at the same time that the number who are entitled to a slice has increased. Even using very restrictive definitions of giftedness, the federal contribution to education of the gifted resulted in an 84-percent reduction in funding from 1981 to 1982. Had the pool of potential recipients of special educational consideration been increased from 3 percent to 20 percent, the $8.02 spent per child would have fallen to $1.20 per year. The figures speak for themselves. Across the country, the effort given to educating the gifted and talented has been drastically reduced.

The core idea behind past funding of educational practices seems to have been that all programs could be funded, given adequate resources. Even if this were possible, it would not necessarily be desirable. Educational programs sometimes work at cross purposes. Many educators, parents, and politicians believe that the effects of social and economic inequities in our culture are so great that poor and minority children will never be represented in proportion to their true incidence in the population even when both achievement and potential are taken into account in selection for gifted and talented programs. I could not disagree more strongly. Contentions that poor or minority children would suffer if gifted and talented education is supported rest on the unfounded belief (or unspoken fear) that there are no gifted and talented among the poor minorities. On this issue, Harry A. Passow, a researcher and writer at Columbia University, argues: “Talent is not the prerogative of any racial or ethnic group, any social class or any residential area. It may lie untapped in some situation under some condition, but no population has either a monopoly on or absence of talents. Nor will depriving the gifted and talented pupil of opportunities to develop and use his gifts result in upgrading the attainments of his less able peers. Such misguided and meaningless egalitarianism contributes to the development of no one in particular.”

Based on the conviction that gifted and talented children constitute a critical natural resource and, further, that these children are deserving of special consideration by virtue of their potential contribution to our society as a whole, I advocate several policies:

  • Federal support for an active, nationwide effort to identify gifted and talented children, wherever they may be found, exclusive of quotas, proportional or geographic representation within populations or social classes.
  • Federal support for gifted and talented education in local school districts, with the understanding that equalization is an ideal goal, not an absolute standard.
  • Greatly increased federal support for research on the most effective identification of gifted and talented children; program and materials development and evaluation; and teacher training; as well as fundamental research into the psychological and sociological basis of giftedness.
  • To alleviate current tensions more immediately, we should take several other steps:

  • Permit local and individual efforts to enrich curricula with special programs for the gifted and talented;
  • Move to include gifted and talented children under the same umbrella of statutory protection that currently shields handicapped exceptional children.
  • Increase public awareness and appreciation of the contribution of society’s gifted minority through both mass media and institutional recognition. We desperately need a climate in which excellence is rewarded and respected.
  • The importance of human capital-investment policy ought not to be underestimated. As Arnold Toynbee has written: "... to give a chance to potential creativity is a matter of life and death for any society. This is all-important, because the outstanding creative percentage of the population is mankind’s ultimate capital, and the only one with which only man has been endowed.”