Education Commentary

‘The Gifted Learner Is Underserved’

By Stephen Schroeder-davis — February 22, 1995 5 min read

In the world of education, theoretical approaches frequently gain favor, sometimes as overreactions to approaches no longer held in esteem. Far too often--and to our children’s detriment--these approaches tend to lose proportion and balance. They become dichotomous extremes, like a pendulum swinging between one passionately held position and its polar opposite. Such is the case with the current politically correct movement toward full inclusion.

Radical, or full, inclusionists represent one extreme of this theoretical spectrum, disregarding common sense and overreacting against the previously held policy of exclusion. Both exclusion and full inclusion are flawed and injurious because each restricts, rather than expands, a student’s options.

The inclusion argument is unnecessary; we already have in place an effective, humane legal arbiter. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that “school districts must place students in the least-restrictive environment to the maximum extent appropriate, and to the extent there are no detrimental effects detrimental effects.” The italics in this quote are mine; they emphasize a critical aspect of the law.

It is common knowledge among those of us who actually live and work in schools that a very small group of students, who may or may not be identified for “special service,” creates fear and difficulties for both students and teachers. The amount of strife and chaos they create is vastly disproportionate to their numbers.

In an attempt to objectively quantify the time and resources allocated to the chronically disruptive student, our administration compiled statistics related to “office offenses,” misconduct serious enough to warrant removal from class for consultation with the principal.

During one 8th-grade year, six students were responsible for 87 disciplinary actions, nearly a third of the 277 recorded infractions. And records show that such disproportionate numbers are typical for all students in all grades.

Their behaviors included extortion, verbal abuse of teachers, physical assault of students, and just plain bullying. Yet, these students received far more individualized attention than any achieving student could expect during an entire school career.

Should these students be abandoned? Of course not; most come from dysfunctional homes and require more, rather than less, intensive support.

However, referring back to our “legal arbiter,” one must question whether requiring that these students be mainstreamed is “appropriate,” when clearly there are “detrimental effects” for staff and other students, and arguably for the student himself. Until these students consistently exhibit the ability and willingness to abide by common rules of civility, they should not be allowed to continuously victimize the vast majority of our students, who are perfectly willing to behave sensibly and compassionately while furthering their education.

Further, by demanding that all students be taught in a heterogeneous classroom, full inclusionists violate common sense and sound practice not once, but twice. Dysfunctional students who have little to gain and less to offer are inflicted on their classmates, while other students, including those with extraordinary abilities, are confined to what, for them, becomes an extremely restrictive environment. The overburdened teacher, meanwhile, must attempt to deal simultaneously with the now overwhelmingly broad continuums of maturity, ability, and motivation existing in the classroom.

Exalting heterogeneity as the most effective means of grouping, as well as the most ethical, (as it allegedly fosters a strong sense of “community”), full inclusionists refuse to allow highly able students out of the classroom for pull-out and other enrichment programs. They cite research that says that all students benefit from an inclusive classroom, deftly ignoring more recent sophisticated research that concludes that ability grouping, when accompanied by appropriately differentiated curricula, is effective for all learners (especially the highly able) and is injurious to no one. Full inclusionists insist that the building of community, rather than an appropriately challenging, democratic education, is of ultimate importance. I disagree.

Granting primacy to full inclusion for the purpose of “building community” is misguided in both its means and its end. First of all, full inclusion is as likely to arouse righteous indignation as engender empathy. Additionally, the vast majority of Americans are far more interested in classrooms with order, discipline, and high academic and behavioral standards than with “building community.”

Authentic communities are a worthy, but derivative, consequence of an appropriate education, a byproduct of individuals pursuing relevant, challenging curricula. However, such a community is virtually impossible if predatory classmates--however small their number--continue to unnecessarily distract the class.

And what of the most underserved, underfunded population in our schools, the gifted learner?

The U.S. Education Department released a report in 1993 entitled, “National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent,” estimating that less than 20 percent of gifted students are appropriately challenged in school, a situation described as a “quiet crisis.” But a crisis with loud repercussions. Consider the evidence offered by our best students’ embarrassingly low standing relative to previous generations of U.S. students as well as current international comparisons.

Additionally, research regarding curricular options has shown that a wide variety of curricular and student-based services is necessary to meet the needs of the gifted population.

That dictum corresponds precisely with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association recommendations for inclusion--namely, that schools continue to offer “a full continuum of placement and service options.” And that approach, of course, also insures that students from both groups are afforded the least-restrictive environment for their education.

Full inclusion joins a long list of reforms that either disregard, misrepresent, or are oblivious to the research on gifted students and the ramifications such reforms may have on them.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of full inclusion is that, once again, a very small, disproportionally influential group of advocates, pursuing primarily a social rather than an academic agenda, is gaining favor with policymakers who appear eager to mandate programs with little regard for research, public or practitioner opinion, or potential long-term consequences.

It is time to resurrect public education’s most urgent goal: producing a generation of informed, capable students. And it is way past time to reassert the most effective means of doing so. To achieve that goal, we must offer a flexible, open-ended, diverse menu of education options that both reflects and accommodates our highly diverse student population.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1995 edition of Education Week as ‘The Gifted Learner Is Underserved’