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Education Opinion

The Unkindest Cut

By Frances R. Spielhagen & Bruce S. Cooper — April 12, 2005 7 min read
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Gifted students are expected to drift along with the tide, garnering whatever they can from the educational experiences offered.

The use of the G-word, giftedness, stirs fear in the hearts of many educators, who are more concerned of late with basic academic mastery, as prescribed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, than with helping the gifted. What does one do with and for students who have already achieved the benchmarks of the current educational standards? How can the school system address their diverse styles and needs when it must funnel so much time, energy, and resources into bringing all students up to a minimum standard of proficiency?

One solution to this dilemma has been the Javits Grants, named for Jacob K. Javits, the late U.S. senator from New York. These federal grants successfully, if only minimally, address the needs of gifted children. Unfortunately, they are now on the chopping block as the 109th Congress turns to budget deliberations. The president’s proposed $2.57 trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2006, sent to Capitol Hill in February, is designed to decrease the deficit and increase defense spending and foreign aid. But the plan also cuts 48 education programs, including the Javits Grants.

Originally passed by Congress in 1988, the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act has provided resources for state and local education agencies to conduct research, develop programs, and enhance existing gifted programs in states and school districts. The Javits program is the only federal initiative that specifically addresses gifted and talented students, using the definition of “gifted and talented” contained in the glossary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The U.S. Department of Education administers these grants, which are funded annually by Congress. The current allocation of $11.022 million is also distributed across several university-based research centers, state departments of education, and local educational agencies.

Divisive rhetoric and heated discourse have always surrounded the identification and education of gifted students and have led to perennial philosophical arguments over egalitarianism vs. elitism. To some, the American dream of educating all citizens seems at war with educating well those who benefit best from what educators have to offer. The resulting divide has produced several “stupid arguments” (our term, but apt) when policymakers and practitioners sit down to address the education of highly able students. Here are seven:

All children are gifted.” No one would question the innate dignity of all human beings and the essential right of all children to grow intellectually. But those bottom-line premises must not obscure the reality that some people simply learn faster and at higher levels than others. Our society admires and even exalts a gifted athlete like Tiger Woods, whose early precocity engaged our imaginations and encouraged parents to put golf clubs in the hands of their 3-year-olds. But children who display unusual cognitive ability challenge the sensitivities of critics, who contend that appropriately differentiated academic experiences for highly able children are somehow unfair to other children.

It’s not fair to offer special services for gifted students.” Zero-sum reasoning dominates the appropriation of limited resources in education. The much-needed attention to bringing all students up to a certain minimum standard of proficiency has resulted in a covetous use of funding. No one questions or begrudges the myriad special services and programs provided for students with specific learning needs that hinder their progress. But gifted students are expected to drift along with the tide, garnering whatever they can from the educational experiences offered. Once included in the parameters of the law then known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, PL 94-142, services for the gifted—and the allocation of funds for those services—have become regarded as frills that deduct from the common good.

Gifted students learn on their own.” Since gifted students quickly master the basic educational goals of the curriculum, or arrive at a particular grade level or class having already learned the basic curriculum, they present a challenge to educators. Frequently, highly able students are encouraged to work independently, and many respond well to this encouragement. But some essential questions remain: What are they learning? Are they moving forward, working alone and in isolation? Are they learning at all? And, more important, what are schools doing for these students?

Gifted programs provide the time and space for children to learn at their own pace, with peers of similar capability and interests, and to grow both intellectually and emotionally. It’s hard to argue with that, but some do.

The wide appeal of egalitarianism often creates a leveling of experiences, depriving gifted children of the opportunity to advance academically.

Gifted programs are elitist.”Some critics maintain that programs for the gifted isolate students, who need to learn to interact with peers at all levels of ability to mirror the diversity found in American society. The wide appeal of egalitarianism often creates a leveling of experiences, depriving gifted children of the opportunity to advance academically. Rather than accepting the need to develop exceptional talent, some interpret the American dream of equality as requiring the same experiences for all. Yet President John F. Kennedy, more than 40 years ago, challenged the logic of this notion when he said, “All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.”

Gifted programs are racist.” Much attention has been paid to the achievement gap between minority students and underserved populations and their more affluent white peers. And, in fact, when gifted programs have been tied to the financial resources of individual districts, services for the gifted often have eluded minority students and children in lower socioeconomic districts. In recent years, however, the National Association for Gifted Children has promoted comprehensive, inclusive identification policies for gifted programs. The now-threatened Javits Grants have supported research into identification instruments and program options for these underserved populations. The loss of this funding will set back such efforts at inclusion, long sought by educators of the gifted nationwide.

Gifted children are weird. No one knows what to do with them anyway.” The “nerd” or “geek” stereotypes of gifted children prevalent in the media and popular culture are part of a growing anti-intellectualism in American society. This attitude creeps into educational discourse because most teachers have not been trained for the education of the gifted. They may not even know how to accommodate accelerated learning in a heterogeneous classroom. Already overburdened with the demands of those who must be brought up to standard, teachers recoil from addressing the equally real needs of their gifted students. In this case, however, unfamiliarity breeds contempt, or at least fear and uncertainty about how to proceed.

Once more, the work of the Javits-funded research and curriculum-development centers (such as the Center for the Gifted at the College of William and Mary and the National Research Center at the University of Connecticut) provide resources and training for teachers facing the challenge of educating all their students adequately and equitably.

Why bother? Gifted students pass the state tests anyway.” Perhaps the “most stupid” of the arguments against gifted education is the contention that minimum, or perhaps “adequate,” proficiency in academics should be the goal for all students. Confronted with dismal showings by U.S. students in global comparisons such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, assessments, we should realize that neglecting the capabilities of our brightest students is a form of economic and political suicide.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress also has revealed a steady decline in U.S. students’ performance, especially in the middle school grades. And educators across the nation have bemoaned the flattening of outcomes within their school environments. By setting a minimum standard, and holding all students accountable for reaching that low level, a ceiling has been placed on both expectation and outcome.

Modifying the curriculum to enhance the growth of highly able students is not without benefit to other students. It can result in vibrant curriculum initiatives that energize the entire school community. Once more, the words of President Kennedy resonate: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

The Javits Grants, long a beacon of hope for educators of the gifted, have been part of this lifting process. They have been the major recourse for those who strive to ensure the intellectual growth of all students, regardless of ability. They have been the wind beneath the wings of many aspiring students, who may not have known the grants existed, but flourished in the environments they helped build.

Without these federal grants and other support for inclusive excellence, American educators may face the dire consequences implicit in another well-worn aphorism: “Stupid is as stupid does.”


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