Education Opinion

What Gifted Educators Can Learn From Sarah Palin

By James R. Delisle — March 30, 2010 4 min read

I remember a time when presidential politics began about a year before the next election, giving the incumbent commander in chief about three years to get his executive office in order. Those days are gone. Today, the campaign for president begins the day after the inauguration, as politicos in the losing party start teasing the American public with individuals who might be poised to unseat the newly elected Oval Office occupant.

Following the 2008 election, one person’s name quickly rose to the top of the loyal opposition’s hopefuls list: Sarah Palin. While some have guffawed at the possibility of this ex-governor of Alaska leading the nation, others have embraced her with the openest of arms. Like her or not, Sarah Palin has to be commended for one thing: She is catering to a particular base of voters who believe she can do no wrong.

Gifted education advocates could learn a lot by following her lead.

No wonder public support for gifted children is so easy to ignore: The field's leading experts can't even agree on which children would qualify to receive it."

Here’s what I mean. It used to be that the collection of gifted children for whom we supporters advocated was quite small. Generally defined then as the top 1 percent to 3 percent of school-age students, gifted children represented just a small fraction of the K-12 population. This was in the era of Lewis Terman, the designer of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, when an IQ of 140 or so was the primary criterion for giftedness. Whether one believed that gifted children had singular needs or not, at least when people spoke of giftedness then, everyone recognized they were talking about “the smartest of the smart”—those children whose intellectual abilities were so far from typical that the word “extraordinary” would apply.

It didn’t take long for educators and psychologists to begin replacing this conception with definitions of giftedness that would apply to many more children. First we had Northwestern University professor Paul A. Witty’s notion, in 1940, that a gifted individual is anyone whose performance is consistently remarkable in any potentially valuable area. Thirty years later, we had the federal government’s multifactored view of giftedness as encompassing academic achievement, creativity, and/or leadership, as well as innate intellectual ability. Shortly thereafter came the educational psychologist Joseph S. Renzulli’s idea that giftedness involved three attributes brought to bear upon some area of human activity, with one of those attributes being abilities that are above average, but not necessarily superior. I would also argue that Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences,” while not promoted as an expanded view of giftedness, was certainly interpreted that way by many educators, who adopted the “different kinds of smarts” mantra so popular in today’s schools.

In each of these cases, more and more children were added to the ranks of giftedness. And, in the process, the entire concept of giftedness was diluted to the point of absurdity. Today, when an advocate is asked to define the population to whom the term “gifted” applies, the result can be a blank stare, for even the staunchest of the field’s defenders are hard-pressed to state exactly who is to be considered a gifted child.

In losing our hold on the fundamental essence of our field—a common definition of giftedness—we gifted-child advocates have also lost credibility with a skeptical public. When giftedness is a quality shared by the masses, not just a few, we look uniquely silly as advocates. Other areas of special education are defined more precisely than ours, and when a proponent for children with intellectual disabilities asks for support, there is clarity in the population of children who fall under the term’s umbrella. With giftedness having no precise and concise definition, politicians who control the purse strings, and administrators who allocate a school’s resources, are unsure of which children they are being asked to support. Are they superior in their intellect? Merely above average? Possessed with a multiple menu of linguistic or kinesthetic intelligences? No wonder public support for gifted children is so easy to ignore: The field’s leading experts can’t even agree on which children would qualify to receive it.

And that’s where gifted-child advocates can learn from Sarah Palin. Even though her views of government and politics are not shared universally by the public, Ms. Palin’s message to a certain core of constituents is unmistakably popular. Why? Because of its clarity. She has defined precisely who she is and where she stands. Both her admirers and her detractors can agree on one thing: Sarah Palin has carved out a political niche that is exact and identifiable.

Gifted-child advocates, especially those in positions to influence through their writing and speaking, need to be as precise as Ms. Palin in advocating for gifted children. The first step in doing this is limiting their definition to a select, small percentage of children whose unique needs are so extraordinary that even skeptics would agree these children stand out from their classmates in remarkable ways.

Will this alienate a certain segment of the population that believes “everyone is gifted in some way,” or those who maintain that giftedness is manifest across a broad array of intelligences? You bet it will. But if we, as a field, are not up to the task of getting our definitional house in order, then it won’t be long before the G in National Association for Gifted Children gets retagged as “Generic.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as What Gifted Educators Can Learn From Sarah Palin