The Miseducation of Our Gifted Children

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Numerous studies confirm a sad finding: The most intellectually gifted students in the United States typically have little good to say about their schooling. Gifted children are usually bored and unengaged in school; they tend to be highly critical of their teachers, who they feel know less than they do, and they are often underachievers. In the best-case scenario, teachers recognize a student as gifted but, unable to teach at this level, they let the child learn independently. In the worst-case scenario, teachers fail to recognize a child as gifted and classify the child as unmotivated or even hostile.

Why do our schools fail our most gifted students? I believe there are two reasons. To begin with, the notion of providing special education to those with the highest abilities offends our egalitarian sensibilities. The gifted are seen as specially privileged and thus as not in need of special help. The second reason is the deep strain of anti-intellectualism that pervades our culture. While we do not mind providing specialized training to athletic students, or to students in the school orchestra, we resist providing advanced instruction for students with intellectual gifts.

In 1972, Sidney Marland, the U.S. commissioner of education, issued a report that stated that only 4 percent of gifted children were receiving any kind of special service. Moreover, half of the superintendents surveyed in the report said that they had no gifted children in their school systems. Today, many teachers and superintendents react very differently to the question of the presence of gifted children in their midst. All of their students are gifted, they often insist.

Both responses are ways of avoiding the problem. Education for the gifted is under attack today. In 1993, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley reported that only 2 cents of every $100 spent on precollegiate education in 1990 went to gifted programs. And the 1996 federal budget allocated only $3 million for gifted education. We spend far more on education for children with disabilities than on children with gifts.

But this is not a cry for more money to be spent on existing programs. Indeed, the problem needs to be construed differently. We need, first of all, to recognize the striking difference between moderately and profoundly gifted children. Profoundly gifted children are years ahead of their peers. They learn rapidly and independently, and have an extraordinary rage to master the area in which they have exceptional ability. These are the children who read voraciously (often nonfiction) before entering kindergarten, who turn everyday experiences into math challenges to solve, or who induce by themselves the rules of algebra or phonics. Moderately gifted children, in contrast, are more appropriately described as bright children, children who may score 130 or so on an IQ test, who can achieve highly, but who do not show the kind of obsessive rage to master and striking precocity found in the profoundly gifted.

I believe we are wasting what slim resources we have for the gifted on minimal and bland programs for the moderately gifted. The most common form of service for the gifted at the elementary school level is a pull-out enrichment class. What this means, typically, is that children who qualify (usually by scoring 130 on an IQ test) leave their classrooms once or twice a week for a class in which they are grouped with others like themselves, and in which they engage in creative problem-solving, projects, games, or field trips.

Enrichment classes are weak solutions to big problems. They offer only a few hours a week of possibly advanced instruction (the rest of the time students spend in the regular classroom), they offer little continuity, they do not allow students to study something in depth, and one kind of curriculum is offered to all gifted children, whether their gifts lie in mathematics, science, writing, or another area. These classes are not clearly distinguishable from good classes for ordinary children. Moreover, research on these programs has shown them to be at best of modest benefit. Probably students of any ability level would benefit from the kinds of open-ended, project-based learning that goes on in the best enrichment classes.

Other solutions today include ability grouping in full-time gifted classes (but only in some school districts) and moderate grade skipping. (Ability grouping defined.) The entrance requirement into a gifted class is again typically a score of 130 on an IQ test. Students in these classes do achieve more than equally gifted children who remain in a mixed-ability classroom, but the benefit remains modest. As for grade skipping, studies of moderate skipping show that this kind of acceleration has beneficial effects and is not harmful socially or emotionally.

Special school programs for the gifted clearly do have positive effects, and a good case can be made that our most gifted need more than what schools offer for most children. However, the benefits shown have always been modest. Moreover, most children in these programs are moderately rather than profoundly gifted. This is because the entrance requirement for a gifted program is some demonstration of moderate gift, whether this be an IQ score of 130, an equivalent achievement-test score, or a teacher recommendation. Profoundly gifted children, those whose IQs are far higher than 130, often remain underchallenged in gifted programs, underchallenged even in special schools for the gifted. These children do not find their appropriate level of stimulation until they reach college.

Moderately gifted children would not be bored in school and thus in need of special services if we did the obvious--raise the standards in our schools for all children. There is abundant evidence that when we raise the standards in classrooms, achievement rises for all levels of students, not just the brightest. This is the guiding philosophy of the Accelerated Schools Project founded by Henry Levin of Stanford University. These schools treat low-achieving children like gifted ones, and accelerate them rather than give them easy remedial work. And low achievers achieve more in accelerated than in standard remedial classes. (The same kind of successful policy was described by Michael Rutter and his colleagues in their 1979 book, Fifteen Thousand Hours, and by Ron Edmonds and Larry Lezotte in their studies of effective schools.)

Another strong piece of evidence that raising standards for all results in higher achievement levels from all comes from international comparisons of student achievement. It is by now well established that American schools have low standards compared with schools in many Western European and Asian countries. And American children fare poorly on achievement tests compared with children in most other developed countries. The only plausible explanation for the higher performance of average students in other countries is that these students are held to higher expectations.

While elevating standards will mean that the moderately gifted will no longer be understimulated, the profoundly gifted will still be out of sync with what our schools can offer. We can be sure of this, since even when profoundly gifted children are enrolled in schools for the gifted, they remain years ahead of their more moderately gifted classmates. It is these profoundly gifted children whom we need to identify, and these in whom we should invest resources for gifted education.

What kinds of programs should be offered for the extremely gifted? First, instead of the term "gifted class," why not use the more precise term "advanced class"? And rather than using an IQ test for admission, why not use what the student has actually achieved? Programs for the gifted have paid scant attention to critiques of IQ tests as narrow and arbitrary and as assessing test-taking skills rather than the ability to think critically, understand complex materials, and break new intellectual ground. Another problem with IQ scores as admission criteria is that all too often an overall score is used. An overall score tells us nothing about the student's particular area of gift. An IQ of 130 can be achieved by various routes. We should be using domain-specific kinds of identification so that students are selected as needing advanced instruction in math or reading or writing, but not necessarily in all subjects. We should be following the approach pioneered by the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and carried on by the Center for Talented Youth (recently renamed the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth), in which fast-paced, intensive summer courses are offered in the student's domain of talent.

We are faced with a choice. We can choose to make adjustments in our schools for children with moderate intellectual gifts. Or we can choose to make educational adjustments for children with profound intellectual gifts. We have currently chosen the former option. We have thus had to spread our meager resources very thin, and have had to ignore the needs of the extremes. If we choose the latter option, we can focus on those who most need advanced instruction. Choosing the latter option need not mean sacrificing the needs of the moderately gifted. For if we elevated our standards, the moderately gifted could be appropriately challenged.

Vol. 16, Issue 07, Pages 35, 44

Published in Print: October 16, 1996, as The Miseducation of Our Gifted Children
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