To the Editor:
Both your Sept. 15 and Sept. 22, 2010, issues contain articles on the need for educators to address science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, education, so that the country and its students can prosper (“STEM Plans Embedded in Winning Proposals for Race to the Top”; “Expert Panels Tackle Enrichment Strategies for STEM Education”). It is critical that in these efforts, educators and policymakers also address the identification and provision of services for our best and brightest students.
Concern for the country’s ability to tap the enormous potential of these students is not new. In the early 1970s, then-U.S. Commissioner of Education Sidney Marland Jr. reported to Congress that the number of gifted and talented students nationwide was 2.6 million—and that the educational and other services they received were either nonexistent or woefully inadequate.
The Marland Report, released in 1972, brought about federal legislation aimed at gifted and talented students. But today, almost 40 years later, the problem of inappropriate educational options has yet to be solved.
Interest in identifying and serving the gifted has vacillated in the United States depending how the country views international competition. Periods of urgency and action have included the late 1950s, when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch ignited fears of growing Soviet dominance in science.
Today, the fears are just as compelling, with global economic and technological competition prompting renewed calls for greater emphasis on STEM subjects. Yet, when it comes to serving America’s brightest young people, the federal government’s stance is virtually unchanged since the 1970s. It allocates only 0.02 percent of the budget to such programs through the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act.
Now the Javits grant money is being threatened. Proposals have been made to roll Javits funds into financing for the Institute for Education Sciences. The Obama administration has proposed consolidating Javits with the Advanced Placement Program and the High School Graduation Initiative, into a $100 million fund called College Pathways and Accelerated Learning, which would be designed to increase graduation rates and college preparedness in high-poverty schools.
This is admirable, of course. But in attempting to elevate the educational level for all, will we be making the specific needs of the gifted and talented secondary?
Expert panels have been established to study such questions. Will we once again ignore the needs of our best and brightest? Or will we take advantage of some of the suggestions made by the National Science Board, such as providing more access to advanced coursework and enrichment programs, and making use of “above-level tests” that could help identify gifted and talented students, and hold educators at each grade level responsible for the performance of their top students?
There is no one solution, but challenges can present opportunities. Grant proposals under the administration’s Race to the Top initiative may have a positive impact on the status of gifted education. We hope that the administration will incorporate the best of these ideas and continue to look for more and better ways to strengthen these vital programs.
A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as In STEM Initiatives, Don’t Forget the Gifted