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Special Education Opinion

Stop Scapegoating Gifted Students for Inequality

By James R. Delisle — November 06, 2019 4 min read
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When I began teaching children with cognitive difficulties more than 40 years ago, it seemed that everyone I met had something positive to say about me or my job selection: “You must have infinite patience.” “We need more teachers willing to work with students who learn differently.” “I could never do such a demanding job.”

Several years later, after having worked with a 5th grader who had both learning challenges and an incredibly sharp intellect, I changed my career focus to the other end of the special education continuum: I became a teacher of gifted children. Never before had I worked with such a complex child—one who both excelled academically while simultaneously facing definite learning and behavioral issues. I figured if one child like this existed, others did, too. I wanted to help these types of kids.

I thought that my work with gifted kids would be considered as valuable as my work with children with cognitive difficulties. However, that’s when the laudatory comments stopped and vocal criticisms took the place of the close-to-sainthood comments I had received earlier in my career: “We should spend our scarce education dollars on kids who really need it, not gifted kids.” “Gifted kids don’t need you half as much as those who struggle to learn.” “Why are you teaching kids who already have it made in school?”

Today's gifted children and their special education programs are blamed for many of society’s ills."

It all seemed so odd to me, as common sense would dictate that whichever extreme of the intellectual bell curve children fell on, they would have unique learning needs not experienced by so-called “average students.”

Of course, I experienced this logical schism more than four decades ago, so things would certainly be different today, in 2019. And they are. The schism is worse. Today’s gifted children and their special education programs are blamed for many of society’s ills—educational inequality, racial and economic divisions, and the promotion of elitism among the parents whose children have been identified as gifted. I’m not exactly sure why this schism has gotten bigger instead of smaller, but it might have something to do with our collective American discomfort in labeling some kids more intellectually capable than others. And, as a result, gifted kids have become the educational scapegoats for detractors seeking to blame them for simply being themselves.

The most recent salvo into this educational firestorm is the recommendation of the New York City School Diversity Advisory Group, a commission appointed by Mayor Bill DeBlasio, to eliminate most gifted programs in the city and blend the most intellectually capable children into general education classes where the 1st, 4th, or 10th grade teachers will (in theory) be able to meet gifted students’ advanced academic needs.

Proponents of this plan consider the high percentage of White and Asian children in the New York City gifted programs and schools to be de facto evidence of the above-mentioned -isms: racism, classism, and elitism. But, instead of seeing the racial and economic imbalance in gifted programs as a cry to expand methods of identifying giftedness in populations of children who are underserved by them, the solution is to toss out what works for some children because it doesn’t work for all children.

Eliminating gifted programs, in the New York City schools or anywhere else, would be a capitulation to simplistic thinking that denies a blatant reality: that gifted children, like any other children with atypical leaning needs, require an education that embraces their needs, not ignores them.

Using this same faulty logic, I have to wonder if the New York City schools should consider eliminating classes and programs for those with developmental delays, as children of color and students from poverty are generally overrepresented in such options. How about varsity basketball teams, as they tend to be underrepresented by short people and those who can’t run fast? Or theatre and music programs where auditions are required, as these auditions tend to eliminate those who can’t memorize a script or sing like a songbird?

My hunch is that lawsuits would surely follow attempts to eliminate programs for children with learning challenges. And, woe to the public school that promotes an “everyone can be on the varsity team” approach to athletics, as game attendance would surely drop without some baseline standard of performance as a prerequisite for becoming a point guard. When common-sense standards are set to match the expectations of performance in either academic or extracurricular endeavors, we are not practicing discrimination. Instead, we are recognizing that different kids have different levels of gifts and talents, plain and simple.

I have taught and counseled thousands of gifted children and teens. Each of these kids had a parent or other caregiver who wanted nothing more than what every other parent or caregiver wants for their own children: the chance to shine in their own light and to have their intellectual and other learning needs appreciated, respected, and addressed.

Gifted children have always been in our schools—and they always shall be. Denying them educational equity while offering it to every other child with a learning difference is the ultimate example of misplaced bias. By seeking to eliminate gifted programs entirely, New York City schools and any other jurisdiction inclined to follow their lead would be well-advised to consider that the true meaning of equity is rooted in fairness and justice. Applying this understanding of equity universally in schools, not by whim, serves all of our students well, including those who are gifted.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Stop Scapegoating Gifted Children

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