I read a distressing article in the Times-Picayune this morning. The article describes how the “Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators”* wants to get rid of gifted and talented programs in Louisiana, keeping all gifted students in regular classrooms, with no special opportunities for them. Take this quote from a letter written by their president:
“We question the ability of anyone to prove that a student with a 4.0 GPA needs special education services because his educational performance is significantly affected.”
This is galling on so many levels. First of all, many gifted students don’t have a 4.0 GPA because they’re bored out of their mind in class and have no interest in material that is far beneath them. Secondly, if a student could be learning much more advanced material but is instead stuck covering subjects far below his intellectual level, his educational performance is being “significantly affected.” Sure, 99th percentile standardized test scores may look good and pull up the average for everyone else, but they really mean a student isn’t being challenged enough. A student like this may “perform” well, but his time is being wasted and he’s not allowed to reach his potential.
The article has a great deal of personal significance for me; it even mentions my elementary school (where I went from kindergarten through fifth grade) and its GT teacher. We were pulled out from our normal classes once a day; we’d usually miss each subject once a week. It was a really great program, and the Catholic elementary school I attended for sixth and seventh grade had nothing of the sort, which was very disappointing. **
This specific article is really just a small example of the ways in which the American educational system ignores and fails the brightest students. Consider this quote from a 2007 Time magazine article: “American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn’t even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs.” Ten times as much on the retarded as on the gifted! How can this make sense? The two groups are roughly similar in size, and yet one group gets astronomically more funding.
Consider this essay from the mother of an autistic son and a gifted daughter. She describes how her son has an aide beside him when he is in a regular classroom, and spends most of his time in a group of two to six children led by a specialist. The mother is immensely grateful for the amount of time specially-trained adults spend teaching her son and developing strategies to help him learn. Meanwhile, the daughter gets just three hours a week of gifted education, with a teacher who scolds her for “‘making things confusing for everyone else.’” The woman does not explain how she heard that quote, so I’m inclined to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt; nevertheless, there are surely a great many teachers who are ill-equipped or disinclined to deal with gifted students. This mother asks us to consider the stakes involved:
“Most parents of autistic children describe goals for their kids in…modest terms: being able to bathe themselves, get a job, or live semi-independently. My daughter has the potential for much more. If she were given even a fraction of the customized education that my son receives, she could learn the skills needed to prevent the next worldwide flu pandemic, or invent a new form of nonpolluting transportation. Perhaps she could even discover a cure for autism.”
Think about that. For some of the disabled, the most they can hope for is a minimum wage job and a barely independent life. But a gifted student could figure out a way to stop global warming, develop a new way to put people on Mars, cure cancer, write the great American novel, compose a magnificent symphony…the list goes on. But clearly, the heights our brightest children can reach make them deserving of far more support and money than they currently receive.
Sometimes it’s not even a matter of money. Grade-skipping and other forms of acceleration can be very beneficial, without requiring extra expenditures.*** The report A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students does a great job of examining many of the issues involved, and the benefits for students and schools that result from acceleration.
No Child Left Behind has also harmed gifted students, with its overwhelming emphasis on bringing bad students up to mediocrity. Unfortunately this often comes at the expense of the gifted. The Time article mentions cuts by Illinois, Michigan, and the federal government, and this New York Times article mentions similar cuts in New Jersey, and the nationwide decline in services for gifted students. NCLB is stupid on dozens of levels, but the focus on bringing the worst up to mediocrity is absurd. Yes, it’s important that everyone can read and do math at basic levels. But linking funding to this is stupid. Consider this extreme scenario: a school where 100% of students meet the minimum requirements is “better” than a school where 10% of the kids fail and 90% get perfect scores. Of course, that’s a hyperbolic hypothetical, but it’s obvious that it’s a silly metric for measuring performance. But the funding system encourages–no, demands–that schools focus on the worst students and give short shrift to the rest. We should all be outraged by this.
*I have no idea who this group is; they don’t even have a website. I’d guess they’re a bunch of extremist advocates for the mentally and physically retarded who want to keep all the tax dollars for “their” students and take it away from gifted students.
**My high school’s curriculum was rigorous enough, and there were enough extracurriculars like quiz bowl, Academic Games, honor societies, etc. that it wasn’t really necessary. But I have no doubt that gifted students at most high schools would benefit tremendously from programs developed to suit their talents and needs.
***In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I skipped third grade, and prior to that I took advanced math classes. I like to think I turned out okay.