What’s Wrong with being Smart?

Here we go again. Nothing seems to polarize group value systems in education more than discussion of the needs of gifted students.

In a recent New York Times article, “Gifted, Talented and Separated,” reporter Al Baker raises important concerns about equity in access to accelerated learning opportunities. But his reporting emphasis — on the demographics of students served by specialized programs — rests on the faulty assumption that placing students in gifted schools or programs to reach a perceived demographic dividend for the sake of formal equity will solve the gifted problem.

Divisive rhetoric and heated political discourse surround the identification and education of gifted students, in large part because of opposing philosophical beliefs  about  egalitarianism and elitism.  While American society admires and rewards gifted athletes, financially and socially, children who display exceptional cognitive ability challenge the sensitivities of those who contend that appropriately differentiated academic experiences for highly able children are somehow unfair to other children.

The political concerns of diverse pressure groups create a tug-of-war over the appropriation of resources for students of high ability; that is, those who might be called “gifted.” Researchers have chronicled the ambivalence in the United States over gifted education, an ambivalence that has led to the unintended consequence of our nearly ignoring talented students’ needs — fiscally, educationally, and socially. Nicholas Colangelo and Gary Davis, in their 2003 Handbook of Gifted Education, concluded that “The ‘love-hate’ relationship society has had with gifted education has led to both an energetic focus on gifted students and a near total ignoring of their needs.”

Even the term “gifted” is value-laden and, in some educational contexts, not allowed to be used because of labeling concerns.  Such confusion over the proper identification of these students confounds the love-hate problem.

Programs for gifted students are frequently under-funded because state and federal mandates often lack provisions for appropriate services for those who learn faster than their age-mates.  Moreover, no coherent or systematic translation of empirical research to policies and practices for gifted learners has emerged. Although programs for the gifted have served as laboratories of innovation for years, state accountability measures and reform efforts have focused only on meeting basic proficiency standards.

Many recent reform initiatives, such as Race to the Top, which rest largely on data from international comparisons of student assessment, make our ambivalence toward smart students even more fraught.  The countries outscoring U.S. students  recognize that their national security rests on the next generation of innovators.  Their brightest students are provided with specialized schools, specific policies, targeted finances, teacher training, and community support. They groom their academically talented in much the same way we groom our precocious athletes.

In a response to Baker, Chester E. Finn, Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, writes, in “Playing the gifted-student race card,” that, as a country, we all lose by focusing on who is gifted rather than on what we can do to nurture intellectual potential. “Collateral victims are a society and economy that thereby fail to make the most of this latent human capital.”

The answer cannot be putting students in gifted schools and/or programs for the sake of formal equity: we are simply setting students up for failure. Rather, the foci need to be on providing quality universal pre-K education, stronger recruitment efforts, and providing quality educational services to all students, including the gifted and talented.


Elissa Brown is Director, Hunter College Center for Gifted Studies & Education; and co-author, with Frances Spielhagen of Excellence vs. Equity: Political forces in the education of gifted students,” in the Politics of K-12 Education: A Handbook of Theory, Applications, and Reform (2008).  



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