It is not a popular position, but here it is anyway: We need to invest more resources into educating our gifted kids.
It is an unpopular position for two reasons. Most people think the terminology "gifted" is somehow "elitist" and most people believe that "smart" kids don't need any "extra" help at school.
Regarding the "elitist" charge, I often hear the phrases "but every child is a gift" and "all children are like little learning sponges" used to justify some warped egalitarian idea that we should not recognize extraordinary ability when we see it. While it is true that every child "is a gift" in the sense of deserving our love, support, and best efforts to educate him or her, it is not true that every child is equally gifted and equally able in every area. We recognize this already when we invest extra funding into assisting those children who have learning disabilities, or who need special physical accommodations in order to learn.
I am willing to apply whatever term people find acceptable to describe the kids with IQ's and abilities that are far above "average." You don't like the connotation that "gifted" kids are somehow ... more endowed than the rest of the kids? Fine, come up with some other term to describe their amazing intellectual capacity. But I am not willing to accept the pablum that these extremely bright kids do not need or deserve any special educational accommodations because they are "bright" and so they will "do fine" even without extra resources and accommodations. It simply is not true.
First, it is unfair to the "gifted" children to be stuck in a classroom where they are not challenged and do not learn anything new for days, weeks, months, even years. Often they will end up bored, frustrated, and disillusioned with school. They end up being labeled with "behavior problems" because they have nothing better to do than to act out, pass notes in class, throw things, make smarty-pants comments, and make fun of other kids. After all, they finished their work in the first five minutes, doodled on their paper for half an hour, and the rest of the class still hasn't finished the assignment! How long can we expect them to sit and stare at the walls and "behave"?
When the lack of challenge occurs at the early grade levels, as is often the case, the gifted kids never learn how to learn. Everything is easy until some point down the road, perhaps in middle school, perhaps in high school, when suddenly they are faced with concepts that aren't "easy." But because they have never been challenged before, they don't know how to study and learn. They think that if they don't immediately understand it, they never will understand it, and they may give up in despair.
This is a true waste of talent. If they had been challenged with difficult (for them) work early on, they would have learned how to approach difficult tasks, how to persevere, how to study, how to learn... and not only would they be far ahead academically of the middle school or high school curriculum, but also they would know how to learn. So instead of appearing as a roadblock, the new, difficult material would simply be another challenge, another exciting thing to master.
Under our current "system" (or lack of one), instead of having exceedingly bright kids learning difficult material at a young age, we end up with bored teens who do not know how to study and persevere, who get disillusioned with school, and who fail and/or do not even try to learn despite their "high IQ."
This makes no sense, given the repeated cries heard in the media that America is "slipping behind" in math and science and technology. We claim that we want America to excel in science and technology, but so far, our politicians' answer to the problem of America "slipping behind" in these areas has been to enact legislation such as the "No Child Left Behind" Act (NCLB), which focuses on making sure that the kids with average and below average "intelligence" and learning ability achieve minimum standards of education. Sadly, NCLB provides nothing for gifted kids.
I have no problem with the concept behind the NCLB, in general (its implementation and focus on testing is another issue, for another day). I firmly believe that every child should be provided with the supports needed (physical or otherwise) to ensure that he or she can achieve minimal standards.
It was just a couple of decades ago when kids with a physical disability were assumed to be incapable of mental functions as well, and were not properly educated. They were labeled as "deficient" and our schools often didn't even try to teach them to read and write, regardless of their actual capabilities. I think we all agree that approach was wrong-headed and short-sighted and unfair to the kids who were mentally capable of so much more than they were allowed to achieve.
And even moving away from issues of physical disability, many, probably most, kids who are substantially mentally challenged, who are on the borderline between "normal IQ" and "mentally disabled" can certainly learn to read, write, count, and think well enough to get along in society, and our schools owe it to them to provide that education, even if they must devote extra resources to do so. It is important for these kids to be appropriately educationally challenged, and the schools are and should be obligated to provide an appropriate education.
And while there may be a few kids on the very fringes who truly are incapable of achieving even minimum standards, it would be (and was, until recently) a great tragedy to simply label large groups of kids as "unable to learn" and ship them off to an institution to spend their days staring at the walls and letting their minds wither and rot, rather than teaching them new things so that they can participate in and contribute to society to the best of their abilities.
The "No Child Left Behind" Act was based in part on the concept that we should not label kids as "deficient" somehow and then fail to educate them. But so far, we have ignored the kids at the other end of the spectrum, the kids with the far above average and "genius" level IQ's -- the kids who have the best shot at being the "next Einstein," if we would simply educate them properly.
Aren't these gifted kids essentially being "left behind" if they could be pursuing college level calculus but they are instead stuck in a classroom being subjected to rote learning of their times tables, which they learned three years ago?
It is a great tragedy to simply label them as "bright" kids who need no extra help in class, and then ship them off to an institution (school) where they spend their days staring at the walls (because they finished all their work for the day in five minutes) and letting their minds wither and rot, rather than teaching them something new so that they can participate in and contribute to society to the best of their abilities.
In my view, it is as much a sin to fail to properly educate a "gifted" child, as it is to fail to properly educate a "mentally disabled" child.
The federal government, the states, and the school districts, however, have so far refused to provide adequate funding to properly educate and challenge the high-IQ kids. Funding for "gifted education" -- to provide special programs, extra resources, better teacher training, specialized curriculum and aides to assist in implementing it, and specialized learning equipment for the kids at the "top" of the bell curve -- is invariably far below the funding appropriated for "remedial education" -- for the special programs, extra resources, specialized curriculum, aides, and specialized learning equipment for the kids at the "bottom" of the bell curve. Funding for gifted programs is also often the first funding that gets cut when times get tough.
This is not only unfair to our gifted kids, but it also makes no sense in the context of trying to achieve greatness in America.
When we want to win a championship in sports, we spend money to train the most talented athletes and the most likely prospects; we do not recruit the average or below-average athletes, hoping to make them into champion basketball players, soccer players or gymnasts.
Similarly, if we want America to produce the finest mathematicians, physicists, engineers, chemists, researchers, and so forth, we need to invest the resources required to identify and train the "best and brightest" kids to the best of their abilities, rather than making our only focus the achievement of "minimum standards" by the kids with average or below average IQ's.
Are we hoping that, if we just spend enough time and money focusing on making sure that every kid in the country can pass a test measuring "minimum standards," the kids with the 82 IQ will somehow become the next Nobel Prize winning scientist? I suppose it could happen -- after all, Muggsy Bogues did make it in the NBA (doing a bang-up job for the Charlotte Hornets from 1988-1997!), even though he was only approximately 5 feet 4 inches tall. In his case, his natural ability and years of training were enough to overcome his major height disadvantage. But it is far more likely that the next NBA star will be a player who not only has some natural ability and years of training, but also is over 6 feet tall. In other words, you need certain physical characteristics plus talent plus training to become an NBA star. Similarly, it is far more likely that a kid with a 142 or higher IQ, with a natural talent for science, and who receives lots of specialized education focused on developing his or her special talents, will be the next Nobel Prize winner in science.
Let me be clear: I am not advocating that we stop educating "special needs" kids. I am not advocating that we cut funding for "special education." (On the contrary, perhaps we should consider a "gifted" child to have "special needs" and then provide a specialized curriculum!)
I value all of our children and I believe that each child should be challenged and assisted to achieve his or her best educational outcome. And certainly it would benefit America to have every member of our society educated to his or her greatest potential.
As it stands now, however, our gifted kids are being denied the opportunity to be educated to their greatest potential.
It is unfair to the gifted kids.
It is also a poor strategy if America wants to excel in science and technology in the coming years.
I hope President Obama will address this glaring deficiency. President Bush certainly did not.