Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gifted Children Are "Left Behind" Under NCLB

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.


SkylersDad said...

Here here my good lady, I couldn't agree more. Bet you thought you wouldn't hear that coming from a parent of a child at the lower end of the bell curve, did you? :^)

What I believe is that schools should be properly funded to operate with enough supports in each classroom to handle the complete spectrum, from physically disabled, like my son, to GT kids. As I often asked our teachers who tried to push Skyler out into the "other school" for "those types of kids", that would be fine, just as soon as you point out the special needs grocery store and special needs bank for him.

Don't me get started on NCLB either, because it's one thing to get up and make a speech about it, it is another thing to fund it!

LegalMist said...

Actually, SkyDad, I figured you'd be on board. Given your experiences with your obviously bright but physically challenged son not getting the services and support he needed to excel in his areas of capability, I knew you'd understand the frustration of dealing with schools who don't want to recognize giftedness as a "special need" too.

And I agree, NCLB might have done better than it has, if it were properly funded. As it is, it seems mostly to require a lot of testing...

There should be room for all of our kids in our schools and classrooms. We just need an appropriate number of aides and supports so the teachers don't get overwhelmed trying to provide so many different accommodations, from physical to mental to "gifted."

Thanks for you nice comment. :)

Bella said...

I totally agree with this post! It is a double edged sword here and I do hope that Obama does address it. My mother in law who is a teacher in our local school system and I were just discussing this the other day. As you know, I have a teen at present who has always been bored with school, and doesn't want to go at all. Do you think 12 years is a little long too? I am inclined to think that should be looked at as well.

Adriana said...

I figured out pretty quickly when I got to college that I had no idea how to study. High school was easy and it wasn't until I got into some of my higher level classes in college that I really started to strugle. My husband would also whole heartedly agree as he tells stories about reading novels during class because his parents fought the teachers for it. He was always getting into trouble in class for talking. What else is a kid supposed to do with the extra hour longer that it takes the rest of the class to finish the assignment? Apparently at his school read a book.

Gaston Studio said...


I thank God that my last two children were given the chance to be in special classes with other gifted children so they didn't get bored!

When my middle child went to first grade, she came home one day with a note pinned to her dress from a first year teacher. She was being seen by that teacher as disruptive because she was bored. After a talk with the principal, she was put in whatever they called the special classes in the mid 60s and excelled from there. The teacher wasn't invited back for her second year, at that school, anyway.

Johnny Yen said...

I had many discussions about this with my now-ex-wife, who was also a teacher, and was working on her master's in gifted education. Gifted kids are special needs kids. A regular classroom setting does not fulfill their needs. As a teacher, one of the things I learned was that frequently kids who acted out were gifted, and understimulated.

We discovered that we both attended the same gifted program at a school here in Chicago's public schools, though years apart (she was seven years younger than me)

NCLB was a dismal failure-- it set standards without providing any means to achieve those standards. And achieving the gains that were sought would not have taken rocket science: smaller class sizes, teacher's aides, more services for underachieving students. And yes, more access to gifted services.

Chris said...

Just happened across your site via Jules. I'm an elementary principal and I agree with your opinion 110%. We spent SO much money on Special Education (which is fine) but next to NOTHING on GATE. It's ridiculous. Not too long ago, I got into a debate over why schools give the worst teachers the low-level classes. Well, in my opinion, you don't want bad teacher (well, you don't want them at all, really) teaching the unmotivated kids. To me, it's worse having poor teachers with the gifted kids because they won't push them to achieve or provide the support these "special needs" kids, well, need. I'm not a supporter of the "yeah, but the smart kids will learn anyway" school of thought.

Nicely put, LegalMist!


Vodka Mom said...

Just stopping by the say Happy Mother's Day!!!

Nan said...

I can understand your point, but how do you define "gifted"? Skilled at test taking in general? A whiz at math but functionally illiterate? Reading way above grade level but barely able to count above ten without taking his/her shoes off? What if the gift is an area other than "intellectual," i.e., in the visual arts or music?

I'll agree that it's a shame that schools don't provide opportunities for every child to maximize his or her potential, but until we're to the point where every child is in that position, I'm not inclined to worry a whole lot about the bright ones who are likely to survive without extra attention. Yes, it's true lots and lots of bright kids end up getting penalized for acting out because they're bored or feel like they're wasting their time, and it's also true there are a lot of us out there who coasted through elementary and high school and then suffered a nasty reality check when we hit college, but in the overall scheme of things I'll worry more about trying to help the at-risk kids than the ones whose worst fate, at least as you've presented it, is that they're insufficiently challenged when they're forced to share classroom space with the hoi polloi.

Of course, I'm a tad biased, having seen way too many parents who are totally convinced Little Johnny is the brightest thing since Einstein when the reality is that Little Johnny is dumber than a box of rocks.

LegalMist said...

Nan, thank you for your comments. You are right that we have to have a working definition of what "gifted" means.

Perhaps I can answer a couple of your concerns. has a decent definition of "gifted"


although it is worth noting that "giftedness" may be defined differently by different experts in the field.

It is also important to recognize that a given child may be identified as "gifted" in one area, while being below the bell curve in another area.

Gifted kids also may suffer the same learning disabilities (dyslexia, ADHD, and others) as non-gifted kids.

But "giftedness" is indeed measurable, and is not just based on Sammy's mom's idea that Sammy is "sooo bright!" Sammy can be tested in a variety of areas -- from mathematics to verbal skills to spatial skills to musical ability -- and if Sammy achieves a score that is two (or three, or whatever standard has been set) standard deviations above the normal range, s/he will be identified as "gifted."

Giftedness is real. It is as real as being two (or three) standard deviations below the normal range on the curve. If a given (for example) general third-grade mathematics class (which in our district focused on multiplication and division) is inappropriate for a kid who tests three standard deviations below normal and has yet to learn to add and subtract, it is just as inappropriate for a kid who learned to do multiplication and division three years ago and is capable of advanced algebra.

And I am worried about these gifted kids in part because it does seem to me to be wrong and short-sighted and bad for America, to waste their talent, by "losing"
them to boredom and burnout and frustration with school.

IDEA guarantees a "free and appropriate public education" to special needs kids. Why are gifted kids any less entitled to a "free and appropriate public education"? It strikes me as very unfair, to say that some kids, based on a disability, are entitled to "appropriate" education, while other kids are not. And how is it "appropriate" to keep a kid who is capable of learning calculus stuck in a classroom learning to multiply 22 x 123? Answer: It isn't.

It is not about snobbishness or "hoi polloi," although the term "gifted" unfortunately tends to elicit that response in many persons.

It is about recognizing that even kids at the "top of the bell curve" can have "special needs" and those "special needs" can include the need for access to higher level academic material in their areas of giftedness.

And as I stated, I'm not looking to cut funding or programs for the at-risk kids. I agree they need and are entitled to additional assistance. But I would much rather see gifted education funded than more bloody wars; social security payments to people who have millions of dollars of assets; or any number of other federal and state programs that we spend millions and billions on each year.

karin said...

Excellent post! I know of many families whose childrens' needs were not met in the school system. They did the best thing they knew how and homeschooled. Their amazing kids rose to the challenge and are brilliant adults, well-rounded, and down-to-earth. But that's a whole other story, lol.