How To Fix Education For Gifted Students
In the Washington Post, Joann DiGenarro discusses what needs to be done for gifted students in our schools. As she points out at the beginning of her article, the problems facing gifted students are largely ignored, and this is a situation that there are no plans to change (emphasis added):
At an educators’ meeting in Washington last fall, conversation turned to whether the federal government should support programming for this nation’s most gifted and talented high school students. Educators overwhelmingly said that top students in secondary schools need no assistance, much to my dismay. Priority must be given to those not meeting the minimal standards in science and math, they reasoned.
By the time students reach 12th grade in math and science, they are near the bottom or dead last compared with international competition, according to the Education Department. These are the critical years for supporting students in science and math, for it is when they make career-determining decisions for college studies.
While there’s a small number of people lamenting the fact that a greater number of students are shying away from engineering and scientific professions, the main focus of our governmental programs is to ensure that there is “No Child Left Behind.” Unfortunately, they choose to avoid leaving children behind by ensuring that the kids in front of them aren’t cultivated for success.
Few people understand the challenges that gifted students face. For remedial students, it is simpler. They have a tough time grasping the lesson plans before them, and need additional time, additional instruction, and very hands-on teaching to help them through. Gifted students have little trouble understanding the material before them, though. For gifted students, it’s a matter of motivation.
I was one of the lucky ones. I grew up in an affluent school district, where money was available for gifted programs. Yet I was constant trouble to most of my grade-school teachers. I understood at the time that nothing really mattered until I got into high school (as that was the point at which my grades would be tracked for college), so I didn’t really ever pay attention, do homework, etc. I wasn’t a troublemaker, but I spent most of my time from kindergarten through eighth grade in my own little world. Outside of a few great teachers along the way, the only thing I ever had to look forward to was the 30-45 minutes a week where I’d go off with the other gifted students to do things like logic puzzles and discussion groups beyond the pace of the class. My grades during those years suffered greatly, largely due to a complete lack of effort, but nobody can say I wasn’t learning (I was always at the top of Illinois standardized tests for my grade level). When I finally reached high school, I got on track and started putting forth effort, in order to make my way into college. But still, I was only as motivated as I had to be to get the grades, and no more (again, with the exception of a couple of exceptional teachers who knew how to motivate kids like me). All this, and I was in a “good” school district for gifted kids. In less affluent areas, I can only imagine how mind-numbing it must be.
The problem with gifted kids is not that they won’t understand the material, or that they’ll ruin test scores for No Child Left Behind. The problem is that these kids need to be properly motivated to prepare them for everything they can accomplish. Remedial students don’t become accomplished doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. The gifted kids do that. Too many of them, though, languish in boredom and never develop a love of learning. They grow up knowing that all they have to do is coast along and they’ll be ahead of the pack, but without understanding that history isn’t written by people who “coast along”.
Clearly, something in our system has to be done to change this. We have focused for too long, as DiGenarro mentions, on being a “lowest-common-denominator” school system. We have worried that the people at the bottom are failing, but never even ask what’s going on with the people at the top.
It’s too bad that DiGenarro completely misses the solution to the problem…
At the strategic level, the United States must establish a policy for nurturing its most talented science and technology students and integrate this policy with a long-term vision of U.S. economic and military development. The White House and State Department science advisers should make this task a priority.
The next step should be a thorough assessment of all government educational programs geared to science and math. Shockingly, there are few assessments and little coordination among governmental agencies for the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on educational programs from kindergarten through the undergraduate level.
Finally, some of the millions of dollars devoted to educational programs and policy must be reallocated for the most talented high school students.
The Department of Education doesn’t need to spend millions of dollars and years of study to solve this problem. All they need to do is provide vouchers. A one-size-fits-all, lowest-common-denominator school system will never provide the right type of education for gifted students, because it’s created mainly by government bureaucrats, a profession that doesn’t attract too many of the gifted. You need innovation, free thought, and the ability to think outside the box, responding to new situations and pressures quickly and dynamically. None of these traits are found in government.
Where they are found, however, is in the free market. Currently, gifted rich kids have all sorts of options available to them in the private school market. A few poor ones, in large cities, have access to charter schools. But the vast majority are left languishing in the public school purgatory, waiting for their chance to get out into the real world and do something.
It is time we understand that all students are individuals, and if you try to stick a square peg in a round hole, you’re going to end up mashing that peg. It doesn’t matter if that’s a remedial child forced to fit into a regular school, or a gifted child forced to fit into a regular school. Neither one fits, and the harder you try to force them to fit, the more damage you do.
We’re failing the most capable students in our schools, and as a result, we’re crippling the best resources in our entire society. It’s time we stop trying to force these kids into a public school system that cannot serve them. The only solution is to help them get out of that system, and vouchers are the simplest and most effective way to help them escape.