I Stand With the Gifted (and I don’t want to feel bad about it)

Anybody who has spent time in and around the education community can attest to just how much of an echo chamber has grown up around segments of the discussion. Any topic that doesn’t obviously fit with the theme du jour is earmarked as taboo at best, anathema at worst. It pains me that gifted education has become one of these topics.

After years of relative silence, it was especially refreshing to see this week’s release of High Stakes for High Achievers — State Accountability in the Age of ESSA by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. High Stakes turned out to be a 23-years-in-the-making, post-NCLB validation of the premonitory warnings and recommendations put forth by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in 1993’s National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent.

The most poignant takeaway from both reports is this: When we fail to invest in our top-performing students, it’s not middle class suburbanites or “educational elitists” who suffer most; it’s our high-achieving, low-income students — the prodigies in poverty — who rely on the educational system to provide the support structure they lack at home.

That’s right; somehow, in the generation-long race to push low-achieving students across sometimes-dubious benchmarks of “proficiency,” we’ve managed to all but ignore the one subgroup that has the highest potential to drive any kind of social and cultural change in the communities that need it most. How did this happen?

An Overlooked Demographic

One of the reasons it’s been so hard for gifted education to gain any traction is the common misperception that gifted students don’t need extra support. “They’ll rise to the top on their own,” is one refrain heard far too often. It’s easy to see where this sentiment comes from. Whether you were a hard-working B student or someone who had to struggle just to maintain a passing grade, you no doubt felt some level of disdain for those who could sleepwalk their way to a high A.

It’s also easier to feel empathy toward the struggling students at the bottom of the performance chart, many of whom have numerous obstacles to overcome on their quest for college and career readiness. But few in the education community are consistently talking about the unique challenges of those at the top.

This lack of conversational balance is hard to fathom, especially given how closely tied the issue of gifted education is to many of today’s top-priority talking points. School discipline, teacher professional development, and the achievement gap all plainly intersect with gifted ed, but we need to start connecting the dots.

On the topic of behavior, it doesn’t take an educational policy expert to see what the problem is. Any parent can tell you that if idle hands are the devil’s workshop, idle minds are where the blueprints are drawn up. High-achievers rely on those around them to take notice of their abilities and keep them challenged and engaged. If a gifted student does not have that support network at home and schools aren’t equipped to identify outstanding ability, let alone act on it, that student is left to flounder in the dark. What do young geniuses do in the absence of guidance and direction? They act out. Because that’s what bored kids do.

We can’t continue to talk about the achievement gap or the school-to-prison pipeline without acknowledging the fact that gifted and talented students in poverty are just as likely — perhaps even more so — to get swept away by the current. Instead of contributing to a better community or a better nation, their potential ends up squandered because there’s no one there to show them a way out.

National Excellence points to Alexis de Tocqueville’s nearly 200-year-old observation that Americans have a tendency to move toward a “middling standard,” favoring conformity over deviation from the norm. While we tend to reward brilliant minds after they have produced something that improves our quality of life, we do very little to encourage or support those minds through our educational system. The fact that high-achievers continue to move society forward in spiteof that apathy should not be reason enough for us to continue turning a blind eye.

When faced with limited funding, popular opinion is almost always on the side of pouring those funds into low-achievers, leaving nothing of consequence for those on the other end of the spectrum. Critics of gifted programs point to reports like this one without understanding the context.

We’re talking about the “truly gifted” here, as opposed to the grinders and the politically savvy. While research has shown that “bubble students” who barely make the cutoff for gifted programs don’t demonstrate any significant gains over their peers, there is no data to indicate that those at the very top do not benefit from full-time support and differentiated instruction.

The Unintended Consequences of NCLB

Let’s be clear — No Child Left Behind did not explicitly kill off our gifted and talented programs. It did, however, set off a chain of events that would indirectly lead to their demise. Here’s the abridged timeline, for those who haven’t been following:

  • No Child Left Behind is passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support.
  • States are asked to define “proficiency” and hold schools accountable for getting more students, especially students from underserved subgroups, across the resulting (relatively low) thresholds in reading and math.
  • The significant sanctions in place for schools that fail to reach the proficiency bar incentivize states and local institutions to pour resources into the low-hanging fruit — those students just below the bar who need only a slight nudge to increase proficiency numbers.
  • This emphasis, coupled with budget challenges, forces school districts to reduce or eliminate funding for gifted programs in an effort to raise proficiency levels.
  • NCLB finds itself almost universally despised due to a public backlash against testing and political opposition to the power those aforementioned sanctions gave to the federal government.
  • The waiver era begins, essentially rendering NCLB inert and giving the Department of Education the authority to implement sweeping changes by adding conditions to the waivers that protect states from NCLB’s debilitating sanctions.
  • The Every Student Succeeds Act is passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support.

As High Stakes for High Achievers points out, and as we mentioned in Advancing K-12 EdTech back in April, state governments and Departments of Education have some important decisions to make.

Will we invest in our high-performers once more, potentially breathing new life into the next generation of thought leaders? Or will we continue to neglect the so-called “cream of the crop” because we are uncomfortable acknowledging that some students have more intellectual potential than others?

A Problem We Can’t Afford to Ignore

Our culture has become fractured and stagnant. The most impressive intellectual achievements and discoveries today are more likely to originate from Europe or Asia than in our own backyard. As for our leadership… Well, I don’t think I’m the only one who finds it lacking.

This is not a political issue, nor is it a socioeconomic one. Sure, I want my white, middle-class kids to have access to the same programs that kept me challenged during my time in the local school system (before NCLB), but as High Stakes and National Excellence both emphasize, the gains my children experience will pale in comparison to those felt by low-income, predominantly minority communities.

ESSA has presented us with a golden opportunity to reexamine our priorities and enact significant change at the state and local levels. Let’s stop burying our heads in the sand on the topic of gifted education. Let’s hold our policymakers and local school districts accountable for the academic growth of all children, not just those who haven’t reached our arbitrary standards of proficiency.

Let’s acknowledge our most beautiful minds before they get lost in the shuffle. Our country needs their brilliance.

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