In an interesting piece in Tuesday's New York Time, Checker Finn argues that the U.S. is focusing too much attention on improving achievement for low-achieving students, at the expense of doing too little to identify and maximize the abilities of students at the opposite end of the ability distribution. There's much to applaud in this argument--certainly, maximizing the abilities of our most talented youngsters is also an important part of developing our human capital. And there is evidence that our schools are not doing as much as they could on this front--particularly for talented low-income and minority students who often are not identified for these programs. As a supporter of expanded public school choice, I also believe there is value in allowing greater specialization and differentiating in schooling to meet the needs of students with differing aptitudes and interests. And existing public schools designed to serve the highest-performing students have a history of preparing leaders from diverse backgrounds.
But the grim reality is that in practice the gifted and talented label--and special programs for youngsters who wear it--often has less to do with meeting specific and unique needs of especially bright youngsters than with rationing access to a limited supply of quality educational options. That's why parents in places like New York City (where "gifted" children may gain access to specialized placements as early as in kindergarten) are spending exorbitant effort and money to get their kids identified as gifted. Implicit in many of Finn's arguments seems to be the assumption that we can't possibly provide academically demanding, safe, high-quality schools staffed by excellent teachers for all of our kids, so we'd best focus on those who are likely to amount to somethng some day. But a nation as rich and technologically advanced as ours should be able to provide quality educational options to all of our children, from those with significant cognitive needs to those with extraordinary abilities--not fighting about how to divvy up a limited supply of quality options.
A few other brief quibbles with Finn's piece:
Finn writes that: "Congress has "zero-funded" the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, Washington's sole effort to encourage such education." The Javits program has always been a very small program, with significant strings attached and little evidence of effectiveness--in short, exactly the sort of program Finn once argued should be eliminated, when he wrote that "Instead of a federal program for every challenge or problem that schools encounter, ESEA should be consolidated into a handful of performance-based grants aimed at boosting academic achievement via coherent strategies of the state's devising." I tend to think he was right the first time around. Moreover, the Javits program is not the only program supporting the kinds of educational opportunities for gifted and talented students that Finn recommends: The federal Magnet Schools Assistance program provides roughly $100 million annually to support the creation and development of Magnet schools. While the program's ultimate intention is to promote school desegregation, in practice many of these schools do so by offering selective academically demanding or arts-focused programs that attract gifted and talented students--in short, exactly the kind of schools Finn wants to see more of.
Finn also states that, "at the primary and middle-school levels, we don't have enough gifted-education classrooms (with suitable teachers and curriculums) to serve even the existing demand." This raises an interesting question--are separate classrooms or pull-out programs truly the best way to serve gifted and talented students? I don't know, but it is worth noting that just a few weeks ago Finn's own organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, published and excellent report on special education cost drivers that makes a very compelling case that special education students can often be better and more cost-effectively served through different models that keep them in traditional classrooms, rather than in pull-out or separate programs. It's worth asking whether the same is also true for gifted and talented students.
Finally, Finn never acknowledges that, for the many students who live in rural and sparsely populated areas of the country, the types of selective schools he promotes are not an option. If we want to serve high-performing students in these communities well, we must either embark on a massive investment in boarding school options (which are not only costly, but also have real emotional costs for kids and families and are generally impractical for younger kids) or figure out how to do so within the context of the schools they attend.
Ultimately, debating whether or not or how many special schools we have for gifted and talented students obscures the larger picture here--We should strive for a day when all U.S. schools are capable of providing a good education to students with a range of abilities and when all kids have access to good schools. Today we do neither.