The U.S. has long been uncomfortable with differentiation in education, as Richard Hofstadter made clear in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life. But things slowly started to change in 1983 with the publication of "A Nation At Risk." Its alarmist indictment about education made elitism seem a bit more acceptable. The result is that 165 public high schools now admit gifted students on the basis of an exam.
There is a difference, however, between gifted and genius that is poorly understood in the ongoing debate over how to identify and nurture young people who clearly are in a class by themselves. This confusion is seen in an otherwise excellent piece by Andrew Solomon ("How Do You Raise a Prodigy?" The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 4). He says that "There is no federal mandate for gifted education." That is not true. In 1988, Congress passed the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Education Act. Whether the law adequately helps prodigies, rather than merely the gifted, is another matter.
New York City, home of the nation's largest school district, is an example of this confusion. It recently ended its policy of guaranteeing seats to siblings of students already in gifted and talented programs ("City Ends Sibling-Preference Rule in Gifted Admissions," The New York Times, Oct. 29). The reason: last year, almost 5,000 children qualified for kindergarten openings - more than double the number from four years earlier. The district now uses the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test and the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test. Even if the cut -off score were raised from the present 90th percentile, however, there's no assurance that it would necessarily distinguish between gifted and genius.
The real controversy in my view is over the effect that placing gifted-genius students in their own schools would have on other students. Opponents argue that doing so deprives them of the benefits that come from being in the same classes. I understand this concern, but I think it is indefensible to deny these special students the curriculum and instruction they desperately need. I don't see the strategy as elitism. Instead, I believe it is in line with meeting the needs and interests of all students. Why this particular group is singled out for strident criticism is a mystery.
Amplification: In 2011, Congress defunded the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Education Act.