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Re-Gifted: The Prickly Politics of the Academically Able

Writing a blog about education for the gifted pretty much guarantees a lot of attention. If you follow the party line (We're ignoring our most talented kids!), the piece will be widely distributed and praised. If you come at the issue from a different perspective--well, see comments on "Cheating the Gifted?" below.

This was not my first column on how we deal with bright kids in traditional school settings. And the arguments have not changed significantly, since I started thinking and writing about the issue, shortly after I earned a masters degree in gifted education.

Let me be clear. Yes, there are genuinely gifted students. Yes, they do have unique pedagogical and emotional needs-- I spent several years trying to find optimal curricular and instructional strategies to address those needs. And no, I don't think the gifted will do just fine left to their own devices, because they're smart.

The blog wasn't about that. It was about the political utility of these arguments to advance other agendas, in a post-NCLB era: The argument that test scores scientifically measure potential value to society. The argument that tracking should return in full force, because it appears to give bright kids a 6-point advantage on those same tests. And the odious argument that we've been taking from the rich and giving to the undeserving poor, neglecting our best and brightest in the process.

These are morally contentious policy issues: allocation of scarce communal resources for greatest good and accurate identification of who represents best use of these resources. Honestly, I have never met a parent who said "Well, nobody in my family is gifted, but I fully support a special teacher, classroom, budget and field trips for the gifted kids. Because those kids are going to be the leaders of tomorrow--not my children."

We all espouse fairness and equity, and we all believe our own children have gifts to offer the world. So I'm deeply suspicious of talking ed-heads who utilize a kind of modified "shock doctrine" to impact school practice and policy: We're in crisis! We don't have enough resources to serve all kids well, plus a decade of trying to close the achievement gap hasn't worked, so let's focus on the top tier. There is plenty of vocal parent advocacy for the gifted (evidence below). If those parents can be convinced that traditional public schools are voluntarily ignoring their children's needs--well, score one for the privatization movement.

Accountability and privilege are thus inextricably bound into the national discourse about the gifted. Good teachers who employ differentiated instruction, recognizing and challenging bright students, now find themselves penned in by standardized test-prep curricula, as rigid, data-bound accountability trumps their responsiveness to individual needs.

I fully agree that we're losing the potential contributions of exceptionally capable children, especially in low-achieving schools. My point was that we shouldn't automatically blame their teachers, who are the first and most cost-effective line of defense in uncovering and addressing the needs of the gifted. Before we start developing rationales for which kids "deserve" special attention and programming, let's take a critical look at federal lawmaking and "reforms" which increasingly identify and separate winners and losers in public education.

All kids deserve an education tailored to their unique needs. It's not just gifted children who are "bored" in school. When kids get open-ended assignments, rich and relevant curriculum and targeted coaching from their teachers, they all benefit. When we address a range of student talents--not just what shows up in intelligence/achievement testing--society benefits.

There's a lot more to say about the parameters of who, precisely, is "gifted" and what effective programming for gifted kids looks like. There are reasons why these issues aren't settled after decades of heated dispute. But that's another blog.

The leaders and skills we need will come from all strata of ability and promise. Pitting one group against another is a mistake and ethically damaging. We need to invest in serving diverse students well, for the simple reason that we need them all.

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