Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Do We Need Gifted Education?

In an era of standardization in education, in which all kids must learn and accomplish the same skills/knowledge at the same grade level in all schools from Anchorage to Albany, parents and teachers of "exceptional kids" have reason to be concerned. The issue of advanced learning for "gifted" children is one of those areas where kids who operate outside of the standards could be restricted by the push for standardization and uniformity. The issue gained some national prominence via the New York City schools after commissioner Carmen Farina intervened by diminishing, if not demeaning, the practice of "gifted education." So, the question that follows is: "Do We Need Gifted Education?"

The New York Times took up the debate in its Room for Debate opinion page, presenting arguments on both sides of the issue. Policy writer Hailey Potter sees "gifted and talented education" as nothing short of segregation, and she presents some compelling evidence about the racial disparity in the gifted track of New York schools. Certainly, the disparity she presents is disconcerting, and economist Darrick Hamilton sees the need for "gifted education for all students." Of course, that perspective denies the reality of "giftedness." If everyone is and can be doing it, then it really isn't an exceptionality. And that is the important distinction to be made in education. Just as a special education learning disability requires a different approach, a truly advanced student needs accommodation as well - and has legal right to it.

The counterargument to Farina's and Potter's dismissal of "gifted ed" is presented by Rick Hess. Hess and Bruce Sacerdote acknowledge the existence of giftedness and promote the value in understanding that a ten-year-old who is performing higher level math like Calculus or reading/understanding/conducting research on stem cells or reading and understanding Crime And Punishment is simply "not like other kids," and his education should honor that exceptionality. Certainly, as Mr. Hamilton notes, all kids deserve access to the quality education, and every kid should be encouraged to achieve at the highest level. But if every kid is doing the same thing, it is no longer an exceptionality, and that simply defies reality.

School districts have begun to move away from "tracking," and instead promote more inclusiveness in the advanced classes. And improving the way giftedness is identified and honored is certainly a step in the right direction. But it's important to note that gifted kids should spend their days with age-level peers for many reasons, while at the same time they should be allowed to pursue academia and their intellectual interests to their highest degree. And that can only happen in a system that maintains "gifted education." For, not every kid is going to play varsity, but every kid should be able to play.

And gifted kids should be allowed to excel, for it is in our interest to meet their learning needs, even if those needs are not "Common" or standard. Giftedness is a reality, and acknowledging and honoring it is the right approach for education.

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