The smartest kid in the room

Tuesday November 13, 2012

C.J. was a seventh grader who happened to be a computer whiz; he worshipped Bill Gates and all things Microsoft. This was 1995 -- before Gates and his company became part of every facet of American life -- and when the Internet was still referred to by the more cumbersome "World Wide Web." When he was my student, I researched in the library -- the bound Encyclopedias have always been a comfort to me -- and then, reluctantly, with a clunky search engine called Dogpile. When C.J. spoke with me about computers -- always with passion, animation and fascination -- I rejoiced in his knowledge and enthusiasm, but could not truly nurture that significant aspect of his intelligence. I needed a specialist in gifted education. There were numerous experts in my building I could call on for assistance with my students' learning disabilities or their emotional distress, but there was no one to help me meet C.J.'s needs.

Educators across the country struggle with this. There is no federal or state mandate for gifted education or enrichment opportunities. It's true that Vermont state statutes acknowledge there are children "who, when compared to other of their age, experience, or environment exhibit capacity of high performance in intellectual, creative or artistic areas, possess unusual capacity for leadership or excel in specific academic areas." But this statute later spells out the reality: there will be no specific money attached to the statute, and the recognition of these students does not "create an additional entitlement to educational or other services." Lawmakers know that these students inherently need different things in order to reach their full potential, but it is a hollow acknowledgement; parents and teachers must make do.

In this country, we believe that gifted children will "figure it out" and "find their way" -- even if their schools do not address their academic needs. The already small resources allocated for the education of gifted and talented (G/T) students have steadily eroded due to costs related to No Child Left Behind implementation. The year after NCLB was made law, Illinois cut $16 million from G/T education; Michigan's support dropped from $5 million to $500,000. In the current recession, Congress has not funded the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Educational Program -- the only Washington initiative to meet the needs of G/T students.

In a provocative 2007 article in Time magazine -- "Are We Failing Our Geniuses?" -- senior writer John Cloud argues that we should not spend 10 times as much trying "to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential." He notes that gifted students drop out at the same rates as non-gifted students, and suffer from isolation and underachievement when they languish in classes that hold them back. Cloud also asserts that this "radical egalitarianism" -- and its focus on identifying deficiencies instead of fostering gifts -- ignores that "prodigious intellectual talents are a threatened resource." Our best and brightest math students, for example, significantly underperform when stacked up against math stars from other countries.

Teachers and parents both struggle with how best to educate gifted students. Andrew Solomon -- author of "Far From the Tree" and a recent New York Times magazine feature on raising prodigies -- argues that the American push for the "well-rounded student" has produced a "cult of the average," which has been a "disaster for gifted children." He explains: "Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of children beyond their comprehension." They need resources and support to shepherd their children through an educational system that is not designed to meet their needs.

There are many reasons why we underfund enrichment and G/T programs. Susan Goodkin, an advocate for G/T education, argues in a Washington Post Op-Ed, "While administrators and teachers can lose their jobs for failing to improve the test scores of low-performing students, they face no penalties for failing to meet the needs of high-scoring students." She highlights that there are no consequences for schools when students with "advanced" math scores early in elementary school regress to merely "proficient" several years later. Although Goodkin's argument seems to have an unfair subtext of suspicion of public educators, her underlying point is a valid one; we must shift how we define a school's success. Are schools successful when 20 percent of high school dropouts are the students with the most intellectual potential?

Advocating for enrichment opportunities for G/T students makes many people uncomfortable. We are a society keenly focused on issues of academic fairness, and -- of course -- parents do not want their children to miss out on valuable education opportunities. But we readily accept that there are athletic and musical prodigies, while steadfastly resisting the notion that really smart students need special educational opportunities. When Olympic champ Gabby Douglas won her gold medals, our collective conscience didn't question what it took for her to achieve excellence. Columbia University education professor Abraham Tannenbaum encourages us to think similarly about gifted students: "Giftedness requires social context that enables it." He likens raw intelligence to muscles that must be exercised in order to strengthen.

We absolutely have a moral duty to adequately educate all children. But we also have a comparable economic and cultural imperative to enrich and support gifted students like C.J. The smartest kids in the room are a key component of our economic hopes for the future. And their creativity and ingenuity mirrors the intellectual dynamism that continues to draw students to our nation from all over the world. It is not elitist to foster their imagination; it's cultural survival.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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