Getting Gifted Wrong, For Everyone

by Jeanne Bernish on June 4, 2014

My husband sent me a link this morning to a “Room for Debate” topic on Gifted Education in New York City public schools. I have a feeling of dread – a conditioned response – whenever “New York Times” and “gifted education” appear in the same sentence – mainly because New York City seems to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort getting gifted education wrong and the New York Times seems to expend little effort in requiring education pundits to stick to the topic at hand when writing about it. So much is laid at the feet of gifted children and today’s response by Halley Potter of the The Century Foundation and David Tipson of  New York Appleseed “Eliminate Gifted Tracks” was in keeping with my expectation. In fact, if theirs was the only response you had read you would be forgiven for thinking the topic was “Time to Punish the Smart Children For Years of Racial Segregation in New York City Schools” rather than “Should Public Schools Offer Gifted Programs?”

Potter and Tipson trot out the idealistic but improbable “gifted education for all” argument which is entirely devoid of real meaning or evidence. It is a statement designed to end the conversation and works only in the most dedicated social justice circles where every demographic must be defined in terms of racial diversity. Stay with me for a moment while I go out on a limb here:

By definition the gifted population is comprised of individuals who score 2 standard deviations above the mean on an ability test. In a room of 100 people, 70 of them will have an IQ ranging anywhere from 85 to 115 (average IQ). Of the remaining 30 people, half will have an IQ below 85, half will have an IQ above 115. For those who have an IQ below 85 perhaps one or two may even be severely learning disabled. Now, do we only serve the special needs populations on each end of the average range if they fit within a certain racial profile? And hey, if the interventions for the student with an IQ of 70 work so well, why not apply them to the entire room so everyone can benefit?

If you stuck with the forum you may also have read:  “America’s Future Depends on Gifted Students” from Rick Hess of American Enterprise Institute and “Tracking Students by Ability Produces Results” by Bruce Sacerdote, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College – to these authors I give an A for sticking with the topic and providing evidence to support their responses.

Gifted doesn’t describe or factor diversity, only intellectual capability measured by an approved instrument. As long as pundits and experts stick to that baseline, we can have a useful debate on how to serve gifted students. Withholding appropriate education interventions for our fastest learners in our public schools out of a misguided sense of entitlement or elitism is shameful and needs to stop.

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