When Enrichment is the Best We Can Do

by Jeanne Bernish on January 27, 2013

A poorly reasoned article published earlier this month in the New York Times implied racial segregation in the gifted classroom in city public schools, suggesting that all children deserved enrichment – not just the ones who have an ability test showing that they are gifted.

A big shame-on-them was promptly and correctly issued by Chester Finn on the Flypaper blog along with an OpEd rejoinder in the offending publication drawing largely on the data supported in Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools. And although I was pleased to see someone stand up for the voice of gifted I was also left with a nagging feeling that as a nation we we are missing the point. Yes, “Exam Schools” are critically important and there should be more of them. But what do we do for these kids earlier, in grade school or middle school? Then I ran across a wonderful Blog Talk Radio interview with Dr. Linda Silverman (thank you Maker Mom for posting the original link.) The following quote was transcribed by me from the Blog Talk interview:

“What is gained in the name of democracy by allowing a child who has already learned a concept to sit in class bored while the teacher goes over and over and over material they’ve already mastered. Who gains from this? How does this serve anybody?”

I believe one of the essential challenges facing gifted education is understanding and articulating the difference between what Silverman calls “the psychology of eminence” and the psychology of giftedness.

1- Giftedness is seen by many to be an artificial designation of the education system rather than a psychological designation.  This does a huge disservice to the intellectually gifted student and any advocacy efforts undertaken on their behalf. There are scientific implications of giftedness we haven’t begun to comprehend along with patterns and combinations that could emerge when studied alongside other exceptionalities (e.g. dyslexia, Aspergers, vision and auditory issues, etc.)

2- There is general confusion between giftedness and what is perceived to be a natural outcome of giftedness – eminence. Silverman introduced the notion of eminence as a white male construct. To obtain eminence in your field requires resources, assets and a single dedicated focus that is simply rarely available to the general population. It’s not fair but that’s how it is and it is wholly unrelated to giftedness.

3- Research from Karen Rogers demonstrates that the learning rate of children above 130 IQ is approximately 8 times faster than for children below 70 IQ. How does a teacher in a public school classroom of 30 meet the need for a faster paced curriculum for the handful of students that require it? Proven accommodations for gifted children in the classroom include ability grouping for faster paced learners, telescoping curriculum, acceleration (subject and whole grade when appropriate – see The Davidson Institute for more ideas) – but all of those accommodations are rarely employed for a variety of reasons wholly unrelated to the well being and education of the gifted student. What is left? Enrichment.

And here we are back at square one with the clarion cry for equal access to museum field trips for all students – the ones in remediation along with the ones who ready for Shakespeare in 3rd grade. It is well intentioned but poorly thought out.

What does “equal access to enrichment” look like in the classroom? While the student who needs remediation visits the museum he is missing the hour block time normally dedicated to bringing him up to grade level in reading. The gifted kid who is already reading at grade level – or two, three or four years above grade-level – also enjoys the museum. The next day everyone goes back to the assembly line of school routine in which the teacher has to now spend two hours of block time to make up what the students not reading at grade level missed while they were at the museum. The gifted student? Well they can sit for two hours and watch and wait. Perhaps by 9th grade they will be lucky enough to get into an Exam School and actually learn something.

Enrichment is what we do when we have nothing else in our toolkit to offer the gifted kid. It is the very least we can do for these children.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Teacherliz January 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm

This is so true! Anyone who knows a truly gifted child or adult knows how they suffer through boredom and make huge leaps and connections at lightening speed, yet school systems seem to view gifted education as something that can be cut, like icing on the cake or cream in your coffee, when in reality it is necessary and essential to keep our students engaged. Underachievement is a huge problem in our schools, among the brightest students and they are our social capital. They are important if we have a chance at a brilliant future in the global economy we live in now.

Jeanne Bernish January 28, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Thanks for your comment. Interestingly Silverman addressed the social captial issue in her blog radio interview. I hadn’t heard it articulated this way before – but she drew a parallel to special education. We don’t provide special education because we expect a payoff in return. We provide special education because it simply is the only right thing to do. For gifted education it is not a matter of what these kids may or may not amount to as adults. It is a matter of providing appropriate learning opportunities.

Lisa February 3, 2013 at 9:23 am

I think one of the key issues that needs to be addressed is the availability of gifted programs to ALL children that can test in. Many times, gifted programs may be available, but first children have to test in, and then are chosen by lottery for the few available spots. This leaves many children who would otherwise qualify out in the cold.

Also, I think we as parents need to fight within out state legislatures to allow gifted children to be placed on IEPs, or Individualized Education Plans. Parents of children with “special needs” can do this, requiring the schools to meet their children’s needs. Why isn’t giftedness considered a “special need,” too?

There are changes we could make, if we group together as parents and educators and demand them.

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