Gifted education puts in tension two equally treasured American ideals: egalitarianism and individualism.
Over the summer, an education panel convened by Bill de Blasio put New York City’s mayor in a bind: It recommended dismantling much of the city’s programming for gifted students in order to advance integration.
Hizzoner is known for his charged progressive rhetoric about ending inequality, but the proposal would compel him to stop talking and take on the thousands of families who like special academic offerings for their high-performing children. The panel argues in its report that the system serves to segregate by race, income, and language, and to “perpetuate stereotypes about student potential and achievement.” The panel would institute a moratorium on new gifted-and-talented programs, phase out existing programs, end the use of middle-school entrance criteria (such as grades, test scores, behavior, and lateness), and fundamentally alter high-school admissions practices. The panel would instead prioritize schoolwide enrichment programs so a diverse student body could learn together under one roof.
The recommendations were met by swift opposition from several city leaders, who defended programs for precocious children while acknowledging the imbalance in program enrollment. As for the mayor: He was conspicuously noncommittal in response to the panel of his administration’s own creation.
It would be easy to suggest that de Blasio—in Irving Kristol’s memorable language—is just another liberal mugged by reality. This story, however, represents more than a clash between one ambitious politician’s progressive aspirations and the educational equivalent of realpolitik. Whether America’s public education system should give special attention to especially high-achieving students is a question that perpetually bedevils policymakers. It forces them to grapple with issues as fundamental as the meaning of equality and opportunity and the purpose of public schooling.
Gifted education puts in tension two equally compelling strands of American thought. On the one hand, Americans are egalitarian: We resent unearned privilege, and we intuit that public schools ought to be where very different young people come together to prepare for an equal shot at the American dream. On the other hand, Americans believe in individualism: We appreciate that different people with different aptitudes and ambitions will accomplish different things. We want to cultivate special gifts so each of us can be our very best.
In the early days of American public education, a premium was placed on equality and standardization. For example, in the 19th century, it was paramount that we enabled all kids to become literate regardless of whether they could afford boarding schools and tutors. In the decades to come, as more and more immigrants reached our shores, our schools were handed the duty of advancing acculturation and assimilation.
Many state constitutions, in fact, have language prioritizing commonality, equality, and/or uniformity in the provision of public education. Arizona, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Washington mandate a “general and uniform” system; Colorado, a “thorough and uniform” system; Idaho, a “general, uniform and thorough system.” California requires a “system of common schools”; Nevada, a “uniform system of common schools”; Indiana and Minnesota, a “general and uniform system of Common Schools”; Kentucky, an “efficient system of common schools.”
The focus on equality is not a relic of the early republic, of course. Over the past several generations, the most high-profile reform efforts have sought to create a more level playing field for groups of historically underserved students, including African Americans, girls, children of immigrants, English-language learners, and students with special needs. The court cases related to school desegregation and busing, the passage of Title IX, and rules related to special education all promoted an equality agenda.
When I started working in the modern education-reform movement about two decades ago, virtually all our efforts were intended to help the most disadvantaged students. (Over the years, I helped found a charter school for low-income kids, was involved in the early days of two education advocacy organizations, and worked on education policy for a state legislature, a member of Congress, the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, a state department of education, and a state board of education.) Vouchers offered expanded options to low-income students assigned to failing schools. Teach for America prepared sharp recent college graduates for teaching jobs in disadvantaged communities. School-finance lawsuits aimed to direct more dollars to low-income schools. Charter schools became an engine for starting high-performing, high-poverty schools, especially in urban America. The No Child Left Behind Act aspired to get all students up to proficiency in reading and math and to close the achievement gap.
Agree or disagree with the strategies used, such initiatives were similarly motivated by the impulse to treat public education as a leveling force. In hindsight, it is striking how little discussion we had in the reform community about how these efforts did or did not address the needs of kids who were excelling, or how these initiatives were landing on non-disadvantaged communities—places where parents liked things just as they were.
That lack of self-reflection led to a decade of humbling for reformers: the sudden emergence of the “opt-out” movement against testing; the political backlash against No Child Left Behind, teacher-evaluation reform, and Common Core; and the painful realization that the passionate but imprudent college-for-all mind-set devalued non-college paths into the workforce and contributed to gobsmacking levels of student debt. These examples should have revealed to the sometimes self-certain reform community that, because public education is a democratic enterprise, an education-policy agenda should address the needs and interests of all families. Put more bluntly, reformers should be able to give a convincing answer to the question, “What does your plan have to offer my child?” no matter who asks.
For entirely too long, the policy has been incapable of addressing that question when posed by the parents of high-performing kids.
Unlike in other important education areas, the federal government, as reported by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), “does not provide guidance or have requirements for gifted services.” Uncle Sam’s sole dedicated gifted program, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, was appropriated just $12 million in 2019. The federal government’s Title I, Part A program, which provides funding to districts for low-income students, was appropriated nearly $16 billion in 2019.
As a result, high-achieving students depend on state and local policy and practice. But a 2015 study by NAGC and the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted (CSDPG) highlighted the “lack of centralized data collection, measurement, and accountability to systematically monitor and improve the service of students with gifts, talents, and unidentified potential in our public schools.” The report found that “many states lack basic data about gifted students and teachers around which quality programs can be built.” So although the federal government estimates that about 6 percent of students are in gifted-and-talented programs, it’s not clear what to make of that number.
Of the 40 states responding to the NAGC/CSDPG survey, 32 reported some kind of state-level mandate on identifying or serving gifted students. Worse, only 17 states require that gifted services be provided in all K–12 grades. Four states only required that gifted students be identified—with no requirement to serve them. Twelve states reported no state funding to districts for gifted education. In fact, more than half of the states had less than one full-time staff member devoted to gifted education (state departments of education typically have hundreds of employees).
Gifted education simply isn’t a priority in this country. A 2016 study found that states’ education-accountability systems “provide schools with few incentives to focus on their high-achieving students.” The report only deemed four states “praiseworthy” along these lines. A 2017 study assessing whether states had used new federal flexibility to alter their accountability systems found that fewer than half of the states had “strong” systems for “signaling that all students matter, not just low-performers.”
In the 2012 book Exam Schools, Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett found only 165 selective-admissions public high schools in the entire nation (out of the roughly 24,000 public secondary schools in America). These schools served about 1 percent of the total high-school population, and 20 states didn’t even have one such school. A 2007 report by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) found that although ability grouping has been shown to be an effective way of meeting the needs of gifted students, only about half of the students participating in CTY’s talent-search program reported being grouped in this way at any time during elementary or middle school. A study on how high-achieving students fared during the No Child Left Behind era found that, when asked who is likeliest to get one-on-one attention from teachers, 81 percent of teachers said “struggling students.” Only 5 percent said “advanced students.”
There are a number of philanthropically funded initiatives for gifted students, such as the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Young Scholars Program for high-performing seventh-graders with financial needs. And parents with means can send their children to elite private schools. The question, though, is whether we ought to invest serious public funding in gifted students through the public-education system.
These are, after all, kids with special needs of a sort; their parents vote, and the nation could benefit mightily from the purposeful fostering of their talents. It’s not as though our standard operating procedure is succeeding wildly. A study from 2010 found that the percentage of U.S. high-achieving math students was “shockingly below those of many of the world’s leading industrialized nations.” Indeed, 30 of the 56 other countries that participated in a respected international math assessment had a larger percentage of students scoring at an advanced level. Only 3 percent of U.S. 12th graders reached the advanced level on the latest administration of the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress; only 6 percent did so in reading. A 2007 report focused on disadvantaged kids found that they are more likely to fall from the ranks of high-achieving students over the course of their school careers and that they rarely rise into the ranks of high achievers.
Gifted education gets short shrift in part because some believe that other education issues are simply more important and see efforts to advance gifted education as inhibiting those priorities. For example, the panel that made New York City’s provocative recommendations was actually called the School Diversity Advisory Group. No surprise, the panelists approached gifted education primarily through the lens of integration.
And no doubt, there is a moral case to be made for focusing attention on at-risk students instead of high achievers. Given the consequences of the achievement gap and the fact that policies (such as past housing segregation and current residence-based school assignments) limit some students’ opportunities, it is only sensible, some contend, to focus policy on aiding the disadvantaged. A progressive point of view might hold that the only approach that squares with justice is to direct resources in a way that helps those at the bottom. Others, reasoning more pragmatically, might note that there are limited educational resources, so we must triage: Struggling kids, not soaring kids, need help first.
We should also recognize that the topic of gifted education makes some feel viscerally uneasy. Discussions about varying intellectual capacities can become malignant, for instance, due to radioactive attempts to link intelligence to sex, race, and class. Just this summer, the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb and the Quillette founder Claire Lehmann tangled over the science and social implications of IQ tests and behavioral genetics. A reasonable person, seeing that a gifted classroom’s racial composition didn’t match the rest of the school’s, might connect that fact to the nation’s history of school segregation. And needless to say, the government’s involvement in issues of intelligence is not always positive.
Less than a century ago, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia statute that authorized the forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded,” with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., evidently believing he was doing a service to society, infamously writing, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Lest you think this allusion to eugenics is inapt, one member of the New York City panel asserted in a recent op-ed that the existing approach to gifted education is exactly that—“a modern-day-eugenics project.” But opposition isn’t always based on so sensational a charge; some simply sense that gifted programs are unfair.
Some degree, perhaps half, of cognitive ability is innate. And while families can do a number of things to help their kids be identified as gifted—including reading to youngsters at an early age—some tactics are only available to families with financial means, such as paying for tutors, supplemental services, and test prep. Given the advantages that come with unusual natural ability and supportive parents, public investment in gifted kids can feel like making the rich richer, both figuratively and literally. As the scholar, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution—an expert on high-achieving students—ruefully noted, “There’s a long-standing attitude that ‘Well, smart kids can make it on their own. And after all, they’re doing well. So why worry about them?’”
Americans’ leveling impulse has unappealing consequences: In a perverted version of fairness, we knowingly neglect the special gifts of some kids in the name of equality. Each child must be seen as more than a component part of a political strategy to equalize social outcomes. Each child has a legitimate claim to the attention necessary to make the most of his or her interests and capacities.
When schools don’t foster the growth of the highest-potential young people, the public loses something. Beneficial technologies might not be invented, and profound works of art might not be created. Boys and girls who know they are able to do more can become frustrated, and their parents can feel powerless to help.
Perhaps most importantly, when there’s insufficient public investment in identifying and serving gifted students, the economically and socially disadvantaged kids with special abilities are the ones who suffer the most. Wealthy families can find private ways to supplement their kids’ education. They can opt into homeschooling and non-public schools; hire math coaches and music tutors; pay for challenging books, coding camps, online courses, and test-prep classes. As we’ve seen from the infuriating Varsity Blues scandal and the galling findings about Harvard’s legacy and donor preferences, the rich and connected will use the power available to them to advance their kids’ futures. Low-income families, those in sparsely populated areas, and those unable to make a sotto voce call to a friend of the family can do none of these things. They lose out.
The New York City panel behind the provocative recommendations deserves credit for addressing an important problem head-on. The city’s current approach to gifted education is flawed. If you believe—and you should—that unusual cognitive abilities are evenly distributed among the population, then it’s a problem that disadvantaged kids are significantly underrepresented among those identified for special programming. And if you believe that high-quality offerings for gifted kids can substantially advance their learning—and you should—then disadvantaged students’ lack of access to such programs can serve to perpetuate intergenerational inequality.
But it is a non sequitur to then argue that gifted education must be brought to an end. Instead of destroying the current system, the panelists could, for instance, have suggested methods to improve the identification of gifted students or creative ways for the district to use federal Title I funds to support low-income gifted students. And they should have insisted that all students get the best possible primary-school instruction so they are equally able to compete for the limited spots in screened high schools. The scholars Jonathan Plucker and Scott Peters have explored and recommended an array of interventions along these lines.
Justice in education isn’t realized through uniformity; it’s realized by ensuring that every single child has the best shot at reaching his or her highest potential. By highlighting underserved populations’ lack of access to great programs, the panel is a welcome advocate for half of the equation—that “every single child” means every single child. But policymakers in New York and nationwide should also commit to the other half of the equation—taking seriously “the best shot at reaching his or her highest potential.” That means defending programs inside the public system designed to challenge those with unusual capabilities so they can make the most of their talents. Properly understood and executed, investing in kids with special talents serves both America’s commitment to collective equality and individual excellence.
Author of Closing America’s High-Achievement Gap