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Posted at 09:30 PM ET, 10/12/2011

Why gifted education misses out

Frederick M. Hess’s long essay in the latest issue of the quarterly National Affairs pleased those of us who share the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s dislike for politicians’ fixation on closing the achievement gap. Reducing the gap sounds good until you realize that means it is okay for high achievers to stagnate so that low achievers can catch up.

I have been venting about this for several years and getting only puzzled looks. Hess’s piece — the most detailed and vehement ever on the subject — will hopefully lead to more discussion of better ways to deal with the different average achievement levels of poor kids and affluent kids.

I think we have borrowed language from another issue, the income gap, and shoved it into the education debate, where it doesn’t belong. Making money and learning about the world are not similar enterprises. If someone accumulates $1 billion and spends it on Rolls-Royces and gold bathroom fixtures, that is very different from fixating on learning something new about solar energy and making the world a cleaner place.

We need to know more about how to help our best young learners. We should also, as Hess says, adopt “the credo that every child deserves an opportunity to fulfill his potential.” That, unfortunately, doesn’t fit with his objection to cuts in gifted education budgets and his call for restricting admission to Advanced Placement courses. That kind of thinking is out of date, the result of our fixation on the achievement gap getting in the way of needed innovations in the education of our best students.

The standard elementary school gifted education program — pulling kids with high test scores out of their regular class a couple of times a week for special instruction — doesn’t work very well. Some parents of gifted children have told me their kids do much better if they pull them out of school and let them read and investigate whatever they like.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University say that even exclusive public high schools like Boston Latin or New York’s Stuyvesant High School don’t produce students any more accomplished than similarly gifted teens who go to regular high schools. Their recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research notes other research showing little effect from gifted programs.

We need to figure out what works best for such kids before we start throwing money around. We should also recognize that we already spend more than $400 billion a year on the most successful gifted education system ever created, even if we don’t usually think of it in that way. I am referring to America’s colleges and universities.

That higher education system has nurtured more geniuses and produced more Nobel laureates than any other gifted program in the world. Many of the smartest young people come here from abroad to enroll. When gifted American children exhaust the resources of our K-12 schools, a common solution is to send them off to college early.

Hess, whose work I admire, uncharacteristically falls for the old and wrong-headed complaint that we are hurting our high school Advanced Placement programs by letting average students take those challenging courses. He notes that between 2003 and 2008, the percentage of all test-takers with a passing AP score of 3 or above declined by 4 percentage points. But that is common when more students take the tests.

The more important question is, how many more students benefited from the courses and enhanced their gifts? The number of students getting the top score of 5 in AP Calculus (AB and BC) increased 61 percent, and the number getting that score in AP Biology increased 54 percent in that same period.

As Hess says, every child deserves the opportunity to reach his or her potential. Let’s figure out how to do that and remember to keep the emphasis on that word “every.”

By  |  09:30 PM ET, 10/12/2011

 
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