A new book out by nationally known gifted-education expert James R. Delisle, a former fifth grade special education teacher and Kent State University professor, says our schools are making war on our nation’s finest young minds by failing to fund enough programs for the gifted.
What’s the problem with that? He — and others involved with gifted education — doesn’t address what I see as the biggest problem with gifted education: its ill-considered selectivity.
After a school district has designated a certain group of students as gifted, what should it do for the children who missed being admitted by one or two IQ points, one or two votes on the selection committee or some other narrow margin in the variously complicated ways this is done?
Given the unavoidable imprecision of any selection criteria, many children being denied gifted services would be for all practical purposes identical to many of those selected. If gifted services are as necessary for the gifted as Delisle says they are, how can he deny them to children with the same capabilities and needs?
Delisle never answers that question in the book, “Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back),” but he did respond when I e-mailed him last week. “Children of slightly less pronounced abilities should also have an option that addresses their needs,” he said. He suggested what he called a junior varsity version of gifted services. To me, this is a recipe for mediocrity. Students who are a few IQ points below the gifted program minimum are likely to get as much out of the most challenging classes as the officially designated gifted students do. Why not let them take those courses?
Even more important is the fact that gifted advocates have no evidence that gifted services produce results any better for the brightest children than the efforts many schools are making to provide challenging courses for the students who want them.
I give Delisle credit for being honest about that. Toward the end of the book he describes a study of 320 gifted adults who had been enrolled in college classes about the time their contemporaries were starting eighth grade. By the time they reached their late 30s, they were an accomplished lot, Delisle said. Of the group, “203 have at least a master’s degree and 142 have doctorates,” he said. “Collectively, they hold 49 patents and have produced 14 theater and 21 musical productions.”
“Would those prolific adults have performed as well had they not participated [in the gifted program]? That’s a question that is impossible to answer,” he said.
We can’t answer it because we haven’t spent much on research that would tell us what gifted classes do. In the book, Delisle said Congress in 2010 erased “the only federally funded program aimed specifically at gifted children,” including some money for research. Some of that money has been restored, Delisle told me, but so far the research has not gotten very far.
I have a research idea. Why not compare students admitted to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County and students who just missed acceptance? We could assess their achievements 10 and 20 years later and see whether the Jefferson grads were doing better than similar graduates of Oakton, Mount Vernon and South County high schools.
We know that challenging programs can raise the level of even average or below-average students who have not been challenged before. But do our gifted education classes do better at that than advanced classes already available to nearly everyone?
In a future column I will look at ways to give gifted-education supporters the selective programs they want, but let our brightest and most motivated students have other choices, as well.