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Education – Dog Chases Tail – Part One

March 12, 2009

Part One:

President Barack Obama’s first speech on education rightly pointed out some flaws in the system.  Low standards, meaningless measures and teacher qualifications are all issues rife with politics and hidden agendas and all of them desperately need to be fixed.  The bottom line is that our nation is failing to educate our students to levels achieved in other countries.  This isn’t news – we’ve known it for years.  Bush knew it and yet still chose to move in the direction of “No Child Left Behind.”  Let’s hope Obama doesn’t make the same mistake.

In gifted education circles the plea for the past few years has been “No Child Held Back” based on data which shows our highest ability students are suffering under a “dumbed down” curriculum designed to cater to the lowest ability students.  Again, this is not news.  Mr. Obama cleverly referred to it yesterday as a “race to the bottom.”

But what is the human cost of not meeting the needs of these high ability children in public schools?  According to some estimates more than 20 percent of high school dropouts test in the gifted range.  Shockingly, there is a school district in Ohio where 40 percent of the high school dropouts tested in the gifted range.  These children drop out because they lose interest in the lock-step progression offered through a public education system that neither teaches them nor recognizes or nurtures their talents.  Somehow I don’t think these kids will be earning merit scholarships any time soon.  Other nations identify, educate and nurture these students.  We consign them to the closet, embarrassed to admit that they exist and confident in the notion that they do not deserve “special” treatment or resources beyond the average child in the regular classroom.  We insist that the numbers are small yet we know that they occur across all demographics in about 10 percent of the population (Ohio estimates 16 percent of its public school population is “gifted”).  That is no small number.  We tell ourselves that “gifted” kids will succeed no matter what happens to them in school – in spite of knowing the dropout statistics.

This is a national tragedy.

Our schools do not understand the needs of gifted students, and most of our classroom teachers, unfortunately, lack the training they would need to have the ability to teach them.  The crime is that we know this, we have research and data to support this, and we have the solution at our fingertips – we simply continue to fail to fund it on all levels.

Instead we treat our gifted children like bills stuffed between the mattresses for a rainy day.  They just sit there in class mouldering away until that rainy day when you pull them out and find they haven’t learned anything or grown with interest.

A national initiative to identify and serve these high ability students would go a long way to raising our international standing in education circles and bring the innovation, critical thinking and abstract reasoning we so desperately need to secure our collective future out from between the mattresses.  Instead we deny the science and the evidence and pretend that all students are equal when they are not.

What can Mr. Obama and Arne Duncan do to most effectively turn this ship around?  Here are some ideas:

1 – Encourage: a) the creation of community support for gifted students through mentoring programs and parent support groups, and b) the removal of outdated policy barriers to academic development and encouraging the use of many no-cost or low-cost interventions available to serve the gifted and talented population.  The federal government can mandate that a democratic education meets the student at their particular achievement level and encourage states with financial incentives to use acceleration to meet the needs of high ability kids in the classroom.

2 – Initiate an earlier and broader effort to identify gifted children before they tune out and stop learning.  Most experts agree that ability scores change very little over time – so earlier identification would translate to earlier intervention.  

3 – Create a better understanding of giftedness for a broader audience so that giftedness in general no longer holds an elitist, or negative, connotation.  The national proclivity towards anti-intellectualism has to come to an end.  

4 – Actively encourage new, realistic, role models and even changing the gifted label itself.  After all, as much as we admire Albert Einstein,  aren’t there more relevant role models for gifted children out there?

and, 

5 – Dedicate federal resources to fund these efforts.  It is shameful that gifted educators have only the tiny Javits Grant to turn to for funding on the national level. 

Why must this be a federal initiative?  Shouldn’t the states control the outcome?  I will try to address that in my next post:  “Education Discussion:  Dog Chases Tail:  Part Two.

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