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Do We Need Gifted Education?

My girlfriend’s daughter wants to go to fourth grade. Now.

The problem is, she’s six. She’s already the youngest in her second grade classroom by a good margin. Never mind that she can read and write as well as the fourth graders in her school, or that the math worksheets she brings home bore her to tears.

There’s no good place in our city’s education system for a kid like her. Last year, this city of 100,000 people got just $7500 in state funding for gifted education. There are no resources to meet her needs even if they knew how to.

And the evidence is that they don’t. Dealing with gifted kids is a challenge our educational system just isn’t rising to.

In a recent New York Times op ed, Chester E. Finn Jr. makes the case for gifted education. He argues that we need more schools that focus exclusively on the needs of excellent students. I think he’s right.

Given Finn’s conservative credentials, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with him. But I do on many points. Watching my kids and my friends’ kids struggle to find their places in schools that just don’t challenge them is disheartening. There are few if any options.

We’re the lucky ones, too. Most of us are highly educated ourselves, and can foster additional learning at home through games and activities. We’re an affluent crowd who can afford to send our kids to robotics classes and art lessons. We have time to shuttle these bright young people to Model U.N. and debate meets.

How much worse is this learning environment for kids who don’t get those bonuses at home?

And they’re still not getting what they need. They’re bored in school, and in many cases that boredom emerges as disruptive behavior in the classroom. That makes learning harder for everyone, not just the bored gifted kid.

Finn’s case is that we’re shortchanging the next generation of leaders, scientists, innovators and wild talents. That we can’t lead the world if we don’t pick our best and brightest and focus special resources on them.

That’s probably true, but I see another case for gifted education: that shortchanging gifted children is just as bad as shortchanging anyone else. Exceptionally bright kids deserve to have their special educational needs met just like those with learning disabilities do.

My kids just transitioned from a small, nurturing private school into public school for the first time. They’re coming from an environment that did a lot of individual tailoring of lesson plans and assignments into one where everyone is expected to do the same work.

They’re not as clearly academically gifted as my girlfriend’s daughter, but they’re both bright kids and they’ve quickly found that they’re not being challenged.

What they need isn’t to be pulled out into a special school; they just need more differentiated instruction. Differentiation is an education buzzword that means giving different students in a class slightly different work based on their individual needs and abilities. It would mean letting my daughter, who has mastered addition and subtraction, move on to more complex problems while continuing to work on basic skills with the boy who sits next to her and struggles.

Some kids, on the other hand, seem to really need something completely different.

It’s frustrating to see the needs of both groups being underserved. I’d love to see greater differentiation and individualized instruction in my daughters’ classroom, and I would love for her whipsmart friends to have options other than skipping ahead two or three grades.

What do you think about gifted education? Are your kids’ needs being met in a conventional classroom?

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