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Do We Need Gifted Education?

By Sierra Black |

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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About Sierra Black

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Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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8 thoughts on “Do We Need Gifted Education?

  1. Jen says:

    I was considered a “gifted” student. My family wasn’t affluent, so I was bored a lot. In high school it meant mind numbing boredom where I finished homework in class, doodled, and got As. I even remember writing a complete essay on “Great Expectations” just by listening to the teacher’s lectures (as an aside, I still can’t stand reading Dickens and I am in my 30s now). I do wish I had been challenged more by my teachers back then. My brother is another story…. He was/is gifted too, but his boredom found troublesome outlets that ended up leading to him barely graduating high school. There is a book somewhere in there…..

  2. CW says:

    Differentiation is nice in theory, but I have NEVER seen it actually work in a classroom. What we need is to stop grouping by age and instead group children by where they are in the curriculum. So every child who is learning long division will be grouped together for math, instead of plopping all 9 y.o.’s into a 4th grade class including those who mastered division years ago and those who can’t even add & subtract.

  3. bunnytwenty says:

    The worst part about being a gifted kid without a challenging curriculum: because school was so mind-numbingly easy, I never learned how to study or how to actually put effort into work. I had to learn these things as an adult.
    Oh yes, and the heartbreaking amount of time wasted listening to the other kids repeat the same stuff (the torture of listening to other kids slowly working through reading aloud!), when I could have been actually learning something. Ugh.

  4. Megan says:

    The boredom is the worst. You don’t learn how to study. I didn’t even have to until I got to Grad School, and then only in 1 or 2 classes. Wishing you could be anywhere else but school. Hiding your reading material(adult books like Stephen King in 6th, Dracula in 7th, and Clan of the Cave Bear in 8th) because the teachers would yell at you to read “age-appropriate material” that you could finish in an hour. I wish I could’ve skipped a grade or 2 as a kid. My son has already skipped a grade(he’s 9 and in 5th grade) and he’s still bored. The worst thing for him is that the teachers expect him to get 100%s all of the time. There has to be a better way. At 9, he’s already talking about wanting to go top IMSA(Illinois Math and Science Academy) for 10th-12th grade which is a boarding school. If he doesn’t get accepted there, I don’t know what we’ll do. He’s bored to tears already.

  5. Nancy Norbeck says:

    I was a gifted kid in the 70s and 80s. That meant I went to the 2nd grade classroom for reading when I was in 1st grade, and to 3rd when I was in 2nd. From 3rd grade through 6th, I was in a program called “Seminar,” which was where all the gifted kids in 3rd-6th grades were together for half a day/week to work on special projects, learn research skills, etc. It was my favorite time of the week. Starting in middle school, we were all grouped according to ability as well as grade.

    I think this system worked pretty well for me. The downside to being gifted wasn’t so much that I was bored but that I was bullied for it. I have never fully understood why, but my guess is that the fact that I had my hand in the air for every answer threatened the other kids (I base this guess on the fact that, whenever I would go out for reading or for Seminar, the ringleaders among the other kids would say, “She has to go to another class because she’s stupid”). I’m a bit surprised that that element’s not included in your commentary, or in the original column, because I don’t for a minute believe that I was the only kid who ever encountered that sort of treatment.

    As a former teacher, I can’t tell you how much differentiated instruction can help–but only if it’s done in a way that’s practical for the teacher. Especially in a public school, when you can have 20-30 students per class, having everyone working on the same thing is hard enough, especially when it comes to grading. Asking that same teacher to keep track of separate assignments within that group of kids, teach to multiple levels in the same room, and get good results out of it is unfair to the teacher AND to the students. (Think about it: in a 45-minute class period, if you have kids at 3 levels, that means they each get 15 minutes of teacher time–and that the teacher has 3 times as much work to do as usual, which means less time for kids after class or after school. Is that really what we want?) Far better to create separate classes based on ability where kids can get the attention they need–though then we get back to the issue of jealousy and bullying based on that separation…and the fact that taxpayers currently believe we should have fewer teachers, not the larger numbers that would be needed to cater to everyone.

    This is why education policy is lost on so many people who haven’t ever been in a classroom except as a student. Solutions exist, but often create other problems. We’re still trying to find the path that works for the most students, but it will very likely never be perfect, and the risk of leaving someone out in the cold will always be there.

  6. Linda, T.O.O. says:

    When I was kid in the 70s, they just gave you the following year’s workbooks when you’d finished your own year’s. I guess I don’t really get all these kids who are supposedly “bored” though. I’ve never been bored a day in my life because the world is really interesting. If I finished my work early as a child, I always had a library book to read or I’d watch the human interactions going on around me, or I’d make up math problems based on the patterns in the ceiling tiles. I still find the world infinitely entertaining to this day and I’m raising my kids to be the same way. In my experience, people who always claim to be “bored”, are actually just BORING. Parents who label their kids as “bored” are usually the parents who suck at discipline. On a practical note, my kids’ K-8 school groups students according to ability rather than age for academics.

  7. Linda, T.O.O. says:

    I meant to add, I totally support every child receiving an appropriate education. There is just as much of a need for gifted education as there is for special education. That being said, truly gifted children are actually pretty rare (3%). No, your typical, bright kid is not usually gifted, even if he’s bored (boring!) and acting like a dick in class and preventing everyone else from learning.

  8. Michelle says:

    Completely agree that gifted children’s special educational needs should be met just as the needs of children with learning disabilities. It’s ridiculous that they’re not – why aren’t we (as a nation) nurturing these bright young minds? After the public school system here seemed to be ignoring my son’s needs, we scrimped to pay out of pocket to have iq and achievement testing done on him when he was in kindergarten. We were hoping with the evidence in front of them the school would provide some help – he had been reading fluently for over 2 years by then and was doing double digit multiplication at home, but was coming home from school with sight words to practice and worksheets with numbers he’d spent his day coloring. Even though the tests showed him to be highly gifted and the achievement test placed him several grades ahead, they told me that budget cuts had made it impossible to do anything other than give him his own ‘harder’ worksheets in class (to work on by himself while the teacher tended to the other 20 kids), and pull him out of the classroom for ‘enrichment’ once or twice a YEAR! His spelling scores placed him in the 11th grade, but when I asked if he could compete in the spelling bee (with the 3rd graders) I was told no, because there were ‘too many tears’ from kindergarteners when they lost. He couldn’t move up to a higher grade, even in certain subjects, because the school was at maximum capacity and they had to maintain certain class sizes or be fined heavily. And there was no money allotted for private tutoring for gifted students.
    My friend whose son has a learning disability, coupled with high-functioning autism, is provided with a tutor 3 times a week, an assistant in the classroom, and free speech and occupational therapy. I think it’s wonderful that he’s provided with all of that, but the juxtaposition is striking.
    We’ve found a private school we’re very happy with now, but it puts a huge financial strain on us.

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