Guest post by Melissa Bilash
Does every child have the right to be educated to an extent that is appropriate for their abilities?
Should money be an obstacle when educating high-potential children?
Is there a way to reach a balance between “raising the floor” under low-achieving students and “raising the ceiling” for those already well above the floor? Or are we intent, consciously or unconsciously, on pushing them to the mean, and holding back gifted and talented students instead of cultivating their abilities?
Chester E. Finn, Jr., senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, addresses the topic in his September 18th New York Times op-ed titled “Young, Gifted, and Neglected.” In his piece, Finn decries the “systematic failure” of our country’s public education system to educate a diverse gifted population. He says that this neglect of high-ability students, and ultimately neglect of “our country’s supply of future scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs” takes three forms: lack of early identification; lack of suitable classrooms for gifted education at the primary and middle school levels; and infrequent honors or Advanced Placement classes, which further may not necessarily mean the student taking them is being challenged to the appropriate extent. Further compounding this issue, Finn observes, is the fact that the U.S. Congress has “zero-funded” the Jacob J. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program while no alternative program exists. The only hope is for the TALENT Act, which, as I have talked about will support education for gifted children, to be enacted.
While a few public schools and programs do focus on high-ability, highly motivated students, there are not nearly enough. Nineteen states do not have a single public school for the gifted student population. In his article, Finn advocates for more public schools — such as exam schools — for the gifted so as to give families with limited means more opportunities for their children, and additionally insists that students should not be turned away from appropriate schools and education because there is “no room” for them. However, it is also critical to clarify that the words “private” and “elite” or “prestigious” are not synonymous with “rigorous,” and access to private education is no panacea. Even gifted students who do have the opportunity to attend private schools can still be left without a suitable teacher or curriculum with a specific focus on gifted education, to instruct them at a level truly appropriate to their aptitudes and abilities, without adhering rigidly to the typical approach to “quality education.” The Davidson Academy is a rare and remarkable example of a school that truly does meet the needs of its gifted students; in addition, the Grayson School is another school dedicated to gifted students and opening soon in the Philadelphia region. Ultimately, this country is in serious need of public and private schools equipped provide gifted students with appropriate education.
At the 2012 NBC News Education Nation Summit, Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, and a leading researcher in motivation, and Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a series of studies on grit and perseverance, stressed the importance of teaching children the concept of “grit,” which they consider “perseverance and passion for long-term goals… working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress.” These are lessons that are extremely difficult to learn if children are not appropriately challenged, not given the opportunity to fail, to make mistakes, and to get back up and try again.
How much longer can we ask our gifted and talented youth to wait, sit still, and be content with the status quo while our neighboring countries continue to surpass us every single day? All of these stories, research, and op-ed pieces point to the same confounding yet critical questions: How long will we continue to tamp down the unique abilities and gifts possessed by our brightest students? How much longer can we tell our gifted and talented youth just wait, sit still, and be content with a status quo that continually neglects their potential, telling them over and over that their gifts are not valued? And how much longer will we tolerate this state of affairs without demanding the sort of systemic radical change and support that these students not only need, but deserve?
Bio: Melissa Bilash is one of only 100 Federally Trained Educational Advocates in the United States and is the first Mom Congress Delegate from PA. She runs an Educational Consulting firm in Radnor, PA that focuses on working to build individualized programs for children with Gifted and Special Education Needs.