I’m the kind of guy who spent a lot of fifth grade secretly reading books in class instead of paying attention to the teacher. I earned good grades, took a few AP classes, and got a full-ride academic scholarship to college. I graduated something-cum laude (I can’t remember anymore whether it was summa cum laude or just plain old cum laude). As far as I know, I was never labeled “gifted,” but I was certainly a Smarty McSmarterson.
I know from personal experience, from my friends’ and colleagues’ anecdotes, and from this literature review I’m currently working on that it’s hard being a Smarty McSmarterson–especially in a public school system that’s not particularly equipped to meet the needs of overachieving or gifted learners.
But I can’t take the next step and agree that the ‘equity’ issues surrounding so-called “gifted” learners are equivalent to (not identical to, but similar in scope and urgency as) the issues surrounding struggling or underachieving learners. Here’s how Susan Winebrenner put it in her 2000 publication “Gifted students need an education, too”:
Consider the range of abilities present in most classrooms. Visualize that both extremes of a learning curve are equally far removed from the norm. Students who fail to achieve the designated standards have received unprecedented attention during the past several years.They are identified for special services before they start kindergarten, experience lower student:teacher ratios, and may even have a full-time aide assigned to them for the entire school day. School districts spend much more money educating this population than they designate for the usual per-pupil expenditure.
Teachers are expected to create numerous differentiation adjustments for low-achieving students by modifying the amount of work, depth, complexity, and content of the curriculum and by linking students’ learning styles and interests to the prescribed learning tasks. Politicians, community members, and teachers avidly follow the progress of these students’ learning for evidence that these students are indeed moving forward.
Contrast this with the situation for gifted students, whose natural learning abilities place them as far from average as their classmates who struggle to learn. In September, many of these youngsters could take the assessments that all students in their grade will take at the end of the year and still score at or above the 95th percentile. Simply in the interests of equity, these students are as entitled to receive the same types of differentiation so readily provided to the students who struggle to learn.
I have two major concerns regarding Winebrenner’s argument. The first is the use of that phrase “natural learning abilities.”According to Winebrenner, “gifted” students are just “naturally” more academically advanced than their peers. Can we really embrace the “born this way” argument when the truth is that students labeled “gifted” are overwhelmingly white or Asian, overwhelmingly middle- and upper-class? Are we to assume, then, that white and Asian, middle- and upper-class learners are more predisposed to “naturally” higher intelligence? Down that road lies only darkness and tragedy.
I also don’t know what to do about Winebrenner’s use of that phrase in the context of her larger argument, that the equity issues surrounding gifted learners are equivalent to those surrounding struggling learners, by mere dint of the equidistance of each group from the mythical “norm.” If gifted learners are “naturally” more academically advanced than their peers, should we assume that struggling learners–disproportionately Black, Latino, Native American, and ESL students–are “naturally” less academically talented?
Ok, so that’s the first thing. The second thing is that it is impossible to assess the depth and scope of an equity issue through measures like standardized test scores and other formal assessments. Learners who fall in the bottom quartile on standardized test scores are simply not facing the same issues as those who fall in the top quartile on the same measure, and to suggest that they do shows a stunning lack of awareness of what doing better than average gets you that doing worse than average does not. We are talking, after all, about an educational system in which a) some kids are more likely to come to school with certain skills, dispositions, and attributes that are more likely to make them successful in school; b) those kids overwhelmingly (and not coincidentally) come from the dominant (white, middle class) culture of our society; and c) the people who end up ‘educated’ enough to argue, in research journals, in our classrooms, and in the halls of our government about whether helping gifted kids is an equity issue on par with the need to help struggling kids ALSO happen to overwhelmingly (and not coincidentally) come from the dominant (white, middle class) culture.
“Gifted” kids, whether placed in honors classes or not, are going to leave school and enter larger social structures that, overwhelmingly, are designed to support their continued success. Struggling kids, whether “remediated” or not, are going to leave school and enter larger social structures that, overwhelmingly, work against their best interests and throw up barriers to their success.
I agree that every kid has a right to a good education that meets her specific needs, that challenges her, that helps her become the best person she can be. But I don’t agree that the equity issues surrounding underchallenged gifted kids are the same–in spirit or in substance–as are those surrounding underachieving or struggling learners.
I accidentally started a conversation about this on Facebook, where the discussion is all walled off and hidden from people who aren’t my facebook friends (or who avoid reading my posts), so I wanted to bring it over here for more people to see. What do you think? How can we support the needs of gifted learners without falling into the trap of treating all equity issues as, er, equal?