You may have already seen it, but over the weekend we were reading Dr. Jordan Ellenberg’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “The Wrong Way to Treat Child Geniuses.” Its subtitle will provide you with a bit of summary: “Former prodigies like me need less attention, not more.”
Before we even get to the argument Dr. Ellenberg makes in his article, I want to highlight the portrait he paints of his experience as a “child prodigy”: receiving more attention as a gifted child. Delighting children on the playground by solving difficult math problems in his head. Commuting to the local junior high in third grade to attend advanced math classes.
This scenario doesn’t include the experiences we hear from parents of gifted students: feeling pressure to “dumb down,” so they don’t stand out from their peers. Not “dumbing down,” and being bullied as a result. Sitting through class, day after day, going over material that they knew before the unit even started. Dropping grades because they are tired of doing work they have already mastered, which in turn leads to the school team saying, “How can she be gifted? Her grades are so low!” And finally, total disengagement with their education: begging not to have to go to school, acting up in class, or even dropping out altogether.
Different gifted kids have different experiences with school, but overwhelmingly, Dr. Ellenberg’s experience is in the minority. Acceleration such as he described—being able to attend a geometry class in third grade—is unfortunately very uncommon: while 9 states have policies permitting student acceleration, 16 states actually prohibit students from starting kindergarten early, and 3 states prohibit dual enrollment for middle school students to take high school classes (NAGC State of the Nation, 2012-2013).
With no federal mandate to provide gifted education, gifted students may have a cookie-cutter enrichment class—or none at all. More likely than not, they receive instruction from a teacher of the gifted with NO professional development in the area of gifted education; only 17 states require teachers in gifted and talented programs to have a gifted education credential. In what gifted programming exists, low-income students and students of color are vastly underrepresented—and for low-income students in particular, the gap is widening, not shrinking. In Talent on the Sidelines, Drs. Plucker, Hardesty, and Buroughs found that by comparing the proportion of low-income students reaching the advanced level of national assessments each year, schools are actually producing “on the order of 160,000 fewer high-performing eighth grade students every year.”
Despite the title of his article, the students that Dr. Ellenberg seems most concerned with are not gifted students, but the students who haven’t been identified as gifted, illustrated when he observes “seeing my students damaged by the cult of the genius…we [need to] dump the stereotype that math is worthwhile only for child geniuses.” While he is correct that progress is not driven solely by “cogntitive .01-percenters,” it does not follow that therefore, these high ability students should not receive the services they need to be able to learn and make progress. And indeed, Dr. Ellenberg admits that “my fellow child stars and I have done very well.”
We would like to propose an alternative solution: promoting a better understanding of what gifted means for all educators. Gifted students need and deserve a challenging education that helps them rise to their potential, just like all students. Math is not worthwhile only for gifted students—but this myth isn’t destroyed by forcing gifted students to sit through material that they already know, year after year, until they are totally disengaged with their education, in the name of giving gifted students less attention, not more.
If we remain on this path, we will continue to fail our gifted students. We must demand better educational opportunities for all our students, and at the same time, acknowledge that for gifted students, a challenging environment may look different than for typical children. It may involve a third grader taking geometry or a five-year-old skipping kindergarten. It could be a middle schooler taking AP Chemistry or a high school student taking college courses. It could also include giving gifted students a chance to make friends with other students who share their interests, and addressing common social-emotional struggles many gifted students experience. A truly challenging education may involve affording gifted students the opportunity to learn something new or, even more importantly, learn to fail, that being wrong is not the end of the world.
Denying gifted students the opportunity to be challenged in school does no favors for typical students; when any of our students’ needs go unmet and unacknowledged, we are all worse off.