The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off."... ...C. G. Jung, Psychological Reflections

Commentary of the Day - March 17, 2001:  Gifted and Talented Education - A Forgotten Stepchild:

If there is one segment of the American education system that has fallen beneath nearly everyone's radar screen, it surely must be those programs aimed at our best and brightest students.  These Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs receive so little attention at the national level that it is almost impossible to obtain up-to-date information on spending for them.  However, Peter Rosenstein - executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children - called the IP's attention to a 1993 survey, which estimated that approximately 2 cents of every $100 spent on education in the United States is targeted at GATE programs.

It is estimated that between 3% and 5% of all schoolchildren fall into the "gifted and talented" category.  This includes not only those children whose intellectual capacity is exceptionally high in comparison to their peers, but also children who have exceptional artistic, musical, and creative talents.

State funding for GATE programs varies widely across the country.  Here in California approximately 350,000 children have been identified as "gifted or talented"; and, the state spends approximately $47 million on GATE programs annually.  This works out to less than $200 per gifted child per year.  The state of North Carolina, by way of comparison, funds its GATE programs at approximately $750 per gifted child per year.  At the low end of the funding spectrum Connecticut does not allocate any state education funds specifically for gifted and talented education, although individual school districts can allocate their own funds for this purpose.

At the federal level almost no attention is paid to the education of gifted and talented students.  In fiscal year 2001 the federal government will spend a total of $7.5 million on the "Jacob Javits Program for Gifted and Talented Education".  This program provides just under $2 million to fund the National Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, and a little more than $5.5 million to fund a nationwide competitive grant program, which promotes demonstration projects for gifted and talented students in minority schools, low-income schools, rural schools and also for gifted students who are handicapped.  To put this in perspective, a single Abrams M1A1 battle tank costs the taxpayer approximately $4.3 million.

The Bush administration education bill, which is currently working its way through the Senate, proposes to eliminate all funding for the Javits program for gifted and talented education.  States would be permitted to use education block grant money for the demonstration program and research functions currently funded under the Javits program, but would not be obligated to do so.  However, given the minuscule commitment of the individual states to gifted and talented programs, it is almost a certainty that national research programs addressing these issues will disappear if the Bush education bill is adopted without change.

Senator Thad Cochran (R. Mississippi) plans to offer a floor amendment to the Bush education bill that would restore the Javits program and also would include elements of Senate Bill 421 (sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R. Iowa), Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance) that would provide approximately $160 million to the states in direct support of gifted and talented education.  The fate of the Cochran amendment and the Grassley bill are uncertain at this time.  However, there appears to be considerable bipartisan support for them.

There are two popular myths that contribute to the abysmally low level of funding for gifted and talented education in the United States.  The first is the notion that programs for gifted and talented children are somehow "elitist" -- that they serve primarily children in wealthy suburban areas.  It is true that GATE programs are more likely to be found in suburban schools than in urban or rural schools.  However, the reason for this is that parents of gifted and talented students in these areas have more clout with local school boards, and are more likely to demand that attention be paid to identifying gifted and talented students and to meeting their needs.

In fact, approximately 3 to 5% of all students fall into the gifted and talented category regardless of ethnicity, socio-economic status, English language proficiency or physical handicap.  Because of the lack of funding gifted and talented students in urban and rural schools are far less likely to be identified than those in suburban districts, and even less likely to be enrolled in programs that would help them develop their talents to the fullest.

The second myth is that there really is no need to have special programs for gifted and talented children because they are bright enough to learn on their own.  Because of this attitude many very bright children find themselves immersed in a curriculum that is stultifying and an instructional environment that is neither intellectually stimulating nor challenging.  At the same time, other children in their classes are quick to recognize that the gifted child is somehow "different".  To cope with peer pressures to conform socially gifted children often hide their talents.

Most schools of education have purged all traces of elitism from the curriculum.  Prospective elementary school teachers now receive almost no training that would help them work with gifted students.  Faced with crowded classrooms filled with a heterogeneous mix of students, it is easy for these teachers either to ignore the one or two gifted students in the class or to simply give them more of the same to keep them busy -- more work but not more challenging work.  It should not be surprising that many of our brightest students become alienated from the educational process and never reach their full potential.

We need to acknowledge that our gifted and talented students are a national treasure, and that our failure to provide programs that would allow them to reach their full potential is a national disgrace.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.