Destroying Gifted Education: A National Calamity on the Installment Plan

by ROBERT WEISSBERG March 28, 2013

Imagine that the CIA uncovered a Chinese plot to attack the American economy by undermining our educational system, specifically by making sure that we no longer cultivated the smartest of the smart? The response would be outrage, and rightly so. Some might even call it an act of war, far worse than the usual cyber attack. Alas, what our foreign enemies dare not attempt, we inflict on ourselves. This is a war on gifted education, killing off the intellectually demanding programs targeting the top 3 or 5% of our national brainpower.

This war is a barely noticed guerilla war, one school district at a time but rest assured it will be lethal. Time to sound the alarm and explain how it works.

The latest installment of this nefarious stealth battle was reported in a March 4th in a Wall Street Journal articles-"Gifted Class Imbalance." The article told how New York City's classes for the smartest kids were disproportionately white and Asian. Specifically, while whites and Asians make up a third of all students K-5 they comprise 70% of all students in the city's 110 gifted programs.

The implication was that this imbalance is "unfair" and enrollments should reflect the city's overall demography (yes, this is the Wall Street Journal). The article reported that several educators were "disturbed" by the pattern and one professor from the prestigious Teachers College, Columbia University said that the standardized admission tests should be replaced by a more "balanced" approach that included teacher evaluation and student interviews so as to make enrollments more racially and ethnically representative. Elsewhere in the story this gap was blamed on economic inequality--rich parents can buy expensive books to give their children a leg up in the competition for slots.

It goes without saying that relaxing academic standards via demographic quotas would destroy gifted education. Imagine trying to teach pre-algebra to a class where half the class struggles with arithmetic? A teacher would quickly dumb down the lessons lest the less able students fail the class, a politically unacceptable outcome. Moreover, killing off gifted programs via dilution might well further undermine the city's public schools and therefore weaken the city's tax base. How many parents with intellectually talented offspring denied admission to free public gifted programs will stay put when the private school alternative costs $30,000 a year? Better to escape to the suburbs.

Why, then, do some people, including professors of education still demand filling gifted slots by quota despise the awaiting calamity?  Let me suggest two reasons: the radical egalitarian faith and the public's misunderstanding of how education works.

The egalitarian faith is easy to spot. True believers, often in the prestige media (e.g., The New York Time) and the academy are obsessed with leveling differences. It's their passionate religion. They oppose glass ceilings, unequal pay, differences in college graduation rates and anything else that shows group-related gaps in accomplishment. That these unequal outcomes may be intractable hardly deters their boiling anger over supposed unfairness and the need for yet more heavy-handed government intervention.

But, a more pervasive explanation for this quest concerns how "education" is widely understood. Here, especially unsophisticated parents (and this is true regardless of background), learning is akin to getting a meal, and to get the best meal, one has to eat at the best restaurant. From this perspective, learning is only about access, so if one desires a quality education just attend a top school famous for putting quality knowledge into brains.

Word choice is often the tip-off to this flawed perspective-one "gets an education" as opposed to "one has a chance to learn with nothing guaranteed." This latter perspective correctly assumes that merely sitting in class is insufficient. Rather, considerable personal effort and brain power are required to absorb difficult lessons and failure is always possible.

It is easy to understand how naïve parents just assume junior will shine if only admitted to the gifted classroom. In fact, this misunderstanding is hardly surprising since many egalitarian journalists and academics happily encourage this misperception. 

How, then, do we convince parents who mistakenly view gifted education as a benefit for all who merely show up? 

Let me suggest a strategy to wean parents from this seductive foolishness: compare access to gifted education to athletics. Draw the parallel between a mediocre high school basketball player being better off playing among mediocre peers versus perpetually sitting on the bench of a top-ranked college team. Yes, being with the elite college team might bring prestige, but it would just waste valuable time and accomplish zero other than some meaningless prestige. The old expression "in over your head" captures this harsh reality.    

Far more is involved here than stopping the clamor for putting junior in over his head. The stakes are much higher and the situation grows more perilous by the day as countless cities and states kill off these programs by diluting them in the name of egalitarian "fairness."

Think of it this way. Much of America's current brain power came up through the gifted programs of the 60's and 70's. At some point these engineers, mathematicians, scientists, doctors and business executive will retire and have to be replaced and this requires sustaining the gifted pipeline.

I can only imagine the glee of our overseas economic rivals as they observe Americans, not their paid agents, wrecking educational havoc to pursue some egalitarian fantasy.  Their glee will grow when they watch desperate American firms hire their own nationals to compensate for the dearth of native-born talent. And then reap the rewards as these nationals return home with the latest American-supplied knowledge. Our rivals will rightly conclude that any people so stupid, so oblivious to the nurturing of intellectual talent deserve to be a second-rate world power. And they would be right. Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana. He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society and  Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs. 


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