It's no secret that state budgets are strapped these days. While Indiana is doing better than its neighbors (see Illinois's recent tax hike), the state is exploring areas to cut, and education budgets should probably be no more sacrosanct than anything else.
So I was not surprised to see this recent article from the Star-Press that my high school, the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities, a 2-year residential school for gifted high school juniors and seniors, is facing a 15% budget cut. As a generally fiscally conservative person, I'm always wary of making arguments that programs I care about are somehow more deserving than others. But I want to talk a little bit about the value of specialized secondary schools, and why the questions some of the lawmakers asked about the Academy are probing the wrong vein.
First, gifted education, as we often talk about here, is not a reward for hard-working kids. Hard work should certainly be rewarded, but gifted education is something different. It is an educational intervention for people who require it.
Regular high schools -- even good ones -- find it very difficult to serve highly gifted young people. I attended Clay High School in South Bend, Indiana for my freshman and sophomore years, and it was certainly not a failing institution. One or two kids went to Ivy League schools most years. There were a handful of AP classes. They were also reasonably accommodating to me. I was allowed to accelerate 2 years in math, and would have worked out an arrangement for studying at Notre Dame or IUSB had I stayed there. After I had a showdown with my sophomore English teacher about various things, the department head used his planning period to do an independent study with me. He taught me grammar, introduced me to the classics of American literature, and definitely honed my writing craft. But I was still miserable. I actually made hash marks on the back of one of my notebooks to count through the 180 days of my sophomore year. I felt like being smart wasn't particularly valued, and "smart" was my only identity. I was still not challenged enough.
So that was my position when I started at the Indiana Academy in the fall of 1995. It was not perfect either. There were various controversies over administration, over rules that were more of the CYA variety than about rationality. Some classes were better than others. Some students were not emotionally prepared to live away from home, and in the early years of a school sometimes people enroll who are not prepared. But I learned to work. Hard. I would scribble lines in my journal about my brain stretching. I failed at things and had to learn to try harder. Because my peers were mostly academically inclined as well, we did not all have to fit into the "smart kid" role, and we learned new things about our identities. Thanks to the crucible of the Academy, not only was I admitted to every college where I applied, when I showed up at Princeton I felt prepared.
Note: Princeton is not in Indiana. I mention this because the article quotes Rep. Peggy Welch of Bloomington as asking "Do most of these students, after they graduate from the academy, do they go to Indiana colleges?" She asked a representative from the school, "Are you tracking them? Do they stay in Indiana for their jobs or are we losing them?"
Welch continued that "Obviously we should be supporting it (the academy)...But I think it would be helpful to build the case, or, if we find they are kind of leaving the state or not returning to the state after they go to an Ivy League school, track that to see what we can do differently to have them land in Indiana."
I understand that politically, it is easier to sell education as an investment than as an expenditure. But staying in state for college is a silly metric on which to judge a high school. By this definition, the Academy "failed" by sending me to Princeton, and would have succeeded if I'd stayed right there and gone to any college in Indiana.
Returning to the state to work is a trickier matter. I know that this is the same mindset that has gifted education coordinators selling their programs by saying "these kids will save us in the future! These are our future medical researchers, presidents, inventors..." Maybe. I think it's the wrong argument though. Some gifted kids do amazing things. Others don't -- or at least not the kinds of things you'd send a press release about. But as noted above, gifted education is best understood not as an investment in our future, but as an educational intervention in the here and now. Many students with disabilities will not go on to win Nobel prizes, yet this doesn't stop us from spending the money necessary to meet their needs so they can receive an appropriate education. Likewise with intellectual giftedness. It is simply humane to give all children an education that challenges them to the extent of their abilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers.
I would bet that the majority of Indiana Academy alums do go to Indiana colleges and stay in Indiana -- and these stats are worth tracking -- but even if no Academy alum goes to an Indiana college or returns to Indiana to work, the Academy gives gifted children the education they deserve.
No more than anyone else. But no less either.