Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Does America hate its gifted kids?

In the internet era, everyone loves provocative titles. So Newsweek obliged with a recent essay called "America Hates Its Gifted Kids." The piece offers up the usual arguments: the focus on bringing people up to minimal standards means bright kids get little attention. Teachers who try to differentiate face an uphill battle because, well, it's hard.

All this is true. But does America actually hate its gifted kids?

I'd say that hate is a strong word. I think the emotion is more nuanced. Certainly, we have our narratives. We like the story in which no one expects great things from someone -- and then that person goes on to succeed. Someone who shows a lot of potential from the get-go doesn't fit this narrative as well. We also have a very strong egalitarian impulse. While good in some ways, people are obviously more or less talented in many regards. The problem is that we also dislike the concept of people who think they're somehow more special and better than others. We tolerate this in athletic pursuits (usually -- though sometimes not judging by the reaction to Richard Sherman's NFC championship game rant). But the language of someone being gifted implies this specialness. And sometimes we like to see the tall poppies cut down.

But more I'd say it's just neglect and bad incentives. I was at a conference on educational philanthropy a few years when attendees were asked what they thought were the big issues people should focus on. Gifted children was an option, and got about 2% of responses (and I answered that, so I'm a chunk of that 2%). Teachers wind up with a huge range of academic levels in classes, and have to triage what to address. Weighing options, it's easiest to assume that gifted kids can fend for themselves.

The Newsweek essay does suggest that people be grouped by ability, not age, which is something many of us would love to see happen more broadly. The organization of schools has little to do with the reality of what people can handle. But changing the way 50 million school children are organized is not an easy thing to pull off. And so that's why many parents wind up doing what they can on their own.

Do you think America hates its gifted kids?

6 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I think "hate" is too strong a word. I would say rather that America neglects its gifted kids.

Anonymous said...

Well some of my daughter's previous teachers seemed to actively dislike and be annoyed by my daughter and look for excuses to prove that she wasn't as smart as our testing indicated. That's not hate, but it's still terrible.

Anonymous said...

America is anti-intellectual.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I think most schools just neglect gifted kids. Some teachers do hate them, but I hope they're in the minority. (Still, they can be devastating when a gifted kid does come across one, especially when parents aren't there to advocate for the kid or to pull the kid out.)

I think many parents do hate other parents' gifted kids, just based on online conversations folks have (before they know that my kids are gifted), talking about how much they hate those other women (usually relatives) who brag so much about their gifted kids, you know, if they're really gifted which they doubt because etc. That's one of the reasons I'm not on any mommy forums anymore.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, yes, it feels like hate, but I think hate is one of those emotions like anger that is really a cover for everything beneath. What I think is beneath is a range of human emotions that we as a species are still trying to work with and we have a long way to go. I think the emotions include misunderstanding and confusion, jealousy and worry and fear. I always feel like both groups of people (gifted and non-gifted) deep down sense that it is very advantageous to be gifted, so the non-gifted people really help keep us grounded by knocking us down. I think anthropologists have a term for when, within a species, the majority of the group picks (and maybe literally pecks with a beak for some species) on the minority (and history shows much worse). The United States of America has a chance of helping minorities because of its system for addressing civil human rights. It is tough being in the minority. I do wonder how gifted people in other countries feel. Thanks for the post. I had not seen that article.

S said...

I agree that "neglect" or "ignore" are more accurate, less attention-grabbing ways to describe the problem. In the name of "equality" we are really shortchanging the kids who are sitting in the classroom every day and not learning anything new. Our school claims that kids who need more advanced work get it through in-class differentiation, but in our experience that is rarely true. Only a small subset of teachers are good at differentiating. I don't necessarily place the blame on the individual teachers because it's nearly impossible to teach 25 kids who all have very different needs and abilities. Unless the kids are separated by ability to some extent (and at least for some subjects), the teacher is set up to fail and the students at the academic top are likely to be turned off to school. I feel this is already happening to my first grader.