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?