Education continues to be a major hot-button topic in the United States. People lament the low PISA score placement relative to other countries, embarrassingly low considering that the US is among the most developed nations on this planet. There are arguments about the results of No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, closing socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps, everything and anything to generate sympathy to a campaign under the premise of pushing everyone up to an acceptable academic standard.
The real people behind left behind, then, are the ones who are restricted, rather than pushed ahead, by this arbitrary standard.
Gifted children in an academic setting are defined in many ways. Oftentimes, an IQ of over 130 is set as a qualifying mark. Other tests use Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences to broaden the definition to tangible gifts in an activity, such as oboe or mathematics. When we place gifted children, intelligent children, in a dull, non-engaging academic setting with peers for whom the academics may be adequately to extremely challenging, we sacrifice brilliant leaders of tomorrow for the sake of standardization.
There are many problems that gifted children face in the classroom, boredom being only one. In many areas, especially in low-income neighborhoods, there still exists an oppositional culture towards educational excellence; if they are unable to relate to their peers, brilliant kids may take the social cues and “dumb themselves down” publicly for the sake of friendship. Even in schools that actively encourage gifted children to get ahead, there isn’t much that is actually done to help. This I know from experience.
Back in my elementary school, I remember taking a test and doing well enough to get into the GATE (“Gifted and Talented Education”) program. This was supposed to be a way for gifted students to be challenged, grouped together and stimulated with independent study projects of interest. What actually happened was a third grade group project on baseball, which I had no interest in, and a fourth grade individual project on the Californian flag with absolutely no room for creativity or innovation, which I despised. So the school tried, and failed, to give me a challenge that was interesting and innovative.
In fact, school didn’t become challenging until 10th grade, when I was juggling sports, music, and AP World History, the first AP class I was allowed to take. I firmly believe that AP classes offer one avenue for gifted students to challenge themselves, although in recent years the overemphasis of AP classes as a necessity rather than a choice is perhaps diluting the experience.
There are certainly other ways to accomplish an adequate challenge: A backyard project that allows her to try creating a functional rocket; a foray into engineering where he builds a functional timepiece in a pencil box; a raw talent unleashed on his first foray into the realm of theater. Unfortunately, our society rarely gives these students a happy ending. The first and third examples are from fiction, the former a thought-provoking commercial and the latter a major plot point of Dead Poets Society. The second example is none other than Ahmed Mohamed, whose homemade digital clock led to his arrest for allegedly bringing a “hoax bomb” to school. This is a huge problem with gifted education today; whether real or based on tropes, similar situations like these only make gifted students fear standing out in the very areas that make them so special and valuable to us all.
A poor excuse for a teacher actively discourages intellectual curiosity. An average teacher doesn’t get in the way of a student trying to challenge himself. A truly great teacher, however, helps his students accomplish the impossible.
We need more great teachers, more great role models, more great programs to help gifted students from all backgrounds stoke their curiosity. It’s time we stop leaving gifted kids behind.