In 2008, I lost my only brother, six years my junior, to pancreatic cancer. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t remember his warm smile and how he could make me laugh. While out and about, I sometimes spot the back of a head and a body built like his, when he was healthy and strong, and I stop for a second and wonder—could it be him? I know it cannot be, but for a moment it’s a nice sliver of a break from the non-ending grief I will forever own.
Sometime back, when I heard of John Andraka, who at 15 was discussing a biomarker to detect early stage pancreatic cancer, I noticed. For the most part, I usually dislike seeing super kids promoted on TV. I’m skeptical and wonder if their parents are pushy. But I felt I owed it to my brother to listen to Andraka on 60 Minutes.
There’s some controversy surrounding his findings—I can’t tell you about it because I never studied medicine. But I wish him luck on his research, which also involves ovarian and lung cancer. I hope, after being thoroughly examined, his test succeeds. Finding these cancers early could save lives.
What I do know, as an educator, is that there are other Jack Andrakas out there, supercharged young people with I.Q.s in the brilliant range, who most likely will not get the opportunities Andraka got to work with Johns Hopkins et cetera but, who, instead, sit in dull public high school AP classes where they grind out busywork and often don’t have access to the barest necessities—including adequate science labs.
With all the hype about student high expectations, the reality is few really have high expectations of our gifted young people.
Worse, there are young—very young—gifted children, boxed-in by scripted learning, who shout regimented chants sounding like soldiers preparing for battle, without recess, facing too many high-stake tests. They are being forced to prove themselves at an early age—with developmentally inappropriate activities that stifle curiosity and steal the great joy of learning. You cannot talk about gifted education without talking about how all children are instructed.
Let’s First Get Rid of Misconceptions
Today’s education reformers like to say everyone can be gifted if they have the right teacher.
I believe in finding strengths and talents in everyone. You only need look at what I have written to see that.
The reality, however, is students with extremely high I.Q.s and gifted tendencies, no matter how anyone might want to deny it, are different. They are big minds in young bodies. It isn’t always an easy life.
Along with the misconception surrounding what constitutes being gifted, I also take issue with the notion, aptly displayed in a 2012 Education Week article titled “Don’t Forget Gifted Students: High Achievers Are Essential to Global Competition” by Frances R. Spielgagen. This sounds like an article from the old Soviet Union!
Instead of global competition, should we not work on global cooperation when it comes to schooling?
Contrary to what some people think, and aside from my belief that gifted students must be identified and mentored, our kids are not bred to make us victors in some corporate competition. They are children who should be nurtured from the start as living breathing humans with likes and dislikes and lovely ways about them. To be sure, all children deserve such respect no matter where they live and no matter the point they find themselves on the continuum of learning.
We must step beyond this narrow thinking of placing the burden of the world’s problems, many we adults created, on the backs of children. By focusing on the children themselves and their needs, I firmly believe, they won’t disappoint. And that is what should be done for all children!
The Gifted Black Hole Act
In 2004, in their revealing book Genius Denied, Jan and Bob Davidson said, “There are no federal requirements for gifted education and almost no allocated federal funds. Consequently, gifted education exists only when states and school districts choose to offer and fund it. State budgets for gifted education vary widely, ranging from roughly $100 million a year to nothing.” (p.36)
Eleven years later, America is still not doing enough for gifted students. The recent TALENT Act (H.R. 2960) introduced in July by Jared Polis (D-CO) and David Young (R-IA) doesn’t look like it addresses anything much. It’s a black hole! Politically claiming you support gifted students with a TALENT Act for more testing is NOT supporting gifted students! It’s companion Act, S. 363 isn’t much better.
It does break down subgroups so underrepresented students might get identified as gifted–a serious issue. Many bright students still go unidentified in our public schools. They are poor and do not have the backing and opportunities to demonstrate all that they know. But what programs will they get once they are identified?
It also notes twice exceptional students–students with autism and/or learning disabilities who are also gifted. That is a step in the right direction.
It talks about professional development of teachers for gifted kids, which I worry in today’s corporate teacher prep world is a “how to be a gifted teacher FAST” online quackery program, like many of the other fast-track teacher prep programs we see popping up all over the country. I’m talking about programs like Relay Graduate School. Most are online.
Or they are pushing general education teachers to teach these students in the regular classroom, with a couple of added class credits. This will be done instead of placing teachers who seriously study gifted students into schools as resource teachers.
The bill stresses more accountability. Are they kidding? Gifted students need programs that address who they are, their insecurities and passions, and what they know. They don’t need the kind of tests they are talking about here…to plaster on some data wall for show.
And how good is a TALENT Act for poor students who have watched art classes stripped from their public schools? It’s a rare find these days for any public school to offer a balanced curriculum.
The Act brags about no-cost solutions. What does that tell you?
For years politicians, think tanks, and education reformers, mostly from huge corporations, have looked askance at the gifted student population while they have intentionally dismantled our public schools.
They might care for the wealthy private school gifted and a handful of charters that selectively choose bright students, but they are leaving many others behind.
What are we missing? What do we lose by not addressing these kids and their needs?
Same Old Same Old
Congressman Young says of the TALENT bill, In Iowa and across the country we have exceptionally gifted students who are not reaching their full potential. We simply are not maximizing their abilities in the classroom, but the TALENT Act changes that and it is good policy.
He’s partly right. But it doesn’t seem like any great policy to me. It’s incomplete. It does not really get at the heart of what’s missing and what is needed in gifted education. What’s needed is excellent programming–mentoring by professional teachers who understand the intricacies involved with teaching gifted students.
We need America to believe in these students and their public schools.
In the meantime, how many Jack Andrakas will continue to wither away undiscovered in public school classrooms today?
We have huge problems—climate change, overpopulation, Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer and other medical issues. There’s plenty of room for peacemakers too at the local, state, national and world levels. All these issues produce controversy, and we need brave, fair, bright minds to sort things out and find worthy answers.
Before America continues to sit back and accept more disregard for its gifted students, shouldn’t we question what life would be like now if our country, instead of tearing public schools apart the last 30 years, had united behind them and nurtured all students—including students who are gifted?
One thing is for certain, time flies. John Andraka is older now and on his way to Stanford. For me personally, I will forever live with what ifs.
What if we’d paid better attention to gifted education in the past?
What if we would have built a world class democratic public school system open to and respectful of all students—an example for other countries to emulate?
What if a John Andraka had identified a biomarker for pancreatic cancer that worked twenty-five years ago?
What if I still had my brother?
I bet if you think hard enough you can find some what-ifs in your life too!
Isn’t it time we quit tearing public education apart and damning real teachers and their students?
Isn’t it time we destroy the black hole that is gifted education and invest in real public schools?
Can we afford to continue not to?
Davidson, Jan & Bob. Genius Denied (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004) 36.
Spielhagen, Frances R. “Don’t Forget Gifted Students: High Achievers Are Essential to Global Competition.” Education Week. February 22, 2012.