Gifted Education is a Win for Us All

In December, the Washington Post published a column by education reporter Jay Mathews entitled “Why Geniuses Don’t Need Gifted Education.” Catchy title. In it, Mathews uses the tired canard that gifted people will take care of themselves, so schools should instead focus on bullying and let the gifted explore on their own. In addition to saying practically nothing, the column itself was poorly researched, filled with inaccuracies, sprinkled with stereotypes and deeply puzzling given Mathew’s clear support of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

I was pleased to discover that the vast majority of the comments were deeply disapproving of the column, with many of the commenters citing their expertise as educators, administrators and psychologists with specialties in giftedness. Many gifted people and parents of gifted children weighed in as well. In other words, Mathews got a lot of criticism from people who are much more knowledgeable about the topic than he. Perhaps he should take note.

However, what is most troubling about this column is that it was published at all. Clearly, the editors at the Washington Post thought this was interesting and relevant enough to put in their paper. And the fact is that many people do believe that gifted people can and should fend for themselves. Some complain that the state of gifted education is so poor that it’s hardly worth it (which, to my mind, is another topic entirely) while others think money should be better spent elsewhere while still others grumble that clustering gifted individuals is elitist.

While I agreed with many of the commenters that yes indeed, gifted education is quite necessary and beneficial for a variety of reasons, I think most of them still missed the larger point. We can argue forever about whether or not gifted education is valuable for particular individuals but what we need to be focusing on is the systemic reward. Is challenging and enriching gifted individuals as a group better or worse for our society? If we truly look at this problem, the answer is always yes.

Move the problem away from academics for a moment and you can see the answer even more clearly. In sports, players clearly want to play with and against those with a similar skill level because it is recognized that you will not grow as a player if you’re constantly working with or pitted against those with less ability. In entertainment, actors talk about having to “up their game” if they find themselves working with people at or above their level. In business, team managers always try to find and recruit the best people because it helps keep people on their toes and inspires the ideas to flow. At parties, people tend to gravitate to people who think like they do and who can provide stimulating interactions. Thus, in every situation, you find ability grouping and it works. So why not in education?

I think the real issue here is that most people do not like being perceived as not as smart as others. Gifted people comprise 3-5% of the population, so the vast majority of people are not labelled as such. However, if we stopped viewing this as a zero-sum game (in which there are winners and losers) and instead looked at this as something that benefits everyone, perhaps gifted education would become more of the priority it needs to be.

If we allow our truly intellectually blessed people to explore, shine, and be guided in ways that are rewarding to them, it will be advantageous for us as a society. We will all benefit. These are the people we should be looking to for discovering a cure for cancer, solving some of our environmental problems, leading our governments in a positive direction, writing great books, making great psychological insights and providing stimulating philosophical debates. These are the people who can help steer our society in a healthy direction if we just let them.

So the next time someone says something ridiculous like we should stop funding gifted education or that ability grouping isn’t necessary, redirect the conversation by insisting that these people are ones we want to succeed. A rising tide raises all boats, so if they win, we all win. And as for Mr. Mathews, it’s clear that he needs to go back to school.

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