How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Bright Kids: America's Most Underserved Group

We've redistributed nearly all resources for the gifted to low achievers.

Richard Phillip Rucker, CC 2.0
Imagine you’re in the third grade and reading on a fifth grade level. You’re required to listen to kids struggle to read aloud third grade level books or to help a child who’s still having trouble with The Cat in the Hat. 

Multiply the boredom you’d feel in that moment by hours each day, five days a week 180 days a year for a decade. If it were an adult, we’d call it cruel and unusual punishment. If it were a low-achieving child subjected to equally mismatched instruction, the Justice Dept. might sue, asserting the child was denied the right to an appropriate education. But with gifted kids, we say—with our funding and our policies-- “It’s okay. S/he’ll do fine away.”

But many bright kids do not do fine anyway and many more far from live up to their potential. We all know smart kids who, stultified in school, left everyone frustrated, “But you have so much potential!” Alas, brilliant failure is not an oxymoron. As President Calvin Coolidge wrote, “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.”

Of course, ignoring bright kids also affects society. It can't thrive when so many of its resources have been reallocated from those with the greatest potential to abet society to low achievers. Doesn't that make us less likely to develop wise leaders, create better products, cure diseases? The evisceration of attention to bright children is among redistributive “justice’s” most pernicious side effects.

What should society do?

The last thing we should de-fund is the effort to help bright kids live up to their potential. That’s eating our seed corn.

Sure, in wealthy school districts and in private schools, most smart kids do fine. But most bright kids and the vast majority of smart kids of color attend public schools in which classes are now—for politico-egalitarian rather than pedagogically sound reasons—filled at random rather than by ability. Thus, many bright and gifted kids do spend much of their day bored, spacing out or hyperactive, and denied their right to appropriate-level instruction.

At least for academic subjects, we should group classes by ability so that all students can get their needs met. Except for teachers willing to put-in Herculean hours, it is impossible to adequately meet the needs of a class containing special education and gifted kids, native English speakers and new immigrants.

Imagine you were a moderate speaker of Mandarin trying to improve. Would you learn more in a class containing one third beginners, one third intermediates, and one third native speakers of Mandarin? Or a class with just intermediate students? The answer is obvious yet in today’s Alice-in-Wonderland elementary and middle schools, you’d likely find yourself in a mixed class.

Ability-grouped classes should be regularly reviewed to ensure that a child is not placed in too high- or low-level a class. This seems particularly important with students of color, where it has been asserted by some that, disproportionately, non-Asian minorities are unfairly placed in an inappropriately low-level class.

Another key to providing appropriate-level instruction for smart students: Gifted kids may be brighter than their teachers. High-quality interactive online instruction should be used to supplement or—heaven forbid—even replace the teacher for part of the school day. HoagiesGifted.org offers a compendium of such resources.

Summer and winter vacation programs should merge intellectual challenge with fun; for example, a debate program, a group project developing a proposal to solve a societal problem, or writing and performing an original play to elucidate an important issue’s complexities.

What should you and I do?

Make the effort to ensure that your bright or gifted child or grandchild:

  •  Attends a school at which the needs of bright kids are not ignored in favor of low achievers’.
  •  As often as possible, is placed in a class whose teacher is well attuned to smart kids’ needs.
  •  Participates in after-school and vacation activities that, while fun, are intellectually stimulating.
  • Consider grade-skipping. It needs to be done carefully but sometimes is the most potent, yet realistic tool for meeting smart kids' needs.
  •  Receives any needed coaching to enhance emotional intelligence which, these days, for better or worse, is widely deemed as important as a brilliant mind.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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