Washington Post

columnist Jay Mathews recently argued in “Four gifted writers share doubts about gifted education” that gifted education programs don’t matter.  He makes this sweeping conclusion by stating no research can prove him right or wrong, and so he admittedly takes the unscientific route: he interviews four of his columnist friends.  The Mathews thesis:

“I am among those people who think gifted education classes are usually a waste of time and money. It’s better to give super-bright kids a library card or a computer with a Web connection and get out of their way.”

Yes, for some students, freedom may be better than being stuck in the classroom.

I agree with Mathews that for some students, some classes may be a poor use of time, especially if the courses are geared to challenge the average student rather than the advanced student.  For some, giving them the appropriate resources and then getting out of the way may be better than subjecting them to regular education classes.  However, this still requires the school system to provide adequate resources.  According to the National Association for Gifted Children website, federal K-12 gifted education funding is near zero.  Gifted students, just like all students, need resources devoted to their education.  This is especially true for gifted students who come from low income backgrounds who depend on such opportunities.  Does Mathews really believe that a library card and a computer with a web connection is all gifted low income students need?

His sample size of four writers, if generalizable, only would pertain to writers.

The evidence he presents based on four interviews cannot generalize to gifted education generally.  It is questionable at best that this sample can even generalize to gifted writers.  Maybe for young writers, what they need most is the freedom to write, to practice their craft.  However, it is hard to argue that talented writers would not benefit from advanced courses, perhaps taught by famous writers or even columnists like Mathews himself.  Additionally, in other fields such as math and science, without a strong educational foundation, the ability to create is highly limited.  So it is hard to see how the freedom to just go do math and science with a library card and computer connection is sufficient.

Yes, in education you can’t really prove things.  But please don’t ignore the research evidence.

I find it odd that Mathews does not even attempt to review or at least acknowledge actual research on gifted students, of which there is a great deal.  In fact, the research evidence on educational acceleration shows that gifted education matters.  More broadly, some of my long-term research on the concept of educational dose shows that it may not be any one particular intervention that matters for gifted students, but that each student needs to be intellectually challenged and engaged with the right mix or dose of educational opportunities.

If gifted education is viewed as simply the opportunity for each academically advanced student to be intellectually engaged (both inside and outside the classroom), this means that for some students being left alone to create may be appropriate, but that for other students a structured educational program may be more beneficial.  This does not mean gifted education programs as they exist are all effective.  Just like all educational programs, some are probably not.  However, this does not mean gifted education does not matter or that gifted students are just fine on their own.  Just like all students, gifted students deserve the opportunity to be challenged and to learn something new each day.

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

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About the Author

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

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