According to this article, in 2006 the Department of Education (US) spent approximately $84 billion. How much of that money would you guess went to improve the education of gifted students? Probably less than you think: $9.6 million, about one-hundredth of 1% of the budget. Think that’s bad? In 2007 the DoE spent NOTHING on it – zip, zilch, nada.
Is this something we should be concerned about? In education debates, you hear a lot about our struggling, underperforming students, but you don’t often hear about our smartest students – the ones on the far right hand of the bell curve, so to speak. The consensus seems to be that they’ll muddle through somehow, while resources and energy are drained away to try to raise everyone else’s test scores to some middling level. Even the author of the above linked article takes a rather sanguine view: he seems confident that the parents of most gifted students will take care of their education, or, alternatively, that “someone” will at some point point them towards college.
But is this true? I know a woman whose specialization is in talented and gifted education, and she’s not as complacent about the situation: her experience in the field is one of shrinking or cancelled programs, bored students in classrooms teaching below their level, and, in extreme cases, gifted students dropping out of school due to years of being bored and unchallenged.
In contrast, remedial and special education courses seem to get unduly large attention. The above article does not state how much of the DoE’s budget is spent on remedial education, but my personal experience may be illustrative. I’ve been substitute teaching for the past couple months in a fairly typical, east-coast school district. When I signed up to substitute, I was invited to list three course or subject areas I would particularly be interested to sub in, and my preferences would try to be accommodated when being given assignments. One of my preferences was talented and gifted or honors classes. Well, in the three months I’ve been subbing I’ve never been called for a TAG program, and only twice have I ever subbed for an honors or AP class in the high school. In contrast, about 40% of my assignments have been in remedial or special education classes. A coincidence, perhaps, but then, you have to sub where the teachers are: in the middle school I most often sub at, there are relatively lavish remedial and special ed programs, with multiple teachers and teacher aids for all grade levels. In some cases, aids are hired to follow around individual students who are particularly slow or disruptive – literally, full time adults who are paid to give indidual attention to one student, all day long, five days a week. (I’ve subbed in these positions several times.) Remedial classes are held every day, for all core subjects.
In contrast, that same middle school has one talented and gifted teacher for the whole school; TAG classes are treated as an elective and only meet once or twice a week, and are often pre-empted by special events and school assemblies. (In my own childhood, TAG classes were held in a converted janitor’s room, and consisted mostly of a couple students crowded around a computer playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”. I don’t know how extensive the remedial classes were at that school.) To make matters worse, the students’ regular classes are not at all differentiated by ability level, except, again for the slowest students, who spend most of the day in remedial ed.
Should we be concerned about this huge imbalance of attention and resources? Ideally, of course, we could lavish similar amounts of attention on students of all levels, but resources are limited, and we have to pick and choose. Would it be fair to cut back on our remedial classes and spend more resources on identifying and challenging our brightest students? What more could or should we do to help the smartest kids in our schools?
I note in passing that even that gifted and talented program that was cancelled this year had as its “major emphasis” the closing of the achievement gap between “certain groups of students” at the highest level of achievement. A fine goal, but does this mean that there isn’t even a single program strictly and solely aimed at helping those students who are already at those “highest levels of achievement”?