Failing The Most Gifted Kids

THEY'RE THE BEST AND THE brightest--and they're bored. That's the conclusion of the federal government's first assessment in 20 years of education for the nation's smartest students. Some gifted students, especially those from poor neighborhoods, are simply ignored. Others spend wasted hours in regular classrooms where teachers go over work that these students have already mastered. Still others try to hide their talents, to avoid being called a "nerd" or a "dweeb."

Gifted programs are often viewed as luxuries--even in schools desperate to pull up their average test scores. Despite decades of research to the contrary, the conventional wisdom remains that bright kids don't need anything extra because they'll do fine on their own. But the approximately 2 million K-12 students who score in the top 5 percent of national intelligence and achievement tests are way behind the top students in other countries, according to the Department of Education report. In science and math, especially, the top American youngsters rank near the bottom of the best students from industrialized countries (in general, students from Asian countries rank highest).

While other countries push their best students to do even better, Americans push them aside. "The message society sends to students is to aim for academic adequacy, not academic excellence," says Pat O'Connell Ross, the author of the report. In recent years, gifted programs have also been viewed as elitist-even undemocratic by those who promote mainstreaming of all kids. "It's politically correct right now to say that a heterogeneous classroom is somehow equitable," says James Gallagher, a University of North Carolina professor and president of the National Association for Gifted Children. "But if you put all your 30 youngsters in one classroom--those with disabilities, those with learning problems, plus the gifted and you don't provide the teacher with any special support, then you're throwing classrooms back to the '50s, instead of the year 2000." Gifted educators say their kids have "special needs," just as learning-disabled children do, and both groups must be served.

The report says that only 2 percent of money spent on K-12 education in 1990 went to programs aimed at talented students, and even that may be in danger. The federal government's only program for gifted students, named for the late New York senator Jacob Javits, could be changed dramatically under a proposal submitted to Congress. It's one of the few sources of funding for bright kids in poor neighborhoods. Researchers and teachers gathered at the National Association for Gifted Children's annual convention in Atlanta last week were critical of plans to take the $10 million appropriation and spend it on children of all ability levels, not just gifted kids. The changes would also eliminate funding for a federally financed research center at the University of Connecticut, which works with 350 school districts around the country to help develop programs for gifted and talented students.

Education Secretary Richard Riley insists that his department will make "a major national commitment" to gifted and talented programs and will fight for increased funding in the next budget. As governor of South Carolina, Riley opened two of the state's special schools for gifted students. "We will continue this work," he promises. To do that, he'll have to be an especially gifted administrator.