We all know that the education system in the United States is an absolute travesty. There are many aspects of our failure to properly educate our young, but one of the most glaring errors is the lack of resources for gifted education.
Most Duke students should be familiar with sitting in class, mind-numbingly bored whilst the teacher drones on about fractions and multiplication tables. This is a common occurrence that plays out everyday in our nation’s classrooms. Students with high aptitude (defined as the ability to learn/reason) and competence (defined as having documented success) are left languishing in classes taught to the lowest common denominator. As such, we are not only failing those high potential students, but we are also sabotaging our own future as a country.
All indications point to the fact that American students are falling behind our international competitors in all levels of education. Furthermore, we are facing a shortage of engineers, scientists, doctors and other highly skilled labor. Well, if that is the case, why are we holding back those students who have the highest propensity for attaining those skills? Rather, our education system should be empowering our strongest students to achieve their full potential.
The need for special education for kids who are mentally challenged is recognized. We spend billions of dollars on it. In fact, school districts are mandated to provide separate and individualized education for low performing students by federal law. However, there are no federal laws recognizing the fact that at the other end of the bell curve, there are students whose needs are not met by standard education. This has a measurable impact. According to a Fordham Institute study, 30 to 40 percent of students performing in the top decile experienced a decline in their achievement levels while enrolled in public education. Part of this decline might be attributed to pedagogical methodology. Normal teachers are trained to teach classes geared toward lower achieving students. Teachers are simply expected and incentivized to get the greatest number of students to pass minimum threshold assessments. As such, high aptitude students are forced to learn at the pace of their slower classmates. This discourages high-flying students (to borrow the Fordham Institute study’s term) from pursuing higher success. As a result, their intellectual growth is stunted, ensuring that they will not achieve their potential given their initial intelligence endowments.
There is an obvious demand for specialized education serving gifted students. For example, thousands of New York City students take standardized exams, trying to test into selective magnet schools. Also, applications to private schools are received in great numbers each year. In all regards, parents of gifted children understand that the public education system fails to properly provide for them. Why then, is our public policy ignoring this very obvious need?
First, we have a cultural aversion to intelligence. This much should be very obvious to casual observation. Beyond not encouraging intelligence as a society, in many instances, we either explicitly or implicitly shun it. Contrast this to nations like South Korea or Japan where the attribute of intelligence is of paramount esteem.
Second, we have a misguided view of elitism. There is supposedly something wrong with recognizing that not everyone has equivalent genetic endowments of intelligence. We choose to ignore the fact that some children are just simply smarter than others. We cling to the belief that each student is equal when they are clearly not.
Finally, there is a false perception of equality. In the words of Chester E. Finn, Jr., a foremost expert on education policy, “There’s the widespread belief—originating on the left but no longer confined there—that ‘equity’ should be solely about income, minority status, handicapping conditions and historical disenfranchisement. Most of American society does not seem to believe that giftedness constitutes a ‘special need’ or that inattention to it violates some children’s equal rights.” We must ask ourselves if the gifted student should be sacrificed in the name of the politically correct left.
As a country, if we do not rectify our educational policy toward gifted students, we are doomed to lose our competitiveness in the global economy. Human capital, especially on the upper end, is undoubtedly the most valuable asset to our nation. It is what allows us to innovate and create the Googles, the Apples and the Boeings of the world. Failure to acknowledge that our smartest minds must be cultivated to be our next generation of leaders is failure to accept reality. To continue to do so is to continue on a path of decline.
Quite simply, one-size education does not fit all. Stop pretending that it does. Do not shackle high-flying students to their below-average peers. Let them soar free.
Jonathan Zhao is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Thursday.