December 19, 2013 response to Dec. 15 New York Times editorial about gifted education

By Elaine Tuttle Hansen

I am sure that by now many of you have seen the editorial about gifted education in Sunday’s New York Times.  If you haven’t, take a look and I trust you will be as excited as I was to find a prominent source calling badly needed attention to the cause we all care so much about. 

After reflecting on the argument laid out in this piece for several days, however, I think it merits further analysis.  So I’m writing to share some of my reactions, from the partisan perspective of CTY.
On the positive side, this editorial implicitly affirms our work and our vision: CTY is already addressing several of the key recommendations made in this article. For example:

• As the editors suggest, assumptions about giftedness often overlook minority and low income students. As you are aware, CTY has addressed this challenge head on. Thanks to all the hard work and support provided by so many staff members over the years, including those in outreach, CTY Scholars, financial aid, and development, the percentage of Hispanic and African American students in Summer Programs nearly tripled from 3.5 percent in 1999 to 9.8 percent in 2013. Also during this time, the percentage of low income students in Summer Programs almost doubled, going from 5.5 percent in 1999 to 9.5 percent.

• The Times observes that AP and advanced courses are missing in rural areas and that the nation needs to take more advantage of online learning. Again, CTYOnline has reached tens of thousands of bright students since the early 1990s, and more recently we successfully launched our promising Rural Connections scholarship program.

• One solution to better meeting the needs of gifted students, the article states, is giving the SAT to students younger than 13 to identify those in need of acceleration. That’s a great idea—so great, in fact, that it was developed at Johns Hopkins 40 years ago as the Talent Search.  CTY still relies on above-level testing today and exports this model to countries around the globe who also want to learn how to improve educational services for their most talented students.

• The need for what the editors term “unbiased studies funded by federal agencies,” i.e. basic research into the unsolved mysteries of the mind and proof that good ideas work, is underscored by CTY’s renewed commitment to research and our belief that understanding more about advanced learners can further inform the science of learning for the benefit of all students.

In other words, CTY is clearly already practicing much of what the Times editorial preaches.  Looking in the mirror, the biggest question for us is how to make our work more visible; if this editorial opens up a broader space for discussion, we need to make sure we are at the table.

At the same time, we know that the field of gifted education is complex and disorganized, and at times this article seems to reflect that unfortunate truth. Here are a few places where I thought it missed the mark:

• Jumping on the competitiveness bandwagon, the editors use aggregated scores from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test (in this case, in STEM scores) to blame U.S public education for the disparities between U.S. students and those from other countries. But disaggregation of the data from this same test in 2009 (when the U.S. also appeared to be lagging) clearly showed that a different conclusion emerges if one factors in socioeconomic status. Schools in the U.S. with a poverty rate of less than 10 percent in fact scored first in the world on the 2009 PISA (against countries with poverty rates well below 10 percent). We clearly need more sophisticated interpretation of this kind of data before leaping to the conclusion that it reflects bad teaching rather than, as seems more likely, high poverty rates.

• The Times writers also assume that “giftedness” has a definition that is universally agreed upon. As you know, however, we have a fundamental problem in defining the term, let alone identifying and serving the students it may refer to.  Unwittingly demonstrating this very point, the editorial alludes to two different definitions of giftedness, one from NAGC and one from a recent, highly controversial article by Rena Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank Worrell cited near the end of the piece.

• Related to this, the editorial offers a muddled argument about what gifted students need. In one paragraph the writers call for mandatory teacher training as a solution to the problem, while several paragraphs later they state, “there is little reliable evidence on the best ways to educate gifted students.”

I’ll conclude by suggesting that at this rare moment in time when gifted education is in the spotlight, we have a responsibility not only to be a part of this conversation but to view it as a call to action. Now is the time to push up our sleeves and enthusiastically deepen our efforts to study the nature and nurture of intelligence, enhance the practical work we do to identify and develop talented youth, and take every opportunity to demonstrate why our work matters now more than ever.