As we survey the American way of dealing with issues in the education of gifted children, we find a great diversity of options; but, at the same time, there are many missing components and little standardization from one locale to another. Yet, we do have many more choices, especially at the secondary level, than any other country on earth. The heterogeneity is difficult to manage, and the availability of resources is highly uneven, but alternatives do exist in abundance. The purpose of this paper is to address the underlying reasons why this situation has developed in the United States.
In contrast, for example, currently there is considerable controversy in Japan as to whether to admit to college at age 17-a single year early-high school students who are particularly advanced in science and/or mathematics, and in those fields only. Several years ago, one of the graduates of our Early Entrance Program at the University of Washington, a 17-year-old, enrolled as an undergraduate in a Tokyo university to study law. She attracted considerable interest because of her age and the fact that she had not graduated from high school, never mind that she had a university degree. In the course of visiting American independent schools abroad, I have noted that in few countries are high school students permitted to accelerate their studies, and almost none can take even single college courses. Yet, in the People's Republic of China, I have visited several programs of radical acceleration into college of quite young students (Robinson, 1992; Zhao, 1996) as well as accelerative programs for elementary school and what we call middle school. Clearly, the national context determines the character of alternatives, if any, that may be considered.
My thinking on this topic was initially shaped by quite a different experience. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it seemed that our nation was on the brink of providing greatly expanded programs for young children, several colleagues and I embarked on a study of the ways in which a dozen countries, including our own, created partnerships with mainstream families for the care of the young child. We were initially convinced that, lacking a national system of services, the United States would never be able to do as decent a job as other nations in supporting families and encouraging the optimal development of their children. Having surveyed both the international scene and the ways in which our own children were being served, however, we ended up more respectful of diversity and considerably less convinced that a national model was necessarily a better idea. We began to see that in our own non-system of local options, individual needs had, in fact, the potential for being met in multiple ways; that what suited one family was not what suited another; and that the "American Way" was not inevitably as deplorable as we had imagined. We obviously still have a long way to go in making available what families need; we are still looking for ways to provide efficient networks and resources that are accessible, affordable, and of high quality. We have learned much from our colleagues elsewhere, but wholesale adoption of one model or another does not fit our diverse society.As we now turn to a consideration of why it is that our system--or our non-system--of providing for the educational needs of gifted children developed, a similar picture emerges. We have many choices, but we also have rank confusion at the elementary, secondary, and college levels. (The appendix lists numerous secondary arrangements for gifted students.)
Lack of Consensus about What Giftedness Means and Who Is GiftedIn comparison with the establishment of programs for mentally retarded children whose cognitive abilities fall at the opposite end of the normal curve, there exists no clearly defined population of gifted children who are our responsibility. We do not even agree on the use of the words gifted and talented-some of us use these terms in contradictory ways (e.g., Feldhusen, 1992; Gagne, 1999)-nor do we agree about the domains or degrees of ability for which our society is willing to be responsible (Winner, 1996). We are fully willing to fund our secondary schools and universities to provide consummate training to athletes in a variety of sports, but what public responsibility do we take for training musicians, dancers, or graphic artists, and what do we leave to the interaction of the private sector and family fortune?
The best definition good minds have so far been able to agree upon in this country is contained in the report, National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent:
This definition is totally relative ("compared with others of their age, experience, or environment,") and exceedingly broad in scope. The last line is the clincher: 'services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools." This phrase opens the door to activism. But, neither the definition nor the accompanying recommendation give much guidance as to what form these extraordinary efforts should take or even, for that matter, to whom they should be directed first. Much is left to imagination and good will. If we lack consensus about the very children we are trying to support, we ride off in many directions. And that, in fact, is what-for many reasons-we do.
Society and Our Shared BeliefsIf we look below the surface of our very heterogeneous society, we find a few basic values that are characteristically American. Not all the world looks through the same set of glasses. Let me mention some of our characteristics and assumptions that determine the unique way we deal with issues of giftedness.
Heterogeneity. Is there another country in this world with as heterogeneous a society as ours, heterogeneous in national origins, belief systems, and customs? Confused as we are about the degree to which we want to be a national melting pot, we not only tolerate but encourage the existence of distinct subcommunities with very different practices. Our citizens speak with many voices and find it difficult to reach a consensus on educational goals, contents, or methods. North and South, Fast and West, rural county versus affluent suburb versus inner city--how could we, or would we even want to, impose common programs or curricula for all?
Valuing diversity. Quite aside from the heterogeneity stemming from our multiple nations of origin and the places in which we live, we explicitly value diversity as opposed to homogeneity in the members of the immediate social groups to which we and our children belong. Judging by our everyday actions, we are not above a good deal of ambivalence and inconsistency on these issues, but welcoming diversity is not only a public commitment, but an everyday social practice different from that of many other countries. We espouse it and we live it, to some extent, even though sometimes it drives us crazy.
The last sentence of the O.E.R.I. definition of giftedness mentioned previously reads, "Outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor" (1993, P. 26). These concerns are ours in the giftedness community as well as those of the society at large.
Issues about diversity sometimes lead families with similarly gifted children down divergent paths. Some families thoughtfully reject homogeneity along any dimension and, for that reason, choose to keep their children in regular classes. Other issues are externally imposed by school personnel and citizens who are discontent with programs that turn out not to be sufficiently ethnically diverse, believing that gifted children come-or should come-equally from all walks of society. There is no strong evidence that the distribution of the nature side of giftedness varies from one group to another, but there is plenty of evidence that optimal conditions for child development do differ from one family to another and are unequally distributed across groups. For this reason, we are continually fighting an uphill battle with regard to programs for academically gifted students.
Respect for individual differences. Americans also tend to share a conviction that people differ from each other in significant ways (and, indeed, gifted individuals are the most diverse group on the face of the earth), and that educational adaptations are the birthright of each and every child. In practice, our adaptations are more readily forthcoming for children with disabilities than for those with special capabilities, but we hold the principle dear. What many of us fail to realize is that such a philosophy is not shared world-wide. No one thinks that children are all alike, but teachers and citizens in many other countries see no need to address intellectual differences except to bring slower children up to speed (Stevenson, 1998). We cannot overemphasize this basic issue. If children are fundamentally alike, then it follows that a common curriculum and a common set of relatively high expectations will, in the long run, meet the needs of all. That is not at all where we stand.
Equality and fairness. Absolutely basic to our belief system is a conviction about fairness. Unfairness is definitely not acceptable. Just how fundamental is this American value is sometimes easier to judge from abroad, as our family found during a year's sabbatical in France, where fairness is not valued to the same extent. Equality is essential to fairness, but what constitutes equality? Identical treatment? Equal access? Equal out-comes? Or does equality of education imply that we will try to give each child the most appropriate options we can, consistent with the quality of education provided other students? Not better options, just the most appropriate. I've found it useful to say to school board members and principals, "So you buy size 8 shoes for all eight-year-olds, regardless of the size of their feet?" That usually gets the point across, but it's a point that seems to need repeating ad infinitum.
Compassion and anti-elitism. One hallmark of our society is redistribution of resources so that people have a more even footing on which to start. We root for the underdog; we extend ourselves with an unusual degree of volunteerism and charitable giving; we fund with generosity programs for children with disabilities and those from homes of poverty. Gifted individuals are seen as able to get along without such help and as whiners when it is pointed out that they have unmet needs as well. We are a populist democracy; the rich as well as the best and brightest are viewed with suspicion. However persuasively we argue that gifted children "are the nation's greatest resource," much of what we say falls on deaf cars. To extend this discussion might indeed sound like whining, but we acknowledge that these public attitudes play an extremely influential role.
Individual choice and self-determination. Individual liberties are truly a basic tenet of our society. These issues apply to decisions made by students, parents, and teachers, all of whom must accommodate one another. To a large extent, though, parents are the final arbiters, and only if they grossly mismanage does the state intervene. Not so in some other societies. In the course of our international study of early child care, for example, I remember seeing in a preschool in the Soviet Union a prescription for what parents should feed their children that night and a scolding to parents who, moving to a five-day work week, were failing to bring their children to day care on Saturday mornings.
So, however fine a program we put into place for gifted children, we respect the rights of parents to opt for something else with the result that, coupled with our belief in individual differences among children, we need to refine not one, but several sets of options. As a result, the array of choices grows broader by the year.
Peer power verses parent power. In a fluid system like this, the influence of peer power is a force to be reckoned with, particularly during the middle adolescent years. Middle school students and those in the early years of high school are particularly vulnerable to the prevalent and potent anti-intellectual and anti-work ethics of their classmates. In other countries, parental expectations for this age group don't run for cover, as ours tend to do. Any group or individual program devised for students in these years needs strong parent support, within the family and across families. Students who might not otherwise continue in a program may do so if their parents insist (and thereby may actually gain peer sympathy for their plight). Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen (1993) have given us strong evidence of the role of families who provide high expectations and warm support in protecting their talented children from the ravages of peer distractions in the pursuit of their talents.
Competitiveness and boosterism. In some contexts, the competitive American spirit works in favor of supporting efforts for gifted children. Contests are one way that we engage our brighter children in doing their best-math teams, the Westinghouse science competition, Odyssey of the Mind, spelling and geography bees, and so on. Newspapers are happy to print lists of National Merit Scholarship winners (but, of course, by that time they are leaving the K-12 system) and average achievement scores of specific schools. School districts also compete. In the Northwest, competitive urban school districts are establishing International Baccalaureate programs right and left, as an influx of high-tech parents are deciding into which neighborhood to move.
New is better. As opposed to countries steeped in tradition, Americans love innovation. Unfortunately, we can only briefly sustain national attention to a given priority. We have a long history in this country of programs and reforms that have come and gone, including some rather important ones for gifted children (Tannenbaum, 1983). Meanwhile, just maintaining the quality programs we have requires constant vigilance and robust parent organization. Some school reform movements bode well for gifted children, and some bode very ill. However, the flip side of this inconstancy is a willingness to experiment with sufficient confusion and flux that a family or a school that wants to try something new can usually find a way to do it.
Governmental and Constitutional IssuesDecision-making about K-12 public education is the responsibility of states and localities. Jurisdiction over education is not mentioned in our federal Constitution; therefore, until recent years, it has been considered exclusively reserved to the states. It was only mid-century, indeed, that our federal government became at all involved in educational issues and funding. Primarily as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and Sputnik, followed later by Public Law 94-142 mandating services to children with disabilities, Title 1, and so on, the supportive role of the federal government in education has grown in recent years. Its ability to develop and monitor educational programs is still severely restricted. For these reasons, we have no national curriculum, no national standards for teacher training, and, despite President Clinton's efforts to the contrary, no national testing program. Despite recent energetic attempts to develop standards of expectations for instruction in specific disciplines, with the possible exception of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, such efforts have barely created a ripple. The federal government will never impose standards of education for highly capable students.
There are, of course, some commonalties across states. For years we have had peas-in-a-pod competing achievement tests for states to choose from, and the authentic testing movement will probably create a new generation of nationally available measures. Voluntary testing programs, such as those of the Educational Testing Service, are virtually national, and common course options such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate are representative of national move for gifted middle-schoolers fall somewhere in this category. But, choices are still state-based; many pass along decisions to local school districts; many districts pass these along to schools with site-based management; and many principals pass decisions right down to the classroom level. This situation leads to maximum confusion, particularly as mobile families move from one school or district to another, another inveterate American custom. But, it also leaves room for flexibility, experimentation, and negotiation. As long as we somehow manage to preserve the mental health of teachers, this crazy-quilt situation leaves room for competent teachers and parents to devise plans that suit individual students, for school boards to adopt options that fit their communities, and even for state school boards and legislatures to make wise decisions.
School IssuesThere are some other specifically school issues that contribute to our situation.
School quality. Schooling in general is taken by no means as seriously in our society as it is in many other countries. Expectations for our children are not high; many parents remain alienated by their own school experiences and do not participate; vacations are over-long and school days are short; and homework is almost unknown by gifted children in most public programs. In public schools, teachers have woefully little planning time and very little mentoring. As a result, most highly capable students can far too easily meet the standards of performance expected of them and develop the notion that this is the way their world was meant to be. This situation is, indeed, a matter of great concern and, to a large extent, is the major cause of the hand-wringing, problem solving that has created the existence of the alternatives we have.
Curriculum content. Typically, the curriculum of our schools includes subjects that other countries would assign to non-school institutions. Team sports occupy a central role and often take precedence over academic affairs. Other classes taught within the schools include driver education, social and sexual education, typing, remedial programs, and a variety of therapies for students with disabilities. English as a Second Language is needed by a very large proportion of our students as the result both of our heterogeneous roots and of monolingual ethnic subcommunities within our borders. To the extent that schools attend to all these issues, less time is left for a curriculum designed to enhance the talents of the talented, and less flexible time is left for teachers to mentor individual students.
Anti-intellectualism. Part and parcel of the above issues is a perhaps debatable rejection of intellectual values in much of our society. One of our jobs is to help gifted children find and identify with those groups that do value learning for its own sake, forego immediate pleasures for the sake of discovery, and take joy in experiencing our cultural heritage. Protecting programs and children from anti-intellectual forces while encouraging full participation in a diverse society is a challenge in itself.
Home-schooling. The recent movement toward schooling children at home, by its very nature, implies flexibility in instruction and is also creating competitive flexibility in public schools that want their students back. Some parents choose to home-school children for religious reasons, but increasing numbers of parents of gifted children recently have begun to elect home-schooling as a way to keep their children challenged. Some home-schooling is done very well and some is done very poorly.
Transition to CollegeThe flexible interface between high school and college is uniquely American, except for a miniscule number of programs like those in the People's Republic of China. Some of our flexibility arises because an admissions officer takes pity on a young student who clearly is ready for college work. Some early admission is institutionalized, as, for example, in the several programs throughout the country that accept students one to five years before they would ordinarily graduate from high school. Some, like the state of Washington's Running Start program, are seen as money-saving short cuts to permit high school juniors and seniors to take courses at community and four-year colleges, thereby reducing their years of state-funded education. Colleges with summer classes often welcome capable younger students to help fill the seats and the coffers. The result is, from my point of view, a potentially very positive set of options for younger students. There are dangers, of course, that students will get in over their heads without anyone looking after them, or may be lonely if they do not have classmates of similar ability and age.
Why do we have so many high-school-to-college options that other countries don't? I think there are several reasons.
Admission decisions are made entirely by the institutions themselves, whether private or public. College admissions requirements are defined by school courses and by scores on nationally administered tests of ability, not by tests assessing mastery of subject matter and skills. Only the most selective colleges require achievement testing and then only in a limited number of subjects, most of which are selected at the discretion of the students themselves.
Rigor at the college level is generally greater than the high school level, so acceleration to college is seen as a desirable way to optimize a match with the readiness of the advanced student. Bright and mature students cannot wait to get to college. Diversity in age and ethnicity in the student bodies of colleges and universities are so large that an adolescent student does not stand out among classmates who can be from 16 to more than 70 years of age. Colleges are willing to grant credit for college-level work, such as evidenced by Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate examinations, in order to attract highly qualified students.
Colleges with correspondence or distance-learning classes, which are increasingly available through the Internet, can offer options to students who are still in high school or junior high, or, for that matter, at home. Work of this nature can complement an ongoing program of studies if the student is mature enough to follow through. Some colleges also offer high-school correspondence courses for students in rural areas or for others who want to move ahead.
The lion's share of our efforts for gifted children are at the K-12 level, but there are a few college options, such as honors programs, provided for outstanding students (Robinson, 1997). Presumably, the intellectual climate at this level is more compatible with the needs and aspirations of the brightest students, but most of what is accomplished for these students again rests on the individual adviser and the individual professor/mentor. Many of the least savvy students fall through the cracks.
ConclusionsGiven all this context, it should not surprise us that we have so much variety and flexibility in dealing with the needs of gifted students. There are numerous advantages to having a smorgasbord of options from which to choose the most suitable set for each of our students.
The other side of this coin, of course, is that schools have the flexibility to do nothing--absolutely nothing--for their talented students. Or, they may institute such inconsistent and scattered programs that many children are unserved, and even those who are served may have to endure many of their school years without much support. Continuing teacher education concerning gifted students is likely to be minimal (Westberg et al., 1998). Moreover, each local situation tends to be highly dependent on the actual personnel involved--the classroom teacher willing to modify the curriculum, the counselor willing to grant credit for summer courses or to permit a student to enroll in a more advanced class, the ingenious district administrator who manages to protect a program headed for a budget cut and is, therefore, unstable.
What does it take to make this non-system work? As long as so many options exist and each is in constant danger of instant demise, as long as decision making resides at the local and even the classroom level, and as long as suspicions persist about the hyper-advantage of being a bright and talented student, unusual responsibilities will fall to parents and students to maintain vigilance and advocate their way through the morass. The demands are constant and draining. And, furthermore for students whose families lack power in the political system or even implicit knowledge of how it works, there may be no one to identify and advocate for them unless teachers and other citizens assist them.
Perhaps the most constructive, immediate step that we could take, as a community of professionals knowledgeable about gifted students, is to aid in the establishment of more centralized counseling and advocacy centers for parents and students and to make ourselves available for this purpose. Through the auspices of the various talent centers, the National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented, and the several other university-based centers in the United States, as well as psychologists and counselors in the private sector, there is a rich reservoir of talent and knowledge that can be turned to advantage. Although specific information about the local situation is, of course, a considerable asset, contact by telephone or e-mail with a resourceful expert to help brainstorm solutions can empower discouraged parents and students to problem solve on their own. While a hodge-podge of possibilities has its advantages in providing an optimal match for individual students, it is also the most difficult way we could have possibly devised for making things work, so we need to lend a hand.
Whizzing Through Secondary School: Accelerative Options for Students
Six years of secondary school are often too many for the highly capable student. With imagination-and some negotiating skills-a smorgasbord of opportunities will open up. Here are some alternatives:
If your classes seem slow, do something about it yourself. If possible, move through the material quickly (but with mastery) to give yourself more time for independent work. Read a more advanced book, a biography of a key player in the field, or original documents mentioned in the text. Consult a college text on the subject. Undertake a project that will deepen your understanding and interest. Participate in related contests as an individual or as a school team (there are several in math, science, and writing). The more you know, the less 'boring' the class will be. Take responsibility.
Pick a challenging activity in which you can see your skills improving with sustained effort. Start a small business. Consider activities such as individual sports, chess, computer programming, collecting stamps or coins, writing, playing an instrument, composing music, dancing, or painting. Invest in yourself by becoming as skilled as you can. Practice! Reach for excellence! Don't settle for being "well rounded"(a dilettante in many areas at the expense of expertise in one or a few skill domains.
Many of the alternatives above can be used not just to leave high school early, but to pursue special interests in school (e.g., band or orchestra) or with release time during school hours for special activities. Whatever you pick, even if you opt to follow the most conventional route because it best fits who you are, select your alternatives carefully, know that you are empowered to make choices, and take responsibility as a person who counts!
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Stevenson, H. W. (1998). Cultural interpretations of giftedness: The case of East Asia. In R.C. Friedman & K. B. Rogers (Eds.). Talent in context: Historical and social perspectives on giftedness (pp. 61-77). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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Westberg, K. L., Burns, D. E., Gubbins, E.J., Reis, S.M., Park, S., & Maxfield, L.R. (Spring, 1998). Professional development practices in gifted education: Results of a national survey. NRC/GT Newsletter, 3-4.
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