Gifted Students Suffer When Public Schools Focus On Underachievers And ‘Teaching To The Middle’

The following is an excerpt from the new book “Mediocrity: 40 Ways Government Schools Are Failing Today’s Students,” by Connor Boyack and Corey DeAngelis.

Stunting The Gifted

When Caitlyn Singam was in kindergarten, her teacher suggested to her parents that she be labeled as a special-needs student because she was intellectually backward. This was a shock to her father, who noted that the young girl was already reading, including advanced material, at that young age. The teacher informed Singam’s father that she “was finishing her reading assignments ‘too fast’ to have any understanding of the material.” When the dad suggested that his daughter might simply be an advanced reader, the teacher said, “she did not think it possible the girl could be so far ahead of her peers.” Although gifted, she was being branded as deficient. 

As Singam got older, she faced significant resistance from school administrators when her parents inquired about moving her up a grade or two. According to the spokesman for the school district, they decided to rigidly follow established protocols and “simply wanted to ensure all of her needs were met.” Never mind the fact that her needs were not being met by being held back to sit in a desk next to children who were similar in age but not ability. Singam recalled what his daughter’s kindergarten teacher had warned him years before: “Public schools simply didn’t have the means to support my daughter.”

When politicians and pundits discuss education reform, they typically highlight the perceived need for more funding and programs. Their attention focuses almost exclusively on children at the bottom of the pack — the underachievers and disadvantaged children struggling to keep up with teachers’ lessons. And while this is a laudable goal when providing education broadly to millions of children, there is a lack of attention on the high achievers — a result of the “teaching -to-the-middle” tendency of most government schools. David Lubinsky led a study at Vanderbilt University analyzing the relationship between top-performing children and future achievement. “Gifted children are a precious human-capital resource,” he points out — and a severely underutilized one, since the government school system does not adequately support and challenge the students. The study focused on students scoring in the top 0.01 percentile on the SAT at a young age (or, in other words, those who ranked higher than 99.99 percent of their peers). And there was a problem they discovered: the students’ early academic excellence was “belied by years of educational setbacks and systemic pitfalls.”

Another researcher on the project further highlighted the problem:

“There’s this idea that gifted students don’t really need any help. This study shows that’s not the case. These people with very high IQs — what some have called the “scary smart” — will do well in regular classrooms, but they still won’t meet their full potential unless they’re given access to accelerated coursework, AP classes, and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers.”

Singam’s experience is not unique; many gifted students are not provided challenging, intellectual opportunities in government schools. Nearly 80 percent of teachers surveyed in 2008 agreed that “Getting underachieving students to reach proficiency has become so important that the needs of advanced students take a back seat.” The system forces gifted students to remain in a holding pattern while teachers perpetually focus on underachievers hoping they will catch up. It is a cruel punishment — a boring waiting game — that never ends for those who can excel if adequately challenged. Indeed, the Vanderbilt study found that “13-year-olds in the top 3 percent of math ability who took the project’s fast-paced math class were twice as likely to go into math or science careers than a similar group that didn’t take the classes.” But if a gifted child’s spark isn’t maintained, they look for stimulation elsewhere. Of the approximately one million school dropouts every year, nearly one out of ten earned mostly As. The biggest reason for quitting, cited by those top-performing students, is boredom. And worse, gifted children sometimes develop coping strategies to better fit in with peers, intentionally hiding their intellectual gifts and stifling their strengths since they are not praised and cultivated by the system they are in. This can produce feelings of alienation, anxiety, and a sense of shame that is completely counterproductive to helping them pursue their potential, which is ostensibly the entire goal of the education system.

Yes, there’s an achievement gap in schools, but administrators and teachers are only focusing on the bottom, thus ignoring — and weakening — the top. One researcher remarked, “You could make an argument that [these neglected high-achievers] merit the greatest investment, because they’re going to be the greatest producers, based on their early academic achievement.” But that is increasingly at odds with the school system’s priorities. 

Consider California, the pedagogical petri dish whose educational experiments often trickle down to (or are forced upon) other states. In 2021, the state’s Department of Education announced a new framework for math in K-12 government schools that would structurally discourage gifted students from pursuing accelerated classes to study advanced concepts. With supposed inequity as the driving concern, the department’s lengthy framework fretted, as summarized by one commentator: 

“Too many students are sorted into different math tracks based on their natural abilities, which leads some to take calculus by their senior year of high school while others don’t make it past basic algebra. The department’s solution is to prohibit any sorting until high school, keeping gifted kids in the same classrooms as their less mathematically inclined peers until at least grade nine.” 

One is reminded of Winston Churchill telling the House of Commons in 1945, “The inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” Like in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” the moochers and government administrators despise those who excel and, thus, throw roadblocks in their path to retard their progress. Parents of gifted children should look to this school system with extreme suspicion, for it treats such students as an academic afterthought. 

This is an excerpt from the new book “Mediocrity” by Connor Boyack and Corey DeAngelis, set to release on April 26, 2023.

Connor Boyack is the author of the Tuttle Twins children’s book series, which teaches the ideas of a free society to the rising generation. He is also president of Libertas Institute, a free market think tank.

Corey DeAngelis is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children. He is also the executive director at Educational Freedom Institute, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, a senior fellow at Reason Foundation, and a board member at Liberty Justice Center.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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