Teaching the A Team


In recent decades, the United States has made it a priority to improve American education by “guaranteeing proficiency”—that is, bringing everyone up to par. President Lyndon Johnson’s Head Start Program, President George H.W. Bush’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and, most notably, the No Child Left Behind Act of President George W. Bush have exemplified this egalitarian ethos. These programs have resulted in millions of dollars of new tests, regulations, and procedures, not to mention a burgeoning industry designed to help students and schools meet them. Undeniably, the message behind these efforts is noble and worthwhile—no good shall ever come of having a nation of subpar, undereducated students—but it is necessary to consider those who it naturally excludes: students who are already above par, already past the starting post. Much has been made of guaranteeing an equal, quality education for all—but what about equality of potential? Equality of opportunity? Today, we are engaging in a race to the middle, rather than a race to the top.

We see in our gifted students today the roots of such a catastrophe emerging. There are many gifted students who at a young age, are unchallenged by their coursework and bored by their academic life. In a 2012 paper, Pamela Clinkenbeard of the University of Wisconsin writes that gifted students who begin to academically underachieve due to insufficient challenges are unlikely to reverse the pattern, continuing to underachieve both in personal and professional relations. For many of these students, learning is an internal concept focused upon the task and the acquisition of knowledge, as opposed to an external, outcome-oriented process. Thus the challenge of learning itself is a motivation. This, Clinkenbeard writes, ties into Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a productive “flow,” in which a goal-oriented process develops into “an activity for its own sake.” For these students, if the process is exceedingly unchallenging, they feel as if they are not learning at all.

This is especially true in regards to underprivileged children. As per the results of a 2002 report of the National Association for Gifted Children, gifted students from economically deprived backgrounds were particularly at risk of dropping out and, when they did, most often cited reasons such as "I did not like school" or "I am failing school." When students are not given stimulating course work, they do not perform as well. Furthermore, as the chips always seem to fall in these cases, the economically deprived are hurt the most.

In our socially-conscious times in which consternation over alarming rates of income inequality and immobility in the United States is rampant, advocating that we set aside groups of children, many at a young age, as inherently “gifted,” “talented,” or just flat out “smarter” than others seems to run contrary to our sensibilities. But unless one buys into the idea that there is a correlation between wealth and intelligence (as, for example, Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen propose in their book IQ and the Wealth of Nations), acceleration programs, if instituted across the board, should not disproportionately benefit the wealthy, but rather level the playing field. To broaden the scope of gifted education would be to directly and clearly broaden the chances that gifted children, of all races and incomes, succeed.

Today, the wealthy have access to a litany of resources and “tricks” they can utilize to put their children ahead: private schools, tutors, admissions coaches, and contacts. Indeed, we have reached a point where academic results have increasingly little to do with intelligence and much to do with wealth—seen, for example, in the strong correlation between family income and SAT scores—leaving the poor only with their own wits and luck. Certainly, all gifted students are suffering from the lack of challenging academics, but the effects are magnified when it comes to the poor. Broadening the range of gifted education would not widen the divide, but rather reduce trends in inequality and promote egalitarianism by providing equal resources for the gifted everywhere.

While some may feel any kind of academic division promotes the continuance of inequality, allowing top students to move ahead was once commonplace. The schoolhouses of the past maintained that students learn at their own pace, and should move ahead only when they are ready. Those who excelled, in turn, could progress as a faster rate. Indeed, in colonial times, students entered the few extant colleges as young as 15 or 16. Certainly, times have changed: College-bound students are no longer required to have a firm grasp of Greek and Latin, nor is university education limited to the elite, but the ethic remains constant. Some of our greatest Americans—such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois—benefited from this culture of acceleration, despite the challenges they faced. As the country grew, however, and as education became available to more and more people, regularization and standardization increased as policymakers, preaching guarantees of equality, sought reform.

But other nations have successfully taken different approaches. Singapore, for example, has had a coherent gifted education policy since the early 1980s. The challenges for such a system were daunting: Singapore is a highly diverse country with Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and European populations, and, as a city-state, no regionalization to speak of. Although the education system is conducted wholly in English, and is heavily based on the British model, the majority of the Singaporean population is of Chinese decent, and thus the focus on gifted students fits well within a system of intellectual meritocracy that itself has roots in Confucianism. Thus Singapore’s gifted program is just the latest application of a long societal tradition.

After several decades of trial runs and testing, the Singaporean Ministry of Education launched the Integrated Programme, or IP, in 2004, which allows students to skip their last two years of secondary school and immediately take their college entrance exams. The scheme, which is open only to the top ten percent of students, allows, according to a 2002 report, these students to “better spend the last four years of their [secondary] education, from Secondary Year 3 to Junior College Year 2, engaging in broader learning experiences, instead of preparing for two major examinations.”

One of the major focuses of the IP is allowing students to develop their independent development through several enrichment opportunities, including research jobs, overseas exchange programs, and community leadership. Moreover, the program strongly emphasizes leadership development, as one of the key goals of gifted education is to nurture a new cohort of political, social, and business leaders. This has received occasional criticism; as one sociologist, Chua Beng Huat, said, "the single-minded pursuit of continuous economic growth has become the sole criterion for initiating and assessing all public policies.” Regardless, the program has become popular. At one school, the prestigious National Junior College, the IP program had 500 applicants from both Singapore and overseas for 130 locations.

While some Singaporeans have criticized the program as being elitist, the planners contend that the IP actually works againstso-called “elitism.” “The Integrated Programmes … spend a lot more time on developing leadership and commitment to the community,” argued former Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. “If anything, it offers an opportunity for the top academic talents to develop stronger instincts of Singaporeaness and commitment to their fellow citizen.”

Much attention in Singapore is focused on ensuring a high level of teacher quality. Before they begin teaching, all teachers are required to take special courses in gifted education, as well as special supplementary modules on the specialization of curricula within two years of starting. Each teacher receives special mentoring from a specialist in the Gifted Education Branch of the Ministry of Education, and regular workshops are held on pedagogy, assessment, and student motivation. Also, gifted education teachers are assigned fewer teaching periods than their peers out of the expectation that the extra time will be used to broaden and elaborate their curricula.

Of course, the United States can never expect this level of uniformity. Singapore is a city, and its ministries are equivalent to municipal bureaus. But the United States can learn that a national initiative for gifted education can bring results, and such efforts do work to counteract inequalities and elitism, not deepen them. Singapore’s gifted policy has worked—so much so that the United Kingdom, the origin of much of the Singaporean education system, is now considering adopting Singaporean-style policies. This, despite Singapore’s vast diversity and pluralism, is a sign the United States can walk down the same path.

Or, on a geographically larger scale, take Finland. The Scandinavian country has come into the limelight in recent years for consistently posting scores at the top of international comparative assessments. The Program for International Assessment (PISA) placed the Finns at the top overall, with a first-place ranking in science and a second-place ranking in reading and math, behind South Korea and Taiwan, respectively. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal described the Finnish system as so uniformly excellent that a Finnish senior, Elina Lamponen, who studied abroad for a year in a Michigan high school, and upon her return to Finland, had to repeat the year.

One peculiar thing about the Finnish experience is that there is a minimal focus paid to gifted education. “Finnish educators,” the Journal writes, “believe they get better overall results by concentrating on weaker students rather than by pushing gifted students ahead of everyone else. The idea is that bright students can help average ones without harming their own progress,” This attitude, however, has been shown not to work in the United States. But a number of significant differences exist between the United States and Finland, and it is in those differences where the key to emulating the Finnish approach for gifted students may lie.

Since the 1990s, Finnish education policy has focused upon freedom of choice and individual progress—two areas of emphasis that American education lacks. Finnish parents have the right to enroll their children in school early. Many elementary schools are ungraded which allows children to accelerate (in other terms, following the model of the one-room schoolhouse). A number of other policies also help students: classes with higher grades, enrichment workshops, cooperation with companies or non-profit organizations, special extra–curricular activities, individual mentors, and self-study.

Finland, importantly, separates students for the last three years of high school based on their grades; 53 percent go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. Thus, despite the initial perception of inequality, those students who are currently being academically challenged continue down that path while those who are struggling find appropriate options. While the United States provides magnet schools at the upper levels, this is only a partial solution. Meanwhile, Finland’s culture of dividing the whole body of students by their abilities ensures each student receives the education that fits their needs. The education culture of Finland is one of excellence and intense individualization; teachers customize lessons for students, as opposed to following an inflexible curriculum or, worse yet, “teaching to the test.”

In Finland, as one education official said, “teachers are the entrepreneurs,” and the barriers to entry are indeed high. Teachers are required to be rigorously trained and hold a post-graduate degree. Some 40 applicants exist for every teaching job. Yet teachers in Finland earn roughly the same as their American counterparts. But the culture of professionalism in Finland imbues the occupation with prestige and gives teachers greater leverage—fostering excellence in a similar way to Singapore.

Indeed, there is a significant amount of cultural difference between these countries and the United States. Finland is a homogenous country—ethnically, racially, socially, and economically—compared to the divergent, dissonant nature of American society. Singapore, on the other hand, while having an ethnic diversity more similar to ours, is a city smaller than New York, while the United States is the world’s third most populous nation. Yet Finland and Singapore have, despite all their differences, prioritized excellence in both teachers and students. They have made the decision to recognize their brightest students and pay special attention to them.

There is, then, no reason we should not do the same. We need to focus upon all students; we need to broaden the education spectrum. We need to let each students learn at their own pace, and that means letting those who learn quickly move ahead. We may, for this kind of system to work, have to acknowledge some students are more intelligent than other, but in this competitive, fast-paced world, we cannot afford to ignore reality. Once we acknowledge the facts, we can move towards an equality of opportunity, where the brightest are identified regardless of race, gender, or wealth. If we do nothing, we risk letting our brightest fall through the cracks. We have a moral imperative to not let that happen.