Leaving talent on the table: Fixing gifted education in America (3-2-16)

Talk is cheap.

For decades, elected officials, education leaders, and others have consumed much oxygen talking about the challenges facing our nation from countries doing a much better job developing their academic talent.

Despite this the reality is that we have largely failed to address this concern as many of our most talented children are being overlooked and uncultivated.

Across America today, data indicates that a tremendous number of minority and low-income children who have untapped giftedness are languishing academically and might never be challenged to reach their full potential.

This is a result of two dangerous fallacies: that gifted students “do just fine on their own”; and that gifted students don’t exist among impoverished or minority populations. These myths are devastating and push our nation in a dire direction.

The National Association for Gifted Children’s Turning a Blind Eye: Neglecting the Needs of Gifted and Talented highlights an uneven delivery system with fragmented policies and limited funding that inhibit access to gifted and talented programs, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The report reveals that few states fully or adequately fund gifted education services and that many have laws or policies that impede access to gifted services. Most states also conduct inadequate oversight and reporting of gifted education programs, further perpetuating inequity.  This is unfair to the individuals involved and hazardous to the nation.

As leaders in business and education, it is abundantly clear that our piecemeal approach fails to support high achievers and fails to identify and challenge all students with the potential to become top performers.

Looking ahead in a national election year that will engender much discussion about the nation’s future, the time is now to make identifying and cultivating top talent a priority. Thankfully, 2015 ended with some positive steps forward.

After years of trying, Congress passed a legislative package that included policies focused on high-potential and high-achieving students. In this new law, Congress makes clear that schools serving disadvantaged students may use federal Title I funds to identify and serve gifted students. Now it is up to local leaders to ensure high-ability students from low-income families and other under-served populations receive the challenging instruction they deserve.

The law also requires states to submit plans saying how they will use teacher-training dollars to better train teachers to identify and serve gifted students. It will also strengthen reporting by states on the annual progress of such students, applying to top-performing students a reporting standard long used to support poor performing students.

Congress has also increased funding to support applied research into strategies to identify and serve gifted students from underrepresented communities, funding it at a modest, but record-level of $12 million in 2016.

These successes provide us with a foundation for future progress. First and foremost, we must ensure states leverage the tools given them by Congress to help our brightest minds achieve their full potential.

Beyond this, we must build a national strategy to develop our academic talent, revisiting the approach from more than a half-century ago that enabled the United States to win the space race.

As leaders, perhaps the single most important message we have learned is that no resource is more critical to a successful enterprise than its people.

Our schools should exist for one reason—to help our children achieve their potential. The evidence today is that we are largely failing to achieve this goal when it comes to our most talented students. But with a renewed commitment and targeted interventions, our nation can turn this tide.

We must grasp a sense of connection to the global sphere and ensure that decisions serve the bigger picture and make it brighter for our Nation’s gifted and talented students. Otherwise the talk about globalization and education is just rhetoric with no real vision.

This is our Sputnik moment. The challenge is that the demands our children face today are being dictated by a world in which change comes rapidly, and leaving talent on the table will put our nation at risk, leaving us all behind.

Norm Augustine has served as Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, as the Under Secretary of the Army and on numerous corporate, governmental and non-profit boards. Rudy Crew is President of Medgar Evers College and served as Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Chancellor of New York City Public Schools.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on the NAGC Blog and on Fordham's Flypaper.