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Gifted Education as Resegregation

Gifted education is based on the idea that a very small, very smart proportion of students needs more challenging attention to flourish intellectually and otherwise. That's about as much agreement as you'll get from any two people discussing the matter. What criteria decide who's gifted, where the cut-off should be (the top 2 percent of a given group? the top 5 percent?), what to do with the gifted once they qualify, who to mingle or not mingle them with, what to feed them at breakfast and what thread-count linen they should sleep in -- those questions can be more divisive than all the debates about the transubstantiation of Christ and fat-versus-thin Elvis put together. And beware if you're caught in the middle: Parents of the gifted can have a paradoxically tedious gift for the dogmatic. Maybe that's what it takes to raise a gifted child: more of a tunnel than a vision.

I raise the issue because one of those weird debates is going on at the moment where I live in Florida, in Flagler County schools. The district superintendent wants to expand the gifted program to make it available at every elementary and middle school, which sounds like a logical, desirable idea. Right now it's available full-time at just one elementary school and one middle school. Just 2 percent of students are enrolled. To make the expansion financially possible, the superintendent wants to include high achievers in the pool. Parents of the gifted are unhappy. They're worried that their children's education is being watered down. I can understand the issue of standards not being high enough. As Flagler school parents, my wife and I deal with that issue constantly. But hearing and reading about complaints by parents of the gifted, I was struck by a larger question that neither the district nor the parents are asking, but that seems to me more important than either side's immediate concerns. What message are we sending our children, and society at large, when segregation is held up not only as a defining factor of an educational program, but as a desirable, even admirable one as well?

More than a century ago, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois debated how to improve life for blacks in an America institutionally prejudiced against them. Washington thought general education and hard work would do it. DuBois was more interested in developing a Talented Tenth -- a class of the most able and brilliant -- that would lead the rest to prosperity, politically and economically. In principle, the debate isn't much different from today's debates over who deserves the best education, with this key difference: Whatever their means, Washington's and DuBois' ends were the same. They saw education and talent as a shared responsibility with shared goals: defeating racism, desegregation. DuBois' "Talented Tenth" would have a larger responsibility than its own success.

The opposite is happening with the talented now. Resegregation is becoming a defining factor of American life. We don't call it that because it's segregation in reverse, or self-segregation. Rather than forcing the rabble and the colored into ghettos, those with means cut themselves off from the rabble and the colored, from the shared purpose of public spaces. That's what gated communities and homeowners' associations are about, what the divide between urban and suburban communities is about, what increasingly exclusive colleges and universities are about, what even the multi-tiered medical care system is about, and so on. Channeling the gifted in programs of their own achieves the same result at the opposite end of the scale, not because it concentrates intellectual attention on those who crave it (that's always desirable), but because it presumes that separating them from their peers is an advantage, when it could just as easily be a disadvantage by skewing the meaning and purpose of a truly pluralist society.

To hear the proponents of gifted education as primarily a separate but superior enterprise for the chosen suggests that the gifted somehow stand apart not only intellectually but socially. The presumption is that standing apart economically eventually will be their due. Mixing with their lessers, even if they're high achievers, would spoil them. It's segregation by other means, and toward ends not nearly as honorable as DuBois' for his Talented Tenth.


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