Being smart has never been easy, especially in the modern world of public education. Since the Soviet Sputnik ratcheted- up the Cold War in the 1950s, school systems have attempted to respond with school programs for “gifted children” supposedly aimed at re-asserting North American brain power. After 1958, bright kids were suddenly identified as “gifted” and hothoused in special segregated classes. Yet, since that time, bright kids, by whatever name – “egghead,” “browner,” or “nerd”” – have not been very well served by public education.
The recent Toronto Globe and Mail series on “The Gifted Child”(November 11-18) may have been a laudable effort, but it will, regrettably, do little to change that reality. In one article after another, the ably written and well researched stories do little more than reinforce existing stereotypes about gifted and academically-able children. The whole series approached the critical public issue from inside the system –from the inside out – when what we needed was a broader, more comprehensive look at how academically-motivated students are actually served in public education.
The standard, “one-size-fits-all” philosophy of public education has always troubled me. Even though I am one of the system’s products, I always harboured suspicions. Students with ideas of their own, an independent streak, or serious personal needs never seemed to fare well.
While researching my recent book, The Grammar School (2009)), I made a rather startling discovery. Public schools were really designed for – and serve reasonably well – society’s comfortable middle class and serve to mask what historian Michael B. Katz long ago identified as the class realities underlying the rise of the modern bureaucratic education state.
Founders of the Halifax Grammar School like Dalhousie University professor Dr. Gordin Kaplan were incredibly perceptive. A long- forgotten and often dismissed education critic, Hilda Neatby, author of So Little for the Mind (1953), was right all along. Above average and academically able students posed a challenge to “mediocrity” in public education.
In an emerging system dedicated to equality of outcomes, ‘outliers’ could not be easily digested. That, in a real sense, is why Canada’s leading independent schools continue to not only exist, but to flourish under the radar of public education.
What have we learned about “gifted education” after more than fifty years? Ambitious, upwardly-mobile hyper-parents strive to prove that their children are “gifted.” Being identified as a “gifted child” is a curse as well as a blessing. Gifted education is considered “elitist” and fraught with controversy. And challenging gifted kids in school is actually hard work.
The Globe Life polls on Gifted Education ( Nov. 11 and Nov. 15, 2010) were totally contradictory. After a story on the social costs to kids of “Gifted” programs, some 56% of the 2,284 respondents opposed “segregation” of gifted kids. Yet, if given the option, most parents would put their kids in such programs anyway. When asked “Would you put your child in a gifted program?,” some 73% of the 765 respondents replied in the affirmative.
Where do these revelations leave us? No further ahead because they merely confirm popular notions that “gifted children” are “exceptionalities” who inhabit their own world in public education.
Stepping back with a wider lens, highly motivated, academically inclined students look a lot different. Seeking more from your local public school and demanding better can be difficult –and can be easily dismissed as reflecting the “elitist” attitude of the privileged classes. If you live in Toronto’s Forest Hill or the Allenby School district, Montreal’s Westmount, Vancouver’s Kerrisdale, or Halifax’s South End, school options do exist. For ordinary families with academically able children in the inner city or small town Canada, the everyday reality is bored kids seeking outside outlets for their creative or higher intellectual pursuits.
America’s radical education critics such as John Taylor Gatto are over-the-top in their indictments of public education. Gatto’s bestselling book Dumbing Us Down (1992) and his more incendiary Weapons of Mass Instruction (2009) are designed more to shake up the system than to produce implementable reform. But the underlying message is crystal clear: public schools have become agents of compulsory schooling strangely akin to sausage “factories” for both students and teachers.
With over 70 per cent of today’s students in English-speaking Canada virtually guaranteed a high school diploma, secondary school education now performs a radically different function. Producing critically aware, fully educated citizens takes secondary place to inculcating employability skills leavened with social justice values.
Today’s ambitious, university-educated parents can hardly be faulted for seeking gifted or French immersion programs for their children. Unless parents can afford the exorbitant fees for private, independent schools, that’s their only real choice. It’s hardly surprising that the ‘everyday garden variety’ neighbourhood public school has less appeal for many of today’s parents, raised as they were after 1982 as Canada’s first generation of “Charter children.”
All of this begs a few critical questions: How did naturally smart and academically motivated students come to be clinically labelled “gifted” and treated as “exceptionalities”? If high fliers tend to motivate others, why did our public schools all-but-abandon challenging all students in regular classrooms? And is it now time for a complete rethink of “gifted education?”