I have said in an earlier post that education reformers don't seem to see the irony in their arguments, so I will just let this one stand for now. To their credit, Finn and Wright also say that opportunities for advanced achievement are very narrow for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and that this is a national problem.
Is the answer to any of these problems gifted education? My answer would be no. Philosophically, I am of the mind that all children are gifted in some way, but school is not a very good place to discover the gifts of every child. As Howard Gardner has shown us, children may have many intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and musical.
Finn and Wright want to focus, however, on "academic giftedness" and I will take that as my starting point, too. Do we need special programs for the academically gifted? Again my answer would be no.
The problems with special programs for the gifted are many. First of all, because of the complexity of identifying "giftedness" most schools fall back on sorting children by standardized tests. This is a very narrow way to identify students of talent and often excludes children with nearly identical abilities. There can be no fair system of identifying gifted students.
Additionally, many gifted programs remove children from the regular classroom and are characterized primarily by giving the gifted students more work, not enriched opportunities. Removing children from the regular classroom inevitably means that the regular classroom loses some of its most able contributors. Finally, resources provided for gifted students are resources that should be available for every student. A look at the National Standards for Gifted Education put forward by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), shows a list of standards that any parent would want for her own child.
What we need for academically talented students is what we need for every student - good instruction that meets individual needs and that provides appropriate challenges.
How do we provide instruction that meets individual needs? In literacy this can be done through the workshop approach to reading and writing pioneered by Donald Graves, Donald Murray, and Nancy Atwell among others and popularized by Lucy Calkins and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. The workshop approach allows the teacher to provide whole group, small group and individual instruction, while also allowing students a significant amount of choice in their reading and writing material.
When all students have the opportunity to pursue their own interests in reading and writing and when the teacher has the opportunity to provide guidance through various instructional grouping structures, all students get the instruction and the challenge they need. To be sure, this type of instruction is not easy. Teachers need professional development opportunities, sufficient planning time and reasonable class sizes. Ultimately, however, policy makers would be better off spending scarce dollars on these resources, rather than creating separate programs for the gifted.
A focus on instruction by gifted teachers will go farther in achieving learning goals than sorting and separating academically able students.