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Advocacy for Gifted Education Should Be a National Priority

by James J. Gallagher

As we seek support for educating gifted students, we must accept the fact that our advocacy efforts have been largely unproductive. At the federal level, the Javits legislation has been a bone tossed to quiet us, and state efforts have not been much better. We need a persistent and convincing effort to change our environment. The wise defense lawyer Clarence Darrow was once asked how he was able to get acquittals for so many of his clients. He said that his job was first to get the jury to want to acquit and second to provide evidence for them to do so. Our job is to get the decision-makers to want to help gifted students and then to provide them with a path to do that.

The Emotional Side

One of my wise professors used to say, “When there is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, such as to maximize talent development (or to go on a diet), and it still isn’t being done, we should look to the emotions and social forces involved in the situation that may lie under the surface.”

In our approach to gifted students, we and the general public view them with awe and admiration but also with a certain sense of envy and a concern that their special talents are not wholly controllable. We tell people that this gifted girl may produce the new iPod, but we are still getting used to the old iPod and are not convinced that we should help another person produce something entirely different. We tend to forget that gifted students are built-in “change agents” for whatever fields they are in and that perhaps we are not eager for change unless someone convinces us that it is absolutely necessary.

The feelings that individuals with special gifts and talents evoke are not unlike those of the left guard viewing the star quarterback who gets all the headlines. Part of him wants to win the game, and part of him wants the star to fall on his face. That can lead to less-than-decisive action. This is one of the reasons that locker rooms are plastered with signs sporting sayings such as “There is no I in TEAM”—to convince the players that winning the game comes before personal feelings.

Where the education of gifted students is concerned, what is the game that we are trying to win? We need to be more explicit in explaining that. We are involved in a serious game of economic and scientific competition with major powers around the world. All of the evidence that we have gathered (e.g., international achievement tests) suggests that we are losing that game, and furthermore that there are many more of them than there are of us. But it is still the first half in this competition, and we can still prevail if we change our approach.

We should not continue this educational disarmament in which we attack higher education and teachers with invective and budget cuts. “Excellent education for all” is not just a slogan; it is a path to survival. Everyone on the team must do well, but at different tasks. We should pay more attention to the care and nurturing of our star quarterbacks (the gifted and talented) and look at some of the guards and tight ends to see if they might become star quarterbacks given the right stimulation (talent development).

Under these circumstances, a natural question emerges: Do we have any evidence that if we educated our gifted and talented any differently, it would make any difference in this vital competition? This is what has stirred my interest in collecting testimony from past graduates of special programs (such as NCSSM and International Baccalaureate) as to the importance of this special education to their current and future work. In other words, what should we be doing to enhance education?

The Educational Side
  1. Find allies. We use collaborative work in the classroom. We need collaborative work in advocacy with other professional associations and with the STEM initiative (among others). Without allies, our work is less influential.
  2. Develop efficacy evidence. The statistical and rational evidence is not enough. We need personal testimony from those who have received special education for gifts and talents and who can speak of the results without bias.
  3. Maintain a compelling and persistent message. This is a national defense issue, and we are committing educational disarmament in America. We must compete with China, India, Germany, etc. This is done in the framework of “educational excellence for all,” but with special preparation for those with superior talent.
  4. Ask for concrete resources. This includes research and development for the stimulation of thinking, personnel preparation for higher education, curriculum development and collaboration with content specialists, and monitoring programs for excellence using products for evidence (e.g., science projects, essays, inventions).
  5. Seek talent. We have learned about neurological plasticity from the scientists. From ourselves, we have learned that extraordinary talent is embedded in all levels and sections of our society and can be extended through early stimulation. Talent search is part of the total plan.

“But,” we will hear, “we have no money.” This is untrue; we have plenty of money, just not for what we want. For example, one attack submarine costs 1.8 billion dollars. We have fifty of them, and their sole purpose is to end civilization as we know it if worst comes to worst. If we could get by with forty-nine submarines, we should have enough money to run this suggested pilot program with money left over. Brains, not bombs!

Only our professional organizations can maintain persistence and commitment in advocacy. That is why I call on NAGC, TAG, and SENG to take on this goal. This is a national priority, not something to be done after the rest of our work is finished. This is our commitment to our society’s future.

Professor James J. Gallagher spent a lifetime advocating for gifted and exceptional children. He passed away in January 2014 at the age of eighty-seven.

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