Gifted: Equity and Excellence


One hears, on campus and beyond, a longing for more systemic innovation in secondary education—change that could perhaps build on the success of Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP).

The American Association for Gifted Children (AAGC), a nonprofit housed at Duke and led by Margaret Gayle, has a “special emphasis on diverse populations and on those who have fewer financial resources.” With no formal relationship to TIP beyond awarding the Mary Jane and Jerome A. Straka Scholarship to help students participate in its programs, Gayle has been involved for a decade in Project Bright Idea, funded by the U.S. Department of Education and implemented through the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Bright Idea teaches teachers to teach as if all children were gifted and talented, and its results suggest that students rise to meet expectations. That is, most can acquire gifted-learning behaviors such as concentration and perseverance and, when they do, they get better test scores.

This spring, Gayle appeared on a webcast with Sanford School of Public Policy economist Sandy Darrity to discuss education reform generally and Project Bright Idea in particular. Darrity says, “To the extent that we treat kids as gifted selectively, we actually partition the quality of curriculum and instruction that kids get exposed to. And we disproportionately locate black and Latino kids in those environments where they get the ‘dumbed-down’ instruction.” He admitted he likes gifted curricula but not segmented gifted programs.

Still, TIP is neither an instrument of public policy nor responsible for the state of the public schools. As TIP-based researcher Rick Courtright puts it, “There’s a difference between what TIP sets out to accomplish and what education sets out to accomplish.”

Yet in the public mind, gifted children may seem already to have every advantage already, and affording them special treatment under the auspices of a private university that reaches out through (often) public schools may seem somehow undemocratic.

“We don’t have a problem in this country with elitism in the arts,” notes Courtright. “We don’t have a problem in this country with elitism in business. We don’t have a problem with elitism in sports. We don’t worry that we don’t have demographic representation on our basketball teams or our football teams or our baseball teams. We go for those with the highest level of talent. The question is not whether elitism is good or bad; we want the best performance for everyone. What are the circumstances under which each person can maximize their potential to its greatest possible degree?

“Elitism gets a bad rap. It becomes a proxy for people’s criticism of treating individuals differently, because historically some people have had privileges. The privileges are what get interpreted as elitism— privilege by birthright, by inheritance. We see it as a threat to our democracy when certain groups are identified for preferential treatment. In public institutions like public education, elitism is a dirty word. How that gets translated is, everybody has to stay rather low.

“We [at TIP] talk about it all the time: There’s a conflict between equity and excellence. You want that excellence that leads to an elite level of performance— but you

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