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TAG -- who's it?
On New York City's approach to talented and gifted education, and why it's important to see beyond just putting kids into accelerated classes.
The headlines blare that New York City, under the charge of outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, is going to shut down the gifted and talented program in its public schools. Critics of the program, which starts with a screening test in kindergarten, argue that it results in a de facto form of racial segregation.
■ Setting aside the inevitable obstacles to effectively managing a district of 1,094,138 students, the plan appears -- at least from the reporting -- to conflate the need for reform with the need for shutdown. The school district says it plans to "launch 'Brilliant NYC,' a blueprint for accelerated learning for all elementary students in New York City". The way New York is handling talented and gifted education appears to need meaningful change (after all, kindergarten is too early to expect sound selections to be made), but it doesn't have to flatten its approach altogether just to make things better.
■ Why do we have TAG (talented and gifted) programs in the first place? The obvious answer would appear to be that it's for the kids themselves. But it's also true that, if we're doing it right, those programs also ultimately benefit society as a whole. It's easy to make the mistake of thinking of TAG programs as a reward for high-performing students. The world knows how to deal with the person who conscientiously does their work day in and day out and is highly capable of earning straight-A's. TAG programs should be intended for students who fall substantially above the mean -- as in, a standard deviation or two -- in at least some observable way.
■ Having that much cognitive talent is indeed a gift. But it can also complicate a person's ability to adjust along a normal timescale. The familiar awkwardness of coming-of-age stories can be even more complicated for those who are already noticeably different from their own peers as they are growing up. A child whose cognitive development is out of step with their chronological peers needs at least some different attention in order to achieve healthy and well-balanced development. If we define everything on the basis of chronological age, then a gifted child is "advanced" in their cognitive development. But turn that on its head: If we standardize based on the child's apparent cognitive age, then the typical gifted child stands a good chance of pacing behind their cognitive peers in terms of emotional development. A 10-year-old who thinks like a 16-year-old still has 10-year-old hormones and impulses. Targeting certain specific resources to the attention of these children is in their best interest.
■ But there is a social calculus in effect as well. As Lee Kuan Yew put it, "To be successful, society must maintain a balance between nurturing excellence and encouraging the average to improve. There must be both cooperation and competition between people in the same society." The leaders of a conscientious society will look at their most talented individuals and try to optimize the investments it makes in them as students.
■ That doesn't necessarily mean railroading every gifted child through an accelerated curriculum, either. Stimulation is important, and academic acceleration can pay off in some cases, but other factors matter, too: History is full of examples of gifted individuals who needed time to think and dream in order to produce their greatest output. Differentiated educational opportunities that make the most of individuals' existing gifts and talents is a great way to help produce the most from the raw mental materials that individuals are given at birth.
■ But people who are born with tremendous raw talents usually need help and guidance in learning how to refine and put them to good use. The mind of a genius doesn't come with an owner's manual. And, to put it bluntly, society has a significant self-interest in producing well-adjusted geniuses. So it not only makes sense for the individual student, but also for society more broadly, to approach those differences wisely.
■ As the slogan of the UNCF says, a mind truly is a terrible thing to waste. If New York City (or anyplace else) wants to serve its entire student population well, then it shouldn't take TAG education any more lightly than it would its programming for students at the opposite end of the curve. If the TAG program currently in place is yielding obviously faulty results, then the answer isn't to jettison the program entirely, but to figure out where and why the inequities are entering the picture and to reform the process accordingly.