National Security and Educational Excellence
An Education Week Commentary by James J. Gallagher
The dual and desirable educational goals of student equity and student excellence have often been in a serious struggle for scarce resources. Student equity ensures all students a fair shot at a good education. Student excellence promises every student the right to achieve as far and as high as he or she is capable. Because the problems of equity have greater immediacy than does the long-term enhancement of excellence, this struggle has often been won by equity. Driven by yearly budget cycles and chronic shortages of resources, educators are more likely to tackle the problems of those students in the most visible trouble in our schools. The tendency to homogenize education into a single setting or common curriculum has led to resistance in our public schools to the creation of separate programming for our most talented students.
This year, President Bush has underscored the importance of considering society's long-term goals by focusing on the projected problems in the Social Security system. Such a focus should remind us that in education there are also important long-term national goals that need consideration. Until recently, it has been politically incorrect to mention that the major contributions to society in business, medicine, the arts, and the sciences-contributions that enhance the quality of life for us all-have been made by a relatively small creative minority.
Educators as a group have not been terribly concerned with the nurturing of these talented persons. They, like the general public, often assume that students of this sort will "make it on their own" without much help. There is also a philosophical commitment in the field to a brand of equity that refuses to recognize any individual differences in students except those caused by unfair cultural and economic advantages or disabilities. The tendency to homogenize education into a single setting or common curriculum, shown in both the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the movement toward inclusion of children with disabilities in the general classroom, has resulted in a resistance in our public schools to the creation of separate programming for our most talented students.
Every decade or so, we seem to realize that our collective fate as a society relies upon these talented youths, this creative minority, and we make some spasmodic efforts to improve their status in the schools. The Sputnik challenge in the 1950s generated millions of dollars in the 1960s and 1970s for the National Science Foundation and other agencies to design strong curricula in the sciences and mathematics. In the 1980s, the federal report A Nation at Risk called for greater rigor in our educational programs, and a subsequent report on "National Excellence in the Nineties" urged that more attention be given to our brightest students.
To say that we want educational excellence for these talented students in no way suggests that only they should receive an excellent education. There should be educational excellence for all, just not the same, cookie-cutter education for everyone, regardless of ability level or motivation. John W. Gardner, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Johnson administration, once said that unless we have excellent education for both plumbers and philosophers, neither our pipes nor our ideas will hold water. I doubt that he had in mind an identical education for these two important parts of our society.
Despite the many issues that have been raised about the quality of American education, one component of our system is clearly world-class: the professional and graduate schools in our research universities. Students from other countries have made how they feel about it clear. They have voted with their feet by the thousands by attempting to come to this country to attend these programs. They have come in such numbers that only a minority of the students now receiving Ph.D.s in mathematics or the sciences from our universities are native-born.
One has only to attend the graduation ceremonies and see embarrassed provosts attempting to pronounce the names of the Indian, Chinese, Nigerian, and Middle Eastern students receiving higher degrees to realize what an impact these foreign students have had. Many of them have stayed to take jobs here in our own economy. Yet their presence also has hidden the fact that fewer than half of those leaving our excellent graduate schools with higher degrees are American-born. Today, foreign students are having difficulties getting visas and may not be here to fill up these advanced education programs or the jobs that follow.
What is it about our elementary and secondary schools that turns our students away from advanced scholarly work? Does the creative minority in our country not get excited about the challenge of knowledge yet to be discovered? What is this generation's space race? Interestingly enough, emergent nations such as India and China do see clearly the national benefits that flow from searching out special talent and providing those who have it a strong education. In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, foreign-affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times details the threat to American society posed by our increasingly well-educated rivals in the global economy. American ideas have kept us ahead in global competition, he writes, but we can no longer assume that this trend will continue.
Many citizens do not realize the enormous range of ability and academic achievement that exists in our schools. The creative students of whom I speak may be three or four grades in advance of their age peers on academic and thinking ability. Yet they may be forced into mindless exercises designed to help all students jump their No Child Left Behind law test hurdles. To these gifted students, scaling such a barrier is equivalent to a high jumper's leaping over a 3-foot bar. But the lack of challenge has its effects, discouraging many from pursuing rigorous academic work.
A rich body of education research now tells us that many talented youths do not automatically achieve, and certainly not to a level they might with a targeted program to enhance their talents. Some efforts to provide this kind of enhancement can be seen in the creation of special residential schools in 11 states for talented students in math and science, and in the growing national trend toward stressing honors courses, Advanced Placement, and other enriched academic programs in our secondary schools. Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and many others have expressed concern about the viability of secondary schools themselves. In addition, there has been an effort to find and nurture talented youths from low-income and minority backgrounds and to provide special incentives for female students in mathematics, a field in which their talents have long been underestimated.
In March, Business Week magazine celebrated the achievements of over 40 U.S. students in winning the Intel Talent Search Program (formerly the Westinghouse Science Search Program). At the same time, a number of business leaders decried the lack of national interest in the sciences. As one CEO put it, "Just because we led before doesn't mean we'll lead in the future."
Lack of challenge has its effects, discouraging many gifted students from pursuing rigorous academic work. Do scholastic awards such as those for the Talent Search make a difference? Well, past recipients have received six Nobel prizes, three Medal of Science awards, and 10 MacArthur Foundation "genius grants." When asked where their interests lay, this year's winners talked about alternative energy sources, the use of fiber optics in computers, and new strategies to fight smallpox. If we are to see such efforts bear fruit, we must take steps to institutionalize them, so that they will last beyond our current spasm of interest. This means building alternative curricula to challenge these creative students. It means creating different educational environments for young people, such as the Julliard School in music and the math and science academies that should be available in every state to creative students.
Some 40 years ago, the United States created, through legislation, 12 federal centers on mental-retardation research. They have served our country well, giving us a much more sophisticated understanding of that condition and of ways educators can help children who have it. But where are the federal research centers devoted to the study of advanced thinking processes, problem-solving, and the most effective and efficient ways of bringing out the best of our outstanding students' talents? Certainly the standard personnel-preparation programs for teachers contain little help for those trying to cope with and encourage these highly creative students.
If we believe, or act as if we believe, that our national security depends on how many nuclear weapons we have stockpiled or how many divisions under arms we maintain, instead of on our commitment to nurturing the intellectual resources of coming generations, we may well tremble for the future of our nation.
James J. Gallagher is the Kenan professor of education emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
© Reprinted with permission of the author from the May 25, 2005, issue of Education Week, Volume 24, Issue 38, Pages 32-33, 40.