No Bailout (by Joe Newman)“Unfair.”

That is the word that I have often heard used to describe the 2008 bailout of Wall Street financial firms. The thinking of detractors is that these are companies which already have amassed obscene amounts of profits, and have executives who get paid more in a day than the average worker earns in a year. And then they have the nerve to run to the government for free cash when some of their high risk gambles turn out to be—surprise—unwise and they are in danger of making a smaller profit than they hoped.

Supporters of the bailout, of course, argue that it was a crisis situation, and that they were “too big to fail.” They say the consequences of allowing all of those firms to fail would have been catastrophic, rippling down to thousands of small businesses that depended on the big ones for financing and insurance, potentially causing the whole economy to collapse.

I’m not here to argue either side of this particular debate, but it strikes me that the tone is not far removed from the conversations I hear around gifted education.

While no one argues that we shouldn’t educate gifted students—that would be an awfully radical position to take—I do hear people argue that we should not be doing anything “special” just for gifted students. After all, they already have had so much handed to them, they are already privileged to be smart, and now we are going to give them even more? It’s the bailout all over again.

The counter to this is usually something along the lines of arguing that gifted students are the future leaders and inventors and job-creators, so to do anything short of maximizing their potential is to shortchange our entire society. In short, they say, gifted kids are too big to fail.

This is the wrong argument, however. For one thing, underlying the debate is the assumption that gifted students are superior to other children in some way, which logically implies that other children are inferior. The argument that gifted students are destined for greatness presumes that such greatness will elude all other children. I do not believe this.

What I do believe is that different people learn differently. Some people have a capacity for learning more and faster than others. This is not an elitist thing. It is simply a recognition of the variations in human beings. Just as some people have a natural capacity for sports or music, others have a talent for math or language or understanding human relationships.

These capacities do not develop on their own. Peyton Manning has an undeniable talent for football, but he did not reach the highest levels of the sport by coasting on that talent. He works very hard to hone his skills, to identify his relative weaknesses and improve them, and to keep his natural abilities at the absolute peak of performance.

Education is not a zero-sum game. Providing something to one group of students which helps them to grow does not somehow deny it to another group, unless you explicitly build it that way. Recognizing high ability and nurturing it does not mean that we ignore the needs of students who struggle to learn.
Instead of a bailout metaphor, then, I suggest that gifted education is more like infrastructure development. The growth of our country’s economy is dependent on having sufficient infrastructure to allow it to function. Roads, bridges, utilities, and communications systems aren’t sexy, but they allow us access to people, resources, and ideas outside of our immediate neighborhood.

Every child has the potential to become an adult with something valuable to contribute to our world. Each one’s contribution will be different, however. I do not propose we should begin trying to identify in second or third grade what a child’s destiny is; however, we should begin trying to identify what a child’s capacities are and to find out how they learn best. Is that not what school is about anyway? And if a child learns more efficiently, then providing that child with the right match of content and instruction to allow them to develop fully is not giving a handout to a rich CEO, it is recognizing the possibilities in an untapped region and building the infrastructure there to allow it to fully develop.

And here is the really exciting part about it. If we shift our focus from “what’s best for all” to “what’s best for each,” then it will benefit not only gifted students, but every student, and the outcome can only be good.