Giftedness and elitism are under fire once again

In the field of education, the term ''gifted'' is somewhat like the term ''bussing.'' For many it raises hackles. People often relate ''gifted'' to another term with even stronger emotional connotations: ''elitist.''

Possibly this is because the usual approach to identifying students for gifted programs in the US has often been arbitrarily keyed to a 130-minimum on IQ tests. Administrators have traditionally relied on that which appears to be measurable: IQ and other ''objective'' tests and grades.

Apparently administrators feel that the reliance on numbers and letters gets them off the hook. To disappointed parents, to interrogating legislators, they can point to something specific and say that such-and-such a policy is being complied with.

Such traditionalism, however, came under attack by one of the principal speakers at this year's 28th annual National Association for Gifted Children convention in Portland, Ore.

Dr. Edward Jacomo, head of the creative arts department at the University Liggett School, an independent school near Detroit, Mich., indicated that such traditional, cognitive approaches to education were stifling. His comments applied both to the identification of children as well as to the courses they later took.

''Most education,'' Dr. Jacomo said, ''is concerned with two '-ations' - either 'regurgitation' or 'interpretation.' '' And he made it clear he thought that by far the larger percentage is devoted to the former.

Dr. Jacomo said he once asked a group of lawyers (many of whom presumably would have been classified as gifted when children) if any of them could remember anything they had learned in the sixth grade. ''There was a long, long silence,'' Dr. Jacomo said. ''Finally, one of them said, 'A peninsula is a body of land surrounded on three sides by water.' I then asked the lawyer,'' Dr. Jacomo said, ''what good did the definition of a peninsula ever do him.'' The lawyer shrugged.

Continuing, he said: ''I have the feeling, in talking with most of these professional people, that they have forgotten most of what they learned; and many of them have said they have felt cheated by the teaching they received.''

Dr. Jacomo believes that infusing the arts into the curriculum would go a long way toward making all education - and particularly for the gifted - more meaningful. The arts, he said, pose problems, the solutions to which are analogous to ''leaps into the unknown,'' which are taken with such alacrity and joy by gifted and creative children.

When asked what kind of curriculum he would have if he were running his own school, he said the creative arts would be taught when feasible, ''across the board,'' working themselves into an integrated curriculum. For example, foreign languages could be taught in conjunction with Napoleonic History, and in conjunction with this, one could learn how Goya and Beethoven reacted to Napoleon's European predations, thus linking language, history, art, and music together.

Next semester, at the Michigan school where he teaches, which has a large student population from the families of Detroit's automobile executives, Dr. Jacomo says he hopes to teach a course that would integrate the arts with English, journalism, and social studies.

Students will be divided into teams of three: a photographer, a journalist, and a critic. For example, the student journalist and photographer reporting on toxic waste disposal through photographs and the written word would, in turn, be evaluated for objectivity, thoroughness, and accuracy by the third member of the team, the critic. All three students might then work together as a problem-solving committee in addressing the problem at hand.

Dr. Jacomo's proposed course would include students other than those who have high IQs or grades, criteria that came under attack at the conference by some members of the gifted establishment itself. Indeed, there was evidence that there is a growing trend to ''free up'' criteria for identifying the gifted. Much attention, for example, was focused on Joseph Renzulli's ''Revolving Door Identification Model,'' which suggests that students, throughout the school year , ''revolve'' in and out of programs to fit their specific needs.

Dr. Renzulli, a professor at the University of Connecticut, further maintains that true giftedness demands more than the ability to excel at taking written tests. He believes that creativity and ''high levels of task commitment'' are also essential to identification. That is, bright kids should not only know things but know how to do things . . . and be creative at doing them, as well.

Dr. Renzulli further recommends that as much as 25 percent of a school population be included instead of the usual 2 to 5 percent. Dr. Renzulli believes that his proposals, largely keyed to enrichment programs, minimize concerns about elitism because they do away with the ''you have it or you don't have it'' notion of giftedness.

In an interview with Dr. Jacomo, however, he touched on one element which he says is too seldom considered in identifying giftedness: the element of leadership. ''Who would not agree,'' Dr. Jacomo said, ''that our society needs more Lincolns, Jeffersons, Roosevelts - both FDR and Eleanor. But how do you measure leadership on a test?''

Many administrators agree that probably the best ''tests'' for identifying leadership are simply nominations - particularly nominations from the students' peers.

''Admittedly, this is an area of great subjectivity: it's not neat - like an IQ test's 130-cutoff or a four-point grade average. Identifying leadership is subjective; it's risk-taking. But in a way,'' Dr. Jacomo concluded, ''isn't that what giftedness itself is all about: risk-taking?''

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