Joshua Feldman was only 2 when he announced one night, "You don't need to read to me anymore, Mom, I can do it myself now." Soon thereafter, the small boy was playing the piano with remarkable skill, and his intellectual development blossomed.
His parents were delighted - until Joshua turned 5 and began attending public kindergarten in their Long Island, N.Y., district. "Joshua could read and write while the other kids were all just drawing lines," says Margaret Feldman. "He was so bored. I asked if they could give him a book or something, but the teachers basically said, 'This is public school. We can't do anything for him until the third grade.' "
The Feldmans' plight is far too common, say advocates for gifted children. The federal government gives states about $7 billion annually to help children with disabilities. But funds earmarked for students labeled "gifted" amount to only about $6.5 million a year (although Congress is debating boosting funds for such students to $155 million).
The result can be a failure to provide such children with learning experiences that keep pace with their ability. Too often, they struggle in environments that don't nurture or even accommodate their special gifts. What it amounts to, say some advocates, is a colossal waste of natural talent among children who have the potential to make a significant contribution in a wide range of fields.
"The pressure from the public just hasn't been there" to provide special educational opportunities for gifted students," says Peter Rosenstein, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Gifted Children.
While parents of children with disabilities - estimated to be about 12 percent of the population - generally meet with sympathetic reactions from school officials and the public, Mr. Rosenstein says the parents of gifted children - about 5 percent of the population, or 3 million - often receive the message, "Your kid is lucky, what do you want?"
Some advocates for the gifted suggest that the whole notion that these children possess abilities beyond those of their peers is difficult for a democratic society like the United States. "There's a philosophically weak muscle here in terms of education for the gifted," says Karen Israel, a Long Island, New York, mother who has two sons designated as gifted and has created a program for advanced students in a public school district near her town. "We don't like the idea because everyone wants to be egalitarian."
Debate continues as to what constitutes a "gifted" child. Although the approach is often criticized, many schools rely heavily on IQ tests. But there is a general consensus that gifted children are a relatively small group who take an interest in topics above their grade levels and display an exceptional ability to focus on and commit to matters of interest to them.
But the gifted label has subsets. In addition to "ordinary gifted" children, some are considered "exceptionally" and "profoundly" gifted. For parents of the latter two types, frustration with schools that can't - or won't - offer education at an appropriate level has even prompted lawsuits.
Indeed, finding the right school can be a difficult and often frustrating experience. Ms. Israel, for instance, looked into private schools, but says she's not sure that's the way to go. "I very much realized how much time my boys spend not being challenged and, in effect, being punished for being gifted.
"But," she adds, "I don't want them to lose out on the breadth and depth that being with different kinds of kids can give them. I don't know that I want them with all gifted." She's sad, though, that her kids "are frequently among people who don't understand them."
Working with children who have exceptional talents is anything but easy for a school system designed to accommodate the bulk of children by focusing largely on the middle ground. And school officials often dread the emotionally charged issue of determining which children should actually be called "gifted," and which are simply bright students with parents eager to see them tagged with the coveted label. While private schools deal with similar issues, the challenges are generally greater for public schools, where classes tend to be larger and red tape abounds.
Policies vary from state to state, but few public school teachers in the US receive much if any specialized training in working with gifted children. "There'll be maybe one chapter at the end of one book in a special-education course," says Elaine Mendelow, president of the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children in Mount Laurel, N.J.
Heightening the tension for some parents today is a general reluctance in the education world to allow students to skip ahead an academic grade.
The policy of allowing advanced students to enter a class with older students has gone in and out of fashion. Many school systems are concerned about the emotional strain for a child who may be able to manipulate polynomials better than most adults, but could still find it difficult to make friends on the playground.
While the parents of most gifted children acknowledge that the social risks are serious, some remain frustrated by the current system. One mother, whose son could do triple-digit addition and subtraction mentally by the time he entered kindergarten, says she could hardly believe her ears when she was told by public school officials that her child would simply have to adjust to the slower pace. "They said they had tried skipping a child once 20 or 30 years ago and it hadn't worked," she recalls. Today her son is in sixth grade along with his age group - and still struggles with boredom.
But it is with good reason that schools hesitate to allow gifted children to attend class with older kids, many educators insist. They say that when particularly bright children are mixed in with older kids - some of whom may resent their abilities - they quickly become targets for teasing or mistreatment.
Allowing gifted children to skip grades is not the only way to deal with their needs. Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, says other methods include offering enriched material while keeping them in a regular classroom, or pulling them out of class to work with an expert.
The successful implementation of any of these methods requires offering teachers special training and support, Professor Renzullli adds. "The very demanding jobs teachers have often prevent them from working with these kids the way they'd like to," he says. "That's why we need more financial support, so we can have specialists in schools to work with kids, and teachers as well."
Some states do better at allocating resources to the education of the gifted. Ohio, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina have pulled ahead of the pack, Renzulli says. And schools in the Northeast tend to lag behind.
"Our interest in New York is in seeing that everyone reaches our learning standards," says Tom Dunn, a spokesperson for the state's Department of Education. But that doesn't necessarily mean special resources for the gifted. However, he says, as part of a recertification program to take effect later this month, teachers in New York will be trained in strategies to offer "differentiated instruction" - in other words, to learn to better include children at varying levels of intellectual development within the same classroom.
Joshua Feldman was fortunate. His school district has a special program starting in third grade. At age 10, he's in fifth grade, but twice a week he and other gifted kids leave their regular classes to take minicourses in subjects like biology and to do research on computers. His parents also pay for him to attend a special pre-college program at New York City's prestigious Juilliard School every Saturday, where he studies music theory and takes a master class in piano.
Joshua's mother says his involvement there has been a boost for him both academically and socially. But when she reflects on his education, challenges loom large: "When you're the parent of a gifted child, you're at a disadvantage."
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