In the short story “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., society has reached a state of perfect “equity.” People with any above-average traits are assigned handicaps to normalize them. Strong people are loaded down with extra weight to negate that advantage. Beautiful people are fitted with ugly masks or prosthetic crooked teeth. Intelligent people wear headphones that produce jarring noises to disrupt their cognitive processes. The title character is so exceptional in so many ways that he bears extreme versions of all these burdens, and when he throws them off, he is summarily executed.
Humans fortunately do not live in the Vonnegut world, but this nation is creeping closer to it rather than addressing the horrific challenges head-on. Increasing divisiveness in nearly every quarter is deeply disturbing and is ripping apart this nation’s delicate cohesiveness.
No one would dream of failing to nurture those who excel in athletics. Talented athletes often are identified as early as middle school, then tracked, coached, and time and money invested to assure they reach their potential. However, rather than educating children to their potential, an increasing number of school systems, educators, and elected officials want to raise the academic floor but not the ceiling. Striving to lift low-performing students is both admirable and necessary but failing at the same time to raise high-performing students to higher standards is short-sighted and ultimately destructive. We know how to do both. And knowing absolutely that it’s possible, how can a society claim that it is not our responsibility to do so?
Under the aegis of “equity,” we see initiatives proposed, or even implemented, to make it difficult or impossible for truly exceptional children to advance academically beyond grade level. Gifted programs, focused on identifying, encouraging, and advancing our best students, are sometimes accused of reflecting racism and white privilege.
Rather than lowering the bar and ignoring how important to this nation’s future our truly talented children will be, doesn’t it make more sense to invest in moving everyone up? Particularly important is early identification of the brightest, most talented children in underrepresented groups and developing programs that produce equity of results across all students, including the best and brightest. Everyone, including exceptional students, has the right to measure themselves against what they can achieve. Frankly, if we can identify, track, and develop a potential NBA or NFL recruit while he or she is in elementary or middle school, why can’t we do the same for a potential Nobel Prize winner?
Some studies that show putting all ability levels together in classes leads, on average, to academic benefits. But closer analysis demonstrates that benefits accrue to everyone except the high achievers. This is a false choice. Ways must be established to meet the needs of all students.
Is it difficult to give students the education that serves to maximize their potential? Certainly—there will always be challenges. But, given the future challenges the US and the world will face, today’s children are tomorrow’s problem solvers. The US cannot lead, indeed cannot compete, without developing our exceptional talent. We know from experience that educated high achievers have solved what are seemingly unsolvable problems. We need to carefully consider the potential impact of failing to develop a generation’s worth of talent, while other countries focus meticulously on leveraging theirs.
Joann P. DiGennaro, President
Center for Excellence in Education