Monday, August 9, 2010

A Lesson from Sarah Palin?

I read an article the other day by a favourite author of mine on gifted issues, Jim Delisle. The title was about what gifted educators can learn from Sarah Palin. This I had to read! What he said really made me sit up and think. Sarah Palin, he said, whether you oppose her or support her, has made it clear where she stands on the issues that grip the American political scene. This, he suggests, is something that those of us who advocate for gifted learners could learn. Over the years, the definition of what a gifted learner is has become more and more unclear, to the point where confusion among even those of us who advocate for them is common. Unlike Sarah Palin, who has unapologetically nailed her colours to the mast, gifted education advocates cannot even agree on the student population whose needs we wish to serve. Gifted child advocates need to be precise in their definition of this cohort of children whose needs often go unfulfilled in our education systems, Delisle says. 

On considering his point in relation to our blog, I realised that he is right. We need to rise above our fear of alienating those who see giftedness as a “lucky break” undeserving of further support. Gifted children in Irish schools receive no statutory support for their unique needs. Our goal has to be to bring issues related to promoting support for gifted learners to the fore in discussion of Irish education. It is about recognising that this group of learners have specific educational needs which are not addressed by our school system. It is about explaining that this gift can be as much curse as blessing here in Ireland, but that this does not have to be so. Being a gifted child is not a passport to high grades, the pick of university courses and personal happiness. It is a fundamentally different way of learning, experiencing and living through childhood. These children need a different type of support and guidance, recognition of their difference and celebration of their abilities. There is a certain irony, not lost on us,  that the people who understand this most easily are parents, teachers and advocates for children with special educational needs and other learning differences. There is recognition, comprehension and empathy between parents and teachers of those on either end of the learning bell-curve. It’s the middle we are trying to reach.


  1. I agree with your comments, but I did not agree entirely with Mr. Delisle's remarks in this particular article. Although I believe it is wrong to broaden the definition of 'gifted' so far that virtually anyone can be included,I think it is detrimental to the cause of advocacy to limit our fight to only the top 2% to 3%. I feel that 7% to 10% is a much more palatable number. You shrink the advocacy pool too much by cutting out 4% to 8% of the students identified as gifted. Maybe it's just me or maybe I can't fathom learning anything from Sarah Palin. What I do know is that if I limited the numbers to the top 2% of students in my kids' school, there wouldn't be enough parents to get anything done. ;) Just sayin' ...

  2. @ljconrad, Delisle only referenced the 1-3% as being the definition of the era of Lewis Terman, a different time, we surely agree, when a measured IQ of 140 was the cut-off point. There is no doubt that identifying and testing for giftedness brings all kinds of challenges (and another blogpost or two!), but current criteria in Ireland generally refer to the 95th percentile and above. Even among that small cohort there can be quite stark differences. Often, those who need most intervention and support are the children at the top end of that 5%. If we are to include 10% of learners as gifted, we further dilute the resources needed for those who need them most acutely. In a world of finite resources, including more children within the definition will ensure that those who need the most intervention receive the least! On that basis I would question to whom it is more palatable to widen the definition?

    I take your point about widening the pool of parents willing to advocate, but parents of children at the 90th percentile and those whose children sit at or above the 99th are quite likely to be advocating for different services for their children. I don't know the average number of pupils per school in Ireland, but we have quite small schools in general. Working from a 5% definition, a school of 200 pupils will, statistically-speaking have ten gifted learners, so twenty potential parent-advocates. That's not an insignificant number of voices of advocacy. It's certainly a number we could work with!

    As for Sarah Palin, well, the lesson is that she is not afraid to make her position crystal clear on policy issues. No ambiguity, no blurry edges, no fence-sitting, no fuzzy definitions. I don't have to agree with a single thing she stands for to see the value in that!

  3. Your sentiments regarding gifted education are well stated. I have been studying the Irish education system, but will admit I do not know a lot about the allocation of funds for gifted education.

    In the U.S., the most highly-able can pretty much expect a free or near-free ride between organizations such as Davidsons' Institute and the myriad of universities wooing the top 5%. I know becasuse my daughter was the recipient of many of these funds. Public resources rarely figure into their education.

    In our local public school district, we have 125 identified students K through 12 at the 130+ level. That averages out to less than 10 students per grade level. The district will only allocate 1 and 1/2 teachers one day a week at the elementary level and 1 teacher at the secondary level because of the low population.
    Only about 25 parents actively support advocacy in our district because most of them give up and seek outside resources to supplement their children's education.
    As for Sarah Palin, I have a lot of opinions; but my grandmother always taught me ... if you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all. ;)
    Dazzlld, we're on the same page and I truly appreciate the opportunity to share ideas with you and the wonderful gifted parents of Ireland! I see global cooperation as the only way to improve gifted education for all our children.

  4. Thank you for your comments, @ljconrad. However, if you are basing your research on the information to be found on our Department of Education's website, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have world class provision for gifted children in our schools. Unfortunately, that is very very far from the case on the ground.

    It is indeed encouraging that those at the top seem to have begun to explore the value of gifted education and how it can best be achieved, but the keyword in all of the literature is "guidelines". We can have all the guidelines in the world, but until giftedness is given statutory recognition and until schools are statutorily obliged to provide for gifted children, progress will be exceedingly slow.

    There are two pilot projects up and running and another ten about to join in. Let's hope these are a roaring success! Meanwhile, for 99.9% of gifted children in Ireland, they just have to get on with life in the regular classroom and hope that every so often, they are fortunate enough to come across a teacher who "gets it" or another gifted child to whom they can relate.

    This is regardless of whether they attend a public or a fee-paying school. So, while you guys are fighting for funding, we are still at the stage of fighting for gifted provision at all!

  5. And I should add that being a part of the global community is brilliant. It gives us not only new ideas, but also the encouragement and motivation we need to keep going. You are right; global cooperation is the way to go!