Chester Finn Jr.: Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?

This will be the first installment of what I learned at the NAGC.

The opening keynote was Chester Finn Jr., former professor of education, an educational policy analyst, and a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education. He is currently the president of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C. He recently wrote a book called Exam Schools with Jessica Hockett where they take a look at a number of mostly public high schools across the US that through a rigorous admission process cater to academically minded university bound students. He contends that America’s “no child left behind” policy only served to “raise the bottom” and neglected the academically, high potential students. Basically, gifted students have been gypped. He also gave ten reasons why he believes that this is happening:

1. Our nervousness about perceived “elite education”.
2. A mindset that says high ability kids will do fine regardless of the education system.
3. Widespread belief that equity concerns center around socio-economic status, special needs and cultural groups…not gifted.
4. We are schizophrenic about whether giftedness is a special need.
5. Universities are awash with applications to attend leading us to believe students are well educated.
6. Our (US?) immigration policies have made it possible to import talent.
7. The field of gifted education has been hazy and avoiding a clear definition.
8. Our field needs more research about what really works for gifted students.
9. Gifted education has been meek in advocacy.
10. Gifted education suffers from a lot of bad ideas…one of them is differentiation.

Chester Finn Jr. received the NAGC President’s Award for outstanding contribution to gifted education because of his work in Exam Schools. Some of the suggestions that he made were interesting.
1. Instructional innovation will foster innovative students.
2. There is a lot of pressure to remain conventional…we need to look at idiosyncratic approaches to learning that students are able to choose.
3. We need to find ways to give credit for non-test evidence.
4. We have to get away from the notion that “best students” are in a limited supply.

While his comments were very well received there were a couple of lingering questions that seemed to be echoed throughout the conference.
1. Is academic success the only kind of success we need to concern ourselves with in the field of gifted education? Most would agree that gifted children are complex learners that require a broad spectrum of support. 2. What should our definition of “gifted” be? The current definition posted by NAGC is here. It is a broad definition (10%) encompasses our need to raise the ceiling but fails to identify the broad spectrum of abilities in that 10% range.

My first mentor in the land of gifted education told me that gifted children were like all other children except moreso. It’s very similar to what Annemarie Roeper of Roeper School and Roeper Educational Review said: Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences. What kind of educational experience will serve these students best? Maybe it’s some kind of an idiosyncratic program that Chester Finn Jr. referred to. But some of the other sessions that I attended had some interesting suggestions as well. Stay tuned for reports on my visit to Ricks Center for Gifted Children, words of wisdom from Temple Grandin and more from Joseph Renzulli on school-wide enrichment!


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