Stephanie S. Tolan

A Parent and Writer's Response
To The Federal Report

by Stephanie S. Tolan


As I sat down to write this response my phone rang. It was an elementary school teacher asking me to come speak to her students next month. She had "heard from someone" that I wrote children's books and lived in Columbus, and though she hadn't actually read any of my work, she thought her students would benefit from my visit. It did not occur to her to ask whether I had written any books for her students' age group until after she'd asked me to speak to them.

I was appalled by this teacher's total lack of preparation for her call to me. How much thought had she devoted to this project? What sort of preparation would she have considered necessary to make it meaningful for her students? The question that loomed largest for me was what she would have taught her third graders about the meaning and importance of literature by bringing a writer to speak to them whose work neither she nor they had read. 

This was only one teacher in one American city on one gloomy winter day. The very next day I would attend Ohio State University's Children's Literature Conference where diligent, creative and dedicated teachers would share wonderful ways of bringing children and books together. But the timing of her call seemed too meaningful to ignore. On page 28 the Federal Report deals with teachers as "the key to success in our vision of excellent education. They must be prepared to work with advanced materials and to use complex teaching strategies with a variety of students." The Report advocates research on curriculum, assessment and teaching strategies, teacher training sessions, and the financial support to provide for these. Nowhere does it deal with the critical need to lure more fine minds and dedicated learners to the teaching profession and to provide them with a rigorous, challenging education in an environment of high intellectual standards. 

No amount of money spent, no change in curriculum or text books or programming or identification or even cultural attitude is more important to the appropriate education of unusually intelligent children than providing them with teachers capable of complex mental processing, able and willing to think critically, who possess a fund of real knowledge from which to begin. It is not merely an issue of teaching strategies and training. Reading teachers who never read, math teachers with no conceptual grasp of mathematics, science teachers who must follow the instructions in a manual to devise a simple experiment will not do, no matter where they attained their diplomas nor what their certification seems to guarantee. Higher standards cannot be imposed in our classrooms unless teachers themselves are able to meet those higher standards. 

One wonders why the Federal Report did not address this issue, especially since it seems to expect teachers to be able to handle virtually the entire range of human intelligence in a single classroom.


On page 12 the Report deals with "America's Ambivalence Toward the Intellect." Not even the quotation from Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life makes that ambivalence clearer than the language and substance of the Report itself. Fifteen times in thirty pages we are reminded that all children need a better education. Imagine the report of a federal committee investigating the nature and extent of poverty in America repeating on every other page that all citizens could use more money. Of course all our children need a better education! But this is a report on the education of the gifted and talented. The references used in creating this report make it clear that our brightest children are the most underserved student population in America. The situation the Report describes over and over again is a present disaster. It should be possible to say without apology that the needs of this population are critical and must be addressed. Instead, egalitarian references are everywhere; the writers of the Report seem to feel it necessary to assure readers they are not suggesting that this population with its vast unmet needs should get special attention. 

Until the educational establishment can insist that bright children get the special attention their special needs require, we will get no farther between this Report and the next than we got between the Marland Report (1972) and this one.

Ambivalence about intellect is also evident in the "new" definition. Though gifted is a word that has been used in reference to children of extraordinary intelligence throughout the twentieth century, the Report actually tells us "The term 'gifted' connotes a mature power rather than a developing ability." Talented is substituted. One can only assume that this change is an attempt to offset the negative political connotations of recognizing extraordinary intelligence. After all, there can be many talents. We are being urged away from the threatening idea of unusual intelligence and directed toward a more comfortable array of fragmented capacities -- separate (but equal) individual "talent" domains in which children may be prepared to perform.


In the paragraph introducing the Report's recommendations for solving the current crisis we find the following sentence: "Society must first value intellectual and artistic accomplishment in children as much as it values athletic ability or physical beauty." If that must happen first, before appropriate education can be offered to our intellectually and artistically gifted children, we might as well pick up our marbles and go home. It has not happened in over two hundred years. Comparing the salaries of professional athletes and superstar models with the salaries of philosophers, poets and research scientists, we can see how likely it is to happen now.

Though most of the recommendations are commendable in theory (if extremely general) one is a dangerous continuation of the current start-at-grade-four model of most gifted programming. After listing 3 general ways attention may be directed at children's special abilities in the preschool and primary years, the Report goes on to say that preschool and primary children should not be labeled gifted. 

This is like the medical profession recommending that in a room full of people with colds waiting for treatment the few with pneumonia should not be "labeled." In large populations it is necessary to diagnose special needs in order to meet them. How do we diagnose and communicate our diagnosis to those who must deliver services without labeling? Research has shown that particularly with disadvantaged populations early intervention is critical to the intellectual nourishment of gifted children. Unless we diagnose unusual needs and begin meeting them in children's first encounters with formal education, we lose large numbers of our best minds, especially among those children whose home environment cannot take up the slack. 

Perhaps this no-early-labeling philosophy is borrowed from the other end of the continuum, where it is intended to allow children every opportunity to overcome deficits and develop optimally before giving them the limiting and self-fulfilling label "special education student." But opposite ends of the intellectual continuum require mirror-image methods for what should be obvious reasons. A label on the low end imposes ceilings and erects barriers; a label on the gifted end removes ceilings and dismantles barriers. To refuse to diagnose (hence label) on the gifted end is equivalent to refusing to serve. 

This unfortunate recommendation surely could only be made in a Report that deals with giftedness without a single mention of children at the farthest reaches of the intellectual continuum, since those are children whose differences tend to be especially evident and difficult to address in the earliest years. Exceptionally able children have always represented a challenge even to the gifted education field, yet there is no indication in the report that any special strategies need to be created for these children -- strategies that would clearly not be useful for all children. Children already reading or doing math, carrying out their own science experiments, devouring encyclopedias, writing "books" and poems and stories when they get to preschool or kindergarten run into a brick wall in most American schools. They are likely to know not the 30 - 50% of the curriculum the Report acknowledges gifted students may know when school starts, but -- for the first three to four years at least -- 100% of it. Their needs, too, must be addressed. They, too, are among all children.

Columnist Joan Beck said of this Report, "It squeaks when it should roar. It suggests when it should demand. It talks in educationese when it should blow a trumpet." But at least it exists. The underlying premises of the Federal Report are indisputable. Gifted children are woefully neglected, to their detriment and the detriment of our country. We need to change the way they are educated, and we need to change it now! If the Report can hasten change, it will have value. But when will we develop the courage to take the unequivocal stand we must take to stop the wholesale starvation of our brightest minds? Clearly, not yet!

Stephanie S. Tolan is an award-winning writer of novels for children and young adults, co-author of Guiding the Gifted Child, columnist for Understanding Our Gifted, and a consultant to parents of highly gifted children.

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Last modified: March 05, 2007