CRITICAL DIALOGUE: Inequity in Equity: The Paradox of Gifted Education in Australia

Article excerpt

This article presents arguments to support the provision of differentiated curricula and programs for academically gifted and talented students and identifies a range of socio-political attitudes which have militated against the development of such programs in Australian schools. Gross discusses Australians' traditional suspicion of any process which might be construed as elitist; our reluctance to acknowledge intellectual talent even while we enthusiastically foster talent in sport and athletics; the view of excellence and equity as conflicting rather than complementary; and the confusion between the concept of gifts and strengths.

Gallagher (1976) relates the story of Mr Palcuzzi, the principal of an American elementary school who, tired of hearing objections to special provisions for gifted children, decided to liven up a parent-teacher association (PTA) meeting with his own proposal. Gifted students should be ability grouped in their specific areas of talent, he announced, so that they could learn from, and with, other young people of similar abilities and interests. Age-grade barriers should be removed so that highly able 4th or 5th graders could learn with 6th graders if they had the ability and maturity to do so. Gifted students should receive a differentiated curriculum specifically responsive to their faster pace of learning and higher level of skills.

The PTA reacted with mixed feelings. Some found the suggestion disturbing, indeed elitist; others said it sounded all right in theory but would be impossible to implement in practice. What about timetabling? And where would the funding come from?

Palcuzzi had thought of that. Programs would be funded by a levy placed on the parent body. Parents would readily agree because of the prestige that would accrue to the school through the achievements of the gifted and talented students. In fact, he added, to optimise the program's success, the school would employ a teacher with special qualifications and expertise in the education of talented students. The gifted students would travel widely throughout their region of the state, learning with, and indeed competing against, gifted and talented students from other schools with similar programs.

The PTA members were horrified. Such a proposal was anti-democratic, they protested. It went against the spirit of American education. The establishment of discrete, elitist groups would divide the school and bring it into disrepute.

Palcuzzi sat quietly, nodding in acknowledgement of each of their points. Then he pointed out, gently, that the program he was proposing, complete with ability grouping, grade advancement and differentiated training, right down to the highly qualified coach, funding levy and inter-school competition was not, in fact, a new program for the intellectually gifted, but an existing program which the school had been supporting for many years -- its program for gifted basketball players.

It is ironic that, at a time when Australia is preparing to host, in 2000, the world's most prestigious celebration of physical giftedness and talent, many Australians are using precisely the arguments expounded 20 years ago by Palcuzzi's PTA to question the development of special programs to assist academically gifted children in our schools. It is politically acceptable, even politically expedient, to celebrate gifts of the body, but even in some educational circles it is regarded as politically incorrect to foster the gifts of the mind. This has had a significant effect on the education of intellectually gifted children in Australian schools.

The Senate Committee report

   If priorities for resources must be determined among educationally
   disadvantaged groups, it could be argued that gifted children are currently
   among the most disadvantaged of these groups. (Senate Select Committee,
   1988, p.5)

In 1985 the Australian Government appointed a Senate Committee to investigate the status and quality of school provisions for gifted and talented children throughout the nation. …