Joshua Feldman was only 2 when he announced one night, "You don't
need to read to me anymore, Mom, I can do it myself now." Soon
thereafter, the small boy was playing the piano with remarkable
skill, and his intellectual development blossomed.
His parents were delighted - until Joshua turned 5 and began
attending public kindergarten in their Long Island, N.Y., district.
"Joshua could read and write while the other kids were all just
drawing lines," says Margaret Feldman. "He was so bored. I asked if
they could give him a book or something, but the teachers basically
said, 'This is public school. We can't do anything for him until the
third grade.' "
The Feldmans' plight is far too common, say advocates for gifted
children. The federal government gives states about $7 billion
annually to help children with disabilities. But funds earmarked for
students labeled "gifted" amount to only about $6.5 million a year
(although Congress is debating boosting funds for such students to
The result can be a failure to provide such children with
learning experiences that keep pace with their ability. Too often,
they struggle in environments that don't nurture or even accommodate
their special gifts. What it amounts to, say some advocates, is a
colossal waste of natural talent among children who have the
potential to make a significant contribution in a wide range of
"The pressure from the public just hasn't been there" to provide
special educational opportunities for gifted students," says Peter
Rosenstein, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based
National Association for Gifted Children.
While parents of children with disabilities - estimated to be
about 12 percent of the population - generally meet with sympathetic
reactions from school officials and the public, Mr. Rosenstein says
the parents of gifted children - about 5 percent of the population,
or 3 million - often receive the message, "Your kid is lucky,
what do you want?"
Some advocates for the gifted suggest that the whole notion that
these children possess abilities beyond those of their peers is
difficult for a democratic society like the United States. "There's
a philosophically weak muscle here in terms of education for the
gifted," says Karen Israel, a Long Island, New York, mother who has
two sons designated as gifted and has created a program for advanced
students in a public school district near her town. "We don't like
the idea because everyone wants to be egalitarian."
Debate continues as to what constitutes a "gifted" child.
Although the approach is often criticized, many schools rely heavily
on IQ tests. But there is a general consensus that gifted children
are a relatively small group who take an interest in topics above
their grade levels and display an exceptional ability to focus on
and commit to matters of interest to them.
But the gifted label has subsets. In addition to "ordinary
gifted" children, some are considered "exceptionally" and
"profoundly" gifted. For parents of the latter two types,
frustration with schools that can't - or won't - offer education at
an appropriate level has even prompted lawsuits.
Indeed, finding the right school can be a difficult and often
frustrating experience. Ms. Israel, for instance, looked into
private schools, but says she's not sure that's the way to go. "I
very much realized how much time my boys spend not being challenged
and, in effect, being punished for being gifted.
"But," she adds, "I don't want them to lose out on the breadth
and depth that being with different kinds of kids can give them. I
don't know that I want them with all gifted." She's sad, though,
that her kids "are frequently among people who don't understand
Working with children who have exceptional talents is anything
but easy for a school system designed to accommodate the bulk of
children by focusing largely on the middle ground. …