The Obi-Wan Kenobi Act

I wrote an article in the October 20 Tech in which I lambasted our government’s wasteful spending. While much time was spent offering examples of wasted tax dollars, there was little discussion of where I would want my money to go. In addition, what reforms or new programs should be set up to provide more tangible benefits than studying drunk Argentineans? There is a specific area in which the federal government needs to step up, and I hereby propose the Obi-Wan Kenobi Act.

For those who have never seen Star Wars: What have you been doing with your time? There are few things better than the legends of King Arthur set in a futuristic world with lasers and, of course, the Force. In the story, Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Jedi who found Luke Skywalker and trained him to prepare him for his destiny, which was to get his hand cut off, meet furry creatures, and overthrow the entire Galactic Empire.

Consider, for a moment, what would have happened had Obi-Wan not trained Luke? Luke would have grown up under the repression of the evil Empire and done nothing about it. In fact, he would not even have known that he could do something about it. Luke was not like everyone else; he had abilities and talents that had to be specially cultivated in order for him to develop his full potential. It was only with the guidance of Obi-Wan, who was experienced in the area of working with Jedi, that he was able to become the Awesome Magical Warrior who saved the galaxy.

What do magical warriors saving the galaxy have to do with reallocation of government funds? Simple: it is imperative for the future of America that the federal government develops a well-defined program for gifted education and ensures that it is effectively implemented at the state and local levels. The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) asserts that there are 3 million gifted children in America. When the Russians launched Sputnik, the U.S. poured funds into math and science education, including into programs for gifted students. However, it has been over 50 years since Sputnik and the sense of urgency has lessened. While our awareness of the urgency has been desensitized, the urgency itself is no less; the United States is far behind Japan and China in math and science education, and many of our best and brightest people leave to work elsewhere. We are falling behind, and that is unacceptable.

Currently, states and localities control gifted programs. This leads to a wide range of discrepancies in the quality and extensiveness of these programs. For example, while 12 states provide over $10 million annually for gifted education, 12 spend less than $500,000. If MIT’s fraternities can spend that in one Rush week, surely the federal government can step in and provide annual funding. Furthermore, several states devolve many of the responsibilities pertaining to gifted education to local governments. Only 29 of the states require that localities follow a state definition of giftedness. Only 9 states require localities to recognize gifted students from other localities, which may have different definitions of “gifted.” This is a cumbersome and difficult process for families who are moving from a town where their child is considered gifted to another where they are not. Even when “giftedness” is clearly defined, only 4 states require that teachers have some sort of gifted training. This is doing a great disservice to our country as a whole.

There are some who oppose gifted education, and they do so for a variety of reasons. First, it is difficult to create one definition to describe the wide range of gifted students. A gifted student is not necessarily someone who studies hard and gets As. The fact that they are studying suggests that they are not gifted, but talented.

The Maryland Council for Gifted and Talented Children has an excellent list that compares talented children to those who are gifted. Some of these comparisons include: while a talented student knows the answers to the questions, the gifted student will ask questions of the teacher. While a talented student listens well and learns easily, a gifted student displays strong opinions and emotions and is often bored in class, having already known, sometimes intuitively, the answers. Other characteristics include a willingness to challenge authority, a subtle, sophisticated sense of humor, and the ability to see patterns, trends, or connections that others do not pick up on. Some gifted students will often accomplish high academic achievement with little effort while others will suffer bad grades due to a lack of challenge, lack of interest, and boredom with what they view as basic or intuitive subject matter. With abilities so different from the average student, is there any question that there is a need for a comprehensive, federally mandated gifted program? Apparently there is.

Some argue that gifted children will naturally excel, so there is no need to pay extra attention to them. This is not true; if the student is not being challenged, he may view school as a waste of time and get bad grades. Further, why would anyone not want a gifted child to be all that they have the potential to become? If they do, that potential is not being reached because of the lack of challenge and adversity.

Other opponents take the sad and flawed view that our society often encourages today: everyone is gifted. Nothing else explains why youth sports leagues hand out seven different first place awards so “no one’s feelings will be hurt.” The fact of the matter is that everyone is not gifted. Everyone has the potential to do great things through dedication and hard work, but that does not make a person gifted. Those who claim that everyone is gifted are not only ignorant, but sad proponents of the societal norm that requires everyone be protected from knowing that some people are capable of different things than others! Hurt feelings, like adversity, happen; the solution is not to avoid them but to overcome them.

On a similar note, there are those who will claim that gifted programs are “elitist.” If that is the case, then I claim that the NFL along with every other sports league is “elitist.” And the Olympics are the most elitist organization to ever be created. After all, these leagues accept only the best athletes in their field and offer them a challenge that they would be unable to find anywhere else, an opportunity to develop their full potential. Gifted programs seek to offer scholars the academic equivalent of these sports programs. If the Olympics are elitist, then elitism has somehow become equated with people who work to develop their particular talents.

Another argument is that the gifted students are the “role models” who the other students look up to. This is also untrue; the average student is more likely to emulate another average student than one in a different league of classes and competency than themselves. One more question that often comes up is whether AP courses are gifted programs. They are not: AP courses are simply college level courses taught in high school. As most APs are offered to juniors and seniors, such courses are not true challenges to gifted students.

In addition, some schools have developed a policy of increased admission into AP courses (which I strongly oppose) in order to provide every student the opportunity to take the AP test in the subject and earn college credit. All this does is further “dumb-down” the program, transforming it into a higher-weighted honors course. AP courses are designed to provide a broad range of college material to high school students a year or two before they would otherwise take those classes. As such, they are not geared toward nurturing gifted students with deeper and more meaningfully work.

The facts above are clear: There is a huge degree of confusion over what gifted programs are, why they are needed, and what standards they should be held to. I thus propose the Obi-Wan Kenobi Act.

This act would require every teacher in America to undergo a gifted training program. It would provide proportional amounts of funding to each state from the federal government. The federal government would define giftedness and specify the process by which gifted children are to be recognized. It would require the government to recognize that there are no definitive “giftedness tests,” and that it is much easier to recognize a gifted student than to define a gifted student. It would test different models of gifted education, determine which is the most effective, and run with it.

As another great mentor remarked, “With great power comes great responsibility.” We have the power to bring out the greatest potential of all students, and we have the responsibility to do so. Likewise, these students have gifts. I am wagering that that is why they are referred to as gifted. They also have a responsibility to give back to their community and use their gifts for the betterment of mankind. In Star Wars, Luke was the last Jedi, the last hope for the galaxy; in America, we have 3 million young people offering the hope and salvation from all the challenges that face our great nation today. We cannot afford to let this opportunity pass. It is time to demand that the government provide not only an adequate, but an exemplary education to each and every citizen of the United States.