Dumbing Down America – An Interview with Dr. James Delisle

Dumbing Down America Delisle

Dumbing Down America the War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds is the newest book from Dr. James R. Delisle. Dr. Delisle, thank you for agreeing to our interview. We at Global #gtchat Powered by the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented are looking forward to reading your book.


Moderator
: For our readers who are not familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about your background in gifted education?

Dr. Delisle: I began my career in New Hampshire, as a teacher of children with intellectual and emotional disabilities way back in 1975.  Special Ed. was just emerging as the force that it is today, so it was exciting to be in on what was then a new trend in education.  My introduction to gifted children came in the form of one of my 5th graders who had been identified as “emotionally disturbed.”  Try as I might to get Matt interested in schoolwork, nothing much seemed to work.  He was a bright kid–he could read, write, do math, etc.–but I was focused so much on his misbehaviors and apparent lack of interest that I never considered using his talents as a way to reach his mind and heart.  Finally, in total desperation and with my bag of educational tricks empty, I decided to stop fighting Matt and to toss the instructional ball into his court.  This kid loved the outdoors and was interested in maple sugar farming–a project that involved much of his free time outside of school–so that became the vehicle I used to reach this unreachable kid.

maple-70407_640Maple Sugar Farming*

Within days of aligning Matt’s out-of-school interests with my goals as his teacher, he began to progress, perform and take pride in his work. After two years of teaching Matt, and seeing his success when schoolwork aligned with his interests and intellect, I decided I needed to know more about teaching kids like him. So, I began a Ph.D. program in gifted child education, focusing on kids like Matt–gifted boys and girls who didn’t do well in school because school didn’t do well by them.  I’ve been in this field of study ever since, as a teacher, professor, counselor, author and dad.

Delisle with studentsDr. Delisle with students

Moderator: The use of a ‘war’ metaphor in the title of your new book seems to indicate you have very strong feelings on the subject. What inspired you to write this book at this time?

Dr. Delisle: The subtitle of my book is “The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (and What We Can Do to Fight Back)”.  To be sure, those are strong words–intentionally strong, on my part.  Having worked in this field of study for 37 years, I’ve grown tired of the small steps and meager progress that we have made as a nation to serve our gifted children.  Gifted children have educational, intellectual and emotional needs that differ from other kids their age who are developing in more typical ways–but we ignore these needs.  If, as a nation, we really thought that gifted kids had special needs, then why haven’t we included them in federal funding formulae as we do for kids with disabilities?  In 2013, the federal budget for children with disabilities was $12.9 billion.  For gifted kids?: a whopping $5 million.  If you assume that 3% of our nation’s K-12 children are gifted, that comes to about 2.5 million gifted kids in America–which means they get $2 of federal money each to address their needs.  A Happy Meal costs more than that!  The use of the term “War” in my book’s title is neither hyperbole or exaggeration; it’s just an honest admission that, as a nation, we choose to disregard the needs of gifted kids who need more than $2 of support each year. Indeed, it is a battle in local, state and federal educational venues to even get people to admit that gifted kids need opportunities to pursue learning at their own pace.  The budget cuts nationwide to gifted programs have been so dramatic in the past decade that it constitutes educational neglect.

“The use of the term “War” in my book’s title is neither hyperbole or exaggeration; it’s just an honest admission that, as a nation, we choose to disregard the needs of gifted kids who need more than $2 of support each year.”

Moderator: The idea of ‘dumbing down’ has serious implications for society as a whole. What do you see as the consequences for America if this trend is not reversed?

Dr. Delisle: What happens if we don’t stop dumbing down our educational options for gifted kids? We’re seeing the results already: our nation’s stature as an educational powerhouse is in shambles when compared to many of our international neighbors.  But more important than international test score comparisons is the personal cost paid by gifted kids who are told, in effect, that they don’t need anything special to excel; that their enhanced abilities and insights are not worth our attention; that sitting in a class with kids of lesser abilities will tamp down the egos of gifted kids and make them more sympathetic to students who struggle to learn; that giftedness is a myth because “everyone is gifted in some way.”  The ridiculous bias against gifted kids in our nation’s schools emanates from so-called educational visionaries whose sight is hampered by the gauzy lens of professional ignorance. By paying scant attention to the needs of gifted kids, we are squandering a resource that will make our nation less competitive, less meaningful, less respectful.

“By paying scant attention to the needs of gifted kids, we are squandering a resource that will make our nation less competitive, less meaningful, less respectful.”

Moderator: What responsibility does the gifted community (parents, educators, organizations) bear with regard to the state of gifted education today?

Dr. Delisle: What responsibility does the gifted community have in regard to the state of gifted child education today?  Part of the reason the field of gifted child education has not progressed much in 30 years is due to the infighting that occurs in this field of study.  While some people contend that gifted children should be identified and served in gifted programs, others find the “gifted” label off-putting and want to eliminate it completely.  Silly as it sounds, we can’t even agree on a common definition of giftedness or how to identify it. Some want to equate giftedness with eminence and developed talents, while others desire a more holistic approach to giftedness that encompasses social and emotional elements, not just intellectual factors. And even if, by some miracle, we could arrive at a consensus of what giftedness is, we’d still argue as to how educational services should be delivered.  The state and national organizations that promote the needs of gifted children, and the professionals who write the books and espouse their theories, would do gifted kids a big favor if they could fight less and cooperate more.

Delisle speakingDr. Delisle

Moderator: What do you propose to change course in this war on our nation’s brightest youth?

Dr. Delisle: So what do I advocate that we do to stop the dumbing down?  Here are some ideas worth considering:

  • First, we need to provide the same legislative protection for gifted kids that we give to students with disabilities.  It should make common sense that if you are in either the top or bottom 3% of intellectual abilities compared to others your age, you will have some unique needs that demand more than the standard curriculum.
  • Second, we need to make a national financial commitment to gifted children that explores everything from effective measures of student identification to best practices in instruction, to longitudinal studies that show us what works and what doesn’t. In my book, I elaborate extensively on how an outlay of $400 million over a five-year period could change the landscape for gifted children in America. This plan, developed by one of my personal heroes and one of our field’s finest contributors, James J. Gallagher, would be a game changer for anyone concerned about addressing the needs of gifted kids.
  • A third suggestion I discuss is to take some of the absurd amount of money that we spend annually of high-stakes testing and use those funds for something that actually helps kids and teachers.  The billions of dollars and countless classroom hours spent on assessment are robbing all children, gifted or not, of precious resources that are more vital to learning.

In my book, I review other areas we need to address–for example, defining giftedness once and for all; re-establishing elementary-grade “pull-out” programs; and admitting that the promise of differentiated instruction as the primary plan for serving gifted children is an ineffective, cheap way out for schools to pay lip service to meeting gifted children’s needs. Addressing these steps will not ensure a perfect world for America’s gifted kids, but it’d be a fine start.  As I conclude in Dumbing Down Americasaving gifted kids isn’t our choice–it’s our obligation.


Thank you, Dr. Delisle, for taking the time to do this interview. Dumbing Down America is available now from Amazon.
(Note: This post was cross-posted on the Gifted Parenting Blog.)

gtchat thumbnail logoGlobal #gtchat Powered by the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented is a weekly chat on Twitter. Join us Fridays at 7/6 C & 4 PT in the U.S., midnight in the UK and Saturdays 1 PM NZDT/11 AM AEDT to discuss current topics in the gifted community and meet experts in the field. Transcripts of our weekly chats can be found at Storify. Our Facebook Pageprovides information on the chat and news & information regarding the gifted community.

Head Shot 2014-07-14About the author: Lisa Conrad is the Moderator of Global #gtchat Powered byTAGT and Social Media Manager of the Global #gtchat Community. She is a longtime advocate for gifted children and also blogs at Gifted Parenting Support. Lisa can be contacted at: gtchatmod@gmail.com

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Posted on July 18, 2014, in gifted and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Richard Knowles

    So glad Barb Cockroft linked this on her FB page. The day I found out I am severely ADD was the day I found out I qualified for MENSA. You can imagine the discrepency between achievement and ability going back to the late 1960’s, when my first grade report cards began a long tradition of “Ricky just doesn’t apply himself”-type comments. My dad, a high school dropout, earned a GED in the Marines. He now holds a degree in electrical engineering and a masters degree from Duke. And things have not changed much.

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