“Best” over “Better.” Gifted vs. Special Needs Children.

In his exchange with Bill Simmons at ESPN.com, Malcolm Gladwell writes:

I wonder if there isn't something particularly American in the preference for "best" over "better" strategies. I might be pushing things here. But both the U.S. health-care system and the U.S. educational system are exclusively "best" strategies: They excel at furthering the opportunities of those at the very top end. But they aren't nearly as interested in moving people from the middle of the pack to somewhere nearer the front.

The universities in the U.S. are the best in the world, but they are not very accessible to the lower class both financially and culturally. The universities in Europe, by contrast, are good not great, yet they are accessible to all. In some places, like Switzerland, you need only be a citizen to attend any university in the country. Universities throughout Europe are often free (entirely government subsidized).

Put crudely, America’s the place for the best grad students to become even better, while leaving behind swaths of its own people. Europe’s the place for the vast swaths of average grad students to become above average. (I know, I know, there are exceptions.)

Consider a related education question: Should we cut programs for gifted children before cutting programs for disabled children? Are special needs kids’ more important budget-wise than programs for gifted kids? The answer seems to be yes. Public funding supports the guy who’s in 6th grade and reading at a 3rd grade level more than the guy who’s in 3rd grade and doing math at an 8th grade level.

Governments assume some obligation to look after the guy who lost the ovarian lottery. Individuals don’t have a similar duty.

Myself, I’m more interested in helping 7’s become 8’s (on a 10 point scale) than helping 3’s become 6’s. I’d rather have a smaller impact on a very talented person than help an illiterate person learn how to read. The self-interested explanation for this is that it’s more stimulating to me to work with someone who’s talented. The altruistic explanation is that some gifted people will use their gifts to help all of mankind. Think science and innovation: imagine the good that would accrue to all people if we cultivate and support the next Einstein versus helping the D student do a bit better on his chemistry homework.

Most philanthropy favors helping poor people become less poor (I mean “poor” in the broadest terms). The MacArthur genius grants are a notable exception – they are given to individuals who are already at the top of their game and enables them to get even better. Unfortunately, the MacArthur model is rare.

Bottom Line: Which is more important: helping the best get better or helping the average get better? Should our educational and philanthropy priorities always favor the disadvantaged over the advantaged? Is there something particularly American about its preference for “best” (over “most”) in both education and healthcare?

25 comments on ““Best” over “Better.” Gifted vs. Special Needs Children.
  • You’re really hitting at the fundamental question over where we derive human worth. Different cultures have responded in different ways. In honor based cultures they would tend toward a “survival of the fittest” view that has little compassion for the weak. I think Christianity in the west has provided a good framework for caring for the weak. But the reality is that beyond the socially chic “fun runs” and vacations to Africa, most of us just don’t give a damn about the weak.

  • Definitely hit on a good point here.

    Taking this to the extreme, what about people who are severely intellectually disabled? Not just the kids that can’t read well.

    In Australia, the government funding to help individuals that are severely and permanently intellectually disabled is horrendous and I’ve heard it’s much the same in the US. A meagre pension is all that is offered, not even enough to pay for full-time care, let alone food and housing.

    Compassion isn’t a government priority unfortunately. Making money is. It’s extremely hard to know, as an individual who wants to help people out, where to start or who to start with.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog over the past few months. Cheers..

  • >”Governments assume some obligation to look after the guy who lost the ovarian lottery.”

    What is the basis for this claim?

    It does not seem to me that determining the answer to this question centrally and for everyone is the right way to go about it. It’s a question that everyone should ask themselves individually (as you have) and to the extent that they want to make a difference, they can choose to do so in the direction *they* think is important, rather than having it dictated for them by the morally smug.

  • This type of dichotomy seems reflective of American culture vs. European culture. America is very individualistic and supports those that work hard and “get somewhere,” regardless of the influence and opportunities of their family and friends. Europe is more socialist and tends to support the entire community. I feel that both kinds of scholarships are important, but opportunities, money, and well being never seem to run completely down hill. Some people who have money and power tend to believe that it was their individual character that caused them to be successful (and maybe it is, in part). Sometimes those less powerful are judged as being less worthy, despite the extraordinary challenges some have in the way of success. I wonder if a split society of those with opportunity, money and power and those with little opportunity, money and power can be a successful society. Perhaps it is more efficient and useful to focus on the middle?

  • I’m not so sure about the accessibility of universities at least in Germany. what happends to the student with just a Realschulabschluss?

  • Ben,

    Having just reviewed “Create Your Own Economy,” it’s interesting to me that you did not make the Cowenesque argument that it may in fact be less efficient for society to help the best get better because the best (cognitively at least), who are more likely to be what Cowen calls neurodiverse, are more likely to be able to self-educate, especially in a Google-centric world. They are also more likely to hate formal schooling. I would also guess they are more likely to do no better “taking education” than taking a placebo.

    On the other hand, society may get a better return on investment from teaching those you call the 3’s to be a little more autistic, in Tyler’s formulation. Thus you might argue that the Land Grant universities have done more good than all the subsidies given to Ivy League students. Interestingly, the Morrill Act which created the Land Grant universities was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, one of history’s greatest self-educators.

    Your example about how society should “cultivate and support the next Einstein” seems to make my point. I know of no evidence that Swiss or German society cultivated and supported Albert Einstein. From what I know of his life it was the opposite–Einstein hated his schools.

    -Nadav Manham

  • Hi Ben,

    Several points below.

    You seem to make this argument independent of any intergenerational trends. For example, we know that the education of a mother is a good predictor of the education of children (especially in the developing world). If we educate a child whose parents are poorly educated then we might just get a genius in the next generation.

    Also, if education was well-targeted at underlying ‘ability’ (generally, it isn’t, in the US there are high correlations of SES status with educational attainment), then I’d say you ‘might’ be right. But, in the absence of a system to identify properly such underlying ability, and in the presence of of social immobility (America’s income mobility is lower than Europe’s), I’d advocate having a system that improves more people, in the hope of a) the bright people being autodidacts, b) getting geniuses in the future from the poorly educated or averagely educated people getting pulled up.

    I admit that I could be biased in this respect: neither of my parents went to university, but I am doing my PhD. Had my parents not sacrificed a lot I wouldn’t be where I am. That said, I would not be able to do the PhD without the funding I receive. Which introduces a further problem: credit constraints. Having been accepted to a few British universities with partial funding, versus a couple of European universities with full funding I had to go with the full funding option. (The US was out of my choice set for other reasons, I am ‘young and married’ and my wife really, really, really did not want to go to the US.)

    Another thing you didn’t mention was the idea of ambition sensitivity: the exertion of effort with a specific level of ability. If we consider all 7s and 8s in the world, their levels of effort will be distributed in a specific way. Shouldn’t we also target effort as a potential subsidising factor? Or do people just ‘deserve’ subsidisation because they’re high ability?

    So your idea seems to boil down to this: in a world where we can identify ability perfectly and where there are no credit constraints, (and where preferences don’t exclude the US) government (and individuals?) should subsidize the research and advancement of the highest ability people who choose to work hard. Would that be an accurate characterization?

  • The issue is that the cost of caring for special needs children is so high that if the government didn’t step in with help, those parents who happened to end up with those children would likely be bankrupted by the experience.

    The analogy is health insurance. In aggregate, it would make sense for all of us to self-insure, rather than paying for health insurance. But the catastrophic consequences for the unlucky few are so dire, that we recognize that it’s better to institute a broad insurance scheme.

    It seems like you’ve hit upon a pretty fair division of labor though, since individuals are under no obligation to contribute their time and energy to any particular class of needy individuals.

    One could argue that I should help entrepreneurs who are 3s and 4s, but I prefer to help the 7s and 8s (the 10s don’t need anyone’s help).

  • Answer to this question I guess is to be found recognizing the fundamental tenets of effective governance than by solving the over-simplistic query “where-to-spray-the-schooling-dollars” In particular, should it be spend more on the better or the best.

    All Governments have an overarching need for maintenance of law and order. Need for Academic (and thro that Social) egalitarianism had its origins in that tenet of effective governance. By over-pampering the best, it breeds they-don’t-really-care-about-us syndrome among the underprivileged. They take to drugs, turn muggers that fuels another generation of organized mafia.

    So in my view public $$ should be spent on bringing the masses to school, right from the pyramid bottom. The top certainly can be helped by private charity or better still, on its own intelligence and craft.

  • Which is more important: helping the best get better or helping the average get better? Should our educational and philanthropy priorities always favor the disadvantaged over the advantaged?

    First, a policy of greater educational accessibility would create a much larger job market for the 7s and 8s which offered a good combination of rewarding engagement and minimizing time investment in one’s day job.

    Second, that same policy would create a more capable workforce all around, providing the fundamental resource (that is, competent people) that allows us to capitalize on genius available at a lower cost.

    Third, let’s face it: finding a program that actually provides real increases in intellectual accessibility is a work of genius in itself. Mentoring might not sound very rewarding, but that’s not very imaginative. I’d rather be the guy who single-handedly developed an education system which increased general competence by a standard deviation than Einstein’s math teacher in the 11th grade.

  • Outstanding comment, Simon.

    Your scare quotes around “deserve” are interesting. We reward people have innate advantages in all sorts of ways, without asking whether or not they deserve it.

    To your final characterization, I would say that’s accurate, but note I am not sure what “government” should do, but am I sure what *I* would do, and to each his own. What do you think?

  • Fascinating comment, Nadav. You make an interesting argument that I’ll think about. Albert Einstein might be an extreme example. Perhaps a better example is a 7 or an 8 (not a 10) who, with some cultivation, has the potential to make massive impact.

  • But what if you are not aware of the “little man’s” existence? Suggestion: go visit a group home for the profoundly mentally handicapped (those who can’t expect to ever function beyond the ability of a five year old.)

    I did as an education major — we were required to take a course in special ed — and it shook me to my core. Most of us will never experience anything like that or even be aware that such people exist. Imagine hundreds of them in one place.

    That’s part of the reason we look to the government – to assist with things that the private market doesn’t do well.

  • There has been a lot of attention in the last 5-10 years on non-profits that focus on closing the education gap (TFA, KIPP, Harlem children’s zone). What does that indicate? I think it indicates the following:
    A. A certain group of people believe that minus structural impediments, all races can achieve similar educational and thus, financial outcomes
    B. The current gap between African Americans and Whites indicates some structural impediments, and given (A), that indicates some deep unfairness
    C. Due to this sense of unfairness, I am motivated to attack this issue

    Is it fair to say that many of these solutions are focused on getting 3s to 6s? Harlem children zone recently showed their methods were able to very effectively close the gap between White and African-American children in Math and English, and appears to be unrivaled in its methods. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/opinion/08brooks.html

    One thing to think about, is that it’s possible that getting a 7 or 8 to a 10, might have interesting spillover effects. College Summit is an interesting non-profit which focuses on making sure that any kid who can go to college, goes to college. They partner with high schools and in assisting kids with goal setting and essays they not only assist those especially motivated kids, once they reach a certain critical point, they find they actually can transform the culture of the school. Once a certain proportion of kids from different social backgrounds in a school are put through the program, it seems to put college as a potential destination for the entire school, trying to go to college becomes “cool.” Given your particular preference for “7-8 to 10,” I figured college summit might be an interesting non-profit for you to learn about.

    I think both types of strategies are important, but College Summit not withstanding, it scares me a bit that if most people are motivated to only help those isolated talents, than deep wounds brought about by centuries of oppression will never be healed. Out of curiosity, does Harlem Children’s Zone’s recent triumph intellectually excite you? That while “reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start — produce gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations,” Harlem children zone produced gains of “1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations”?

  • Ben, certainly. I suppose my point is that we live in statist societies, and consequently, acting as if we didn’t is probably a bit silly. In a world where governments have revenue to allocate, surely we want to try to get them to allocate it in the most just, effective, and efficient ways (potentially with some trade-offs over these).

    On desert, I know that we regularly reward people whether they deserve it or not – the market has no awareness of desert (thankfully). But, again, in a statist world where we exercise democratic rights to exert changes through government, our preferences over what we consider to be just outcomes can legitimately come into play. Hence my use of ‘deserve’, at least when it comes to education subsidization by government. Philanthropists don’t need to consider similar constraints.

    For me this relates back to market failures: if you have asymmetric information (which is the norm), credit constraints, etc, you can’t guarantee that the market will allocate goods and services efficiently. We try to circumvent this through government (which has its own failures) to achieve something resembling greater efficiency. Government education policy is one such area.

    I have a question for you now. If you were allocating funds to help 7s and 8s get better, where would you allocate the funds and why? Would it be in the US? If so, why the US? If not, why not?

    The origin of my question is the following: consider the Indian Institutes of Technology, which have crazy examinations and accept something like 2% of all applicants and end up with the Indian cream of the crop. Would it not be more effective to put funds into upgrading already existing institutions outside of the US that already target high ability individuals and have lots of high ability individuals? The problem often with the IITs is that they don’t have anywhere near the facilities and teaching quality of their US equivalents. I’m assuming that in this day and age technology diffusion is so rapid it doesn’t matter if the next Einstein is Indian, Chinese, or American, we’ll all get the benefits relatively rapidly.

  • All children need to move forward, but typically the gifted are overlooked with the lame excuse that they will make it on their own. ‘Making it’ has to do with an internal belief in your ability to do something significant, so the emotional impact on one’s education has has much bearing as the intellectual. We are missing the mark if we think that gifted children can languish in the classroom and emerge to make a difference in our world.

  • I would probably invest the funds in the U.S. but that’s only because it’s the place I know best. Invest in what you know. I agree that benefits diffuse quickly so I don’t much care where the innovation happens. I do wonder about the massive examination process in India and China that produce the “cream of the crop” — I wonder how creative and entrepreneurial those people really are…

  • For one, the best universities are accessible financially. The problem is the quality education in elementary and secondary schools (and even before) isn’t.

    You seem to be unclear about just who you’re talking about. Are you talking about the disabled or the average? Some kids may be reading in 6th grade reading on a third grade level but there’s a big difference between whether they have physical and mental challenges versus environmental and low quality education and motivation ones. In our democratic society, we need everyone to be highly educated so yes, it is important to help the average and especially those that are below average and don’t have serious impediments to getting there. We should be helping children in poor neighborhoods and with poor schools because born in a different environment, some of them could be making the same great impact that others in better situations now make and it is impossible to pick out just who that is.

    It is important to help the best as well, I would never advocate getting rid of gifted programs but that doesn’t mean those that easily show up at above average should get everything and everyone else get very little. Our educational programs should focus on helping on where it can have the most impact and usually that is either helping a large majority of people become better AND helping the very best to be great so that they can make a big impact.

  • I have little to add here, Ben, except to say I agree with you, not Gladwell.

    Gladwell is predictably liberal on everything: genius is largely a matter of environment not genetics, let’s devote more resources on those with the greatest deficit, not those with the greatest potential to profit and in turn, benefit all of us.


  • guess why do they hate formal schooling? because their teachers are mediocre inntelects (at best) trying to teach mostly other kids of mostly mediocre inntelects a boring curricula

  • It’s just becuase they think the Retarded are more special than us, the Gifted. I am in the gifted and until the 7th grade I was stuck, mixed in with the Retarded “special” children with their special teacher and the Avrage children. I was the smartest child in that class. I’m not trying to be arrogent or anything, but that’s the truth. What CAN the “special” do in the furture? Not much. What can the GIFTED do to the furture? Much. See, we should let the “special” work their way into nothiness and let the gifted thrive. And if we do help them, the “special” then we have used all our money on the “special” and not the Gifted.
    Bottom line: If we spend ALL our time on the “Special” then we spen less time on the Gifted, the Gifted who can actctually change America, whereas the “special” can do nothing but rely on others their whole life.

    ~Graduate of Yale (Who refused Harverd)

  • There is a “no excuses” school here in Oakland, the American Indian Charter School, now with multiple campuses, middle and high school. Between homework and classwork, they spend about twice what a regular school does on the academic subjects, make no bones about focused test prep, offer hour-long detentions and public sanctions for the slightest offense (such as having foregone even a single problem on HW).

    The leader/principal, Ben Chavis, gives students $100 awards out of his own deep pockets for year-long perfect attendance. He wants no parental meddling, no touchy-feely parents visiting classrooms to discuss their careers. He wants kids hard at work about 12 hours a day.

    Test scores are through the roof, better than at the fanciest rich exclusive enclaves here such as Piedmont.

    Many people are ecstatic that this option is available. Many–especially middle class, white–find it oppressive and demeaning.

    Obviously there is selection to go there; only certain people go there and only the hardy stick with it. So the top scores must be evaluated with this in mind. But I’m sure they’re getting a wildly different experience than they would at another Oakland public school.

  • I was a gifted child with uncontrolled temporal lobe epilepsy; but due to circumstances surrounding perverted minds in government departments and the local authorities, my intelligence denied me support for epilepsy, and my epilepsy was used to undermine my intelligence and get me labelled as subnormal.

    So I didn’t get the help I was entitled to for my epilepsy, nor the opportunity to make the most of my potential.

    My mother couldn’t do much for me as my father dies when I was four and she couldn’t work caring for me so we got no support form charities either. We were treated like second-class spongers and I was often called a druggie or drunk, so I was being persecuted by some because of having epileptic seizures.

    One thing I would like to point out is I could understand some maths worthy of A-levels standard in primary school before the epilepsy started, and I received no private tuition or mentoring, but thought up many of the things through my imagination, so I demonstrated my understanding and ideas of some principles of A-level maths at the age of ten which was different to what was taught in the books so it must have come from my imagination.

    Prior to having epilepsy I was described as: “A very capable boy who has been most cooperative during the year. He has good all round ability but is particularly good in maths at which he could go a long way.”

    However, since I started having epilepsy I have always been treated way below what my true potential suggests, and even subnormal where possible.

    I have experienced such unfairness, persecution, oppression, trauma, abuse and other negative factors that over the years I have had to use violence to defend myself against the se evils of inferiority and to get myself heard. If I had cooperated like a good little boy my life would have been ruined so violence and destruction are the keys to my survival and now having a better quality of life after a trail of destruction lasting over forty years, showing those who tried to destroy me that i wasn’t going to give up. I can still be highly emotional and disruptive when someone tries to invert the truth against me.

    I have managed to show that I am stronger without their influences – which means when they were present I was weaker but without their presence I am stronger. This means they were the weaker links in my chain preventing me from progressing while they had control of my life but without them I have managed to rise above them. Thus how I was treated and seen was a reflection of how weak they were and trying to use me as a scapegoat for their weaknesses and wrongdoings. If I was genuinely weak I wouldn’t have managed to progress but now I am above them it shows they were the weakest links in my chain, not me.

    Many bullies fear me but won’t admit it and try to make me look as if I am the cause – they are the cause because they are the sparks which ignite me. They cannot ignite individuals that haven’t gone through what I have because these will be non-ignitable like water, but what I went through means I am like a tank of petrol. So if I am treated with respect and no sparks flying around I can be as safe as water, but when I get bullied or picked on – in other words sparks are flying about, then if one lands on me I could explode. Just like a tank of petrol exploding it isn’t the petrol which caused the explosion but the spark(s), so if my temper explodes it is because of the bullies igniting me.

    In situations like this where external weaknesses are planted into the lives of gifted individuals, I refer to these influences as “inflictions of inferiority” where those responsible, known as “inferiors” try to bring better people down. I am writing a book based on the effects inferiors have on innocent victims and why they have the desire to bring more intelligent individuals down.

    Paul Cooijmans, author of “Inferiority – The Opposite Of Genius” describes inferiors as: An inferior is a person who drags society and mankind down and should better not exist. Instead of contributing and being creative, he takes away and destroys. He causes suffering rather than joy. Many geniuses undergo great suffering early in life through inferiors in their environment; could it be inferiors are the bort that polishes the rough gem to bring out the brilliance? For a genius may be born with high intelligence and wide associative horizon baked into one’s D.N.A., but could the genius ever work up the extreme persistence, willpower, determination, self-discipline and diligence without the unstoppable and perpetual inner drive that comes from the realization: I must be significant, for the extreme torture cannot have been for nothing? After all, one does not throw away a half-polished diamond, nor does one apply the hardest abrasives to a piece of ordinary charcoal. Who undergoes the severest trial is meant to arise purer and achieve the highest; the advance of humankind.

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