Matt Yglesias responds to a Washington Post op-ed on how public schools fail gifted kids with the understandable but, I think, misguided thought that public schooling “should try to do well for the hardest to teach kids, included ones coming from difficult backgrounds and ones who simply for whatever reason have a hard time with school,” and not worry excessively about “the easiest cases,” which is to say, the gifted kids.

First, I want to echo some of Matt’s commenters in questioning whether those gifted kids really are the “easiest” to teach, especially given that they too may come from “difficult backgrounds.” As the Post article observes:

Nor do test scores indicate whether these students are being sufficiently challenged to maintain their academic interest, an issue of particular concern in high school. Shockingly, studies establish that up to 20 percent of high school dropouts are gifted.

And it’s at least possible that even on a strict egalitarian basis, there’s an argument for “taking the most talented as far as they can go.” Pushing a gifted potential-dropout to realize her full potential is, of course, a benefit to that student. But it’s also a benefit to the rest of us—the worst off included. I’m just guessing about the numbers here, but I’ll hazard that the per-pupil cost of some kind of program to keep those gifted kids engaged and stimulated is, at worst, no greater than that of remedial programs for their counterparts at the other end of the curve. And the payoff for that is, at least potentially, not missing out on the next Jonas Salk or Steve Jobs or… well, pick your favorite modern genius. Granted, some of them will go on to socially useless functions like, say, political magazine writer—but on the whole I’d hazard it’s a good investment over the long term even for the kids who don’t directly benefit from those programs, at least along some margin. I don’t know what that makes the optimal balance of remedial vs. gifted spending, but I think it means you can’t just do a crude maximin and suppose that equity demands not dropping a nickel on gifted programs until you can’t buy a jot more improvement on the low end.

—posted by Julian