The ‘gifted’ majority

In affluent Maryland and Virginia districts, a majority of students may be classified as “gifted,” reports the Washington Post.

Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda is suburban Washington’s Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional hamlet where every child is above average.

At Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda, Md., Alexis Peterson’s third-grade literacy class operates on a fifth-grade level. With so many gifted students, the standard instructional model is turned on its ear.

Seventy percent of third graders at the school are classified as gifted; districtwide, 40 percent of students are considered gifted. Nationwide, 12 percent of students receive some form of gifted education, though the category is supposed to include only 5 to 10 percent of top performers. In some states, no extra funds are provided. Teachers simply ask students to do more.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, gifted education is very popular with most parents, but opponents complain it’s elitist. Black and Hispanic students are less likely to be deemed gifted than white or Asian-American students.

Evie Frankl, co-chair of the Montgomery County Education Forum and a leader in the movement to do away with officially sanctioned giftedness, believes education leaders award the designation liberally as “a gift to the white middle class, to keep them in the school system,” rather than to serve the goals of diversity and inclusiveness.

If “gifted” means the ability to work above grade level, it applies to many students in well-educated communities. “Highly gifted” is now used to refer to students who are way above average, perhaps the top four percent academically. I’ve heard “severely gifted” as well.

The San Jose Merc ran a story last week about an 11-year-old black boy from Oakland who’s a Cal State sophomore. When he was a four-year-old first grader, restless at the slow pace of the class, his teacher thought he had a learning disability. His father, who runs a private school, pulled him out of school at age six so he could do high school work.

“He’s one of the world’s most enthusiastic learners,” says Sally Murphy, Cal State-East Bay’s general education director.

He raises his hand to answer every question and usually has the right answers,” she said. “I think when a couple of 18-, 19-year-olds who are doing as little as possible are being showed up by someone much younger, who is showing the work can be done on time, it bothers them.”

He’d probably have done better to start at community college, then transfer to Berkeley when he’s ready. He needs to be with the smart people, not the 19-year-old slackers.

Update: Meep has more.

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  1. The odd oversight in the story is the lack of any indication of the exceptional – dare I say superior? – talent of the teachers at this school.

    It would seem to follow that if some kids are smarter then others then some teachers are better then others.

    Once that’s established, should it ever be, the only question remaining is whether the talented minority of teachers should be assigned to the talented minority, the unexceptional majority or to the inferior minority of students.

  2. In my opinion, allens suggestion reeks of NCLB legislation… no child left behind, no child gets ahead.

    Alernately I do feel the forgotten ungifted have merely been overlooked. Every child is gifted at something.

  3. I see this in my school district a little bit too, but I think what really happens is that the methods of identifying gifted students really measure early enrichment.

    It often works out that students who are “gifted” in the early grades, are only average or maybe in the first standard deviation about average when it comes to the SAT or other high school tests, even if they have been receiving advanced instruction all along.

    If a little kid has been playing educational games, being read to, taken on family field trips, etc, the knowledge gained helps him or her seem advanced at an early age. But, later when the level of knowledge expected goes up, the kids don’t keep up: they play sports, regular games, hang out with buddies, go on trips with buddies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but their intellectual standing in regard to the rest of the group becomes less exceptional.

    I happen to think that students should have to re-test every couple of years to re-qualify for gifted. A kid who by every high school measure seem average shouldn’t be in the gifted program, but in a lot of schools, once you are in the “gifted” program, you are in it forever.

  4. So I suppose, Andrea, that the polar opposite of NCLB, representing the view’s of the upholders of the noble institution of public education, would be…every child left behind, every child gets ahead?

    I’m beginning to think that the automobile’s contribution to intellectual discourse is the bumper, thanks to which glib conciseness has been conferred the status of profound insight among the narcissistic.

    What’s really annoying is that you’re obviously so anxious to take a swipe at NCLB that you’re not particular about whether your comment fits the subject or even the comment too which you’re responding.

  5. I may have ranted about this here before, but I think the term “gifted” is very unfortunate. It implies that your selection for advanced classes is a matter of something you *are* rather than something you *do*.

    Peter Drucker once remarked that it is irresponsible for corporate managements to focus on “potential” rather than on performance. The same principle applies here.

    How about calling these “high achievement” programs, or “high performance” programs, rather than “gifted and talented?”

  6. The question is “accellerated” or not. IF the kid can learn faster and has a higher knowledge base, then dump the knowledge in as fast as you can. If you drop him in a slow flotilla, he will never reach his potential for flank speed.

  7. Speaking as one of the former “gifted” (from elementary school up to going to a special high school for geeks), I’m not that exercised about explicit programs for the gifted existing. I think that concentrating on making sure that as many kids as possible learn a certain basic skillset should be the main objective for public schools.

    In my elementary school math classes, I was bored out of my gourd from 2nd grade on, having to go over the same damn topics every year because my fellow students wouldn’t remember them (or, more likely, didn’t understand them the first couple times we did it). I was a self-teacher in math, and could sit down with our textbook and go through it in a couple weeks. So, in 5th grade, I told my math teacher that I knew all the math she was going to teach that year and didn’t feel like wasting my time going over that stuff; even better, I was willing to put up or shut up: I asked if I could take the end-of-year test at the beginning of the year. I aced it and didn’t have to do math homework or take math tests for the rest of the year — I used that time period to read books.

    Also, I used this lesson when I got to college, doing the credit by exam (just take the course’s final for P/F). I got out of stats this way. Also, I got out of 3rd semester calculus by talking to the dept and taking (and acing) the next course in their series.

    So here’s my idea stemming from that experience: there’s a certain curriculum set up grade-by-grade (or maybe unit-by-unit), with tests that can be used to indicate whether the student has mastered the material. If the student can pass that level test, even at the beginning of the year, then they don’t have to take that class anymore, or just drop out of the class until that unit is over. Period. No more math for the rest of the year….if they don’t want it. Of course, you’d keep doing the test periodically to make sure that they haven’t forgotten the material. During math period, the kids who have finished can have fun in some sort of resource room, and the kids can spend their time doing whatever they want. This gives =all= kids the incentive to master material as quickly as possible. If you’re forced to go onto the next level immediately, and you’re not fond of that subject, then there’s the incentive to drag feet. However, if you get out of doing homework and other stuff you don’t want to do, and are allowed to do something (educational) you do want to do, then all the better. And the teachers’ time is concentrated on the kids needing the most help. Yes, some kids won’t be able to meet a “normal” pace, so they can be given =extra= to do when the teacher goes onto the next unit.

    Obviously, the subjects I’m thinking of applying this to are grammar, reading, and math. More “facts-heavy” (as opposed to skills-heavy) subjects (e.g. history) would be exempt from such things.

    Man, it tempts me to run out and start a charter school based on this, except running a charter school is very hard work. Still, my idea is free to anybody who wants to use it. My only request is to be informed of its use.

  8. GradSchoolMom says:

    I must admit that I do not understand how public education really defines gifted. Statistically, I do not believe you can ever find an elementary school with a majority of children who are gifted – enriched, yes, but gifted is a natural ability to perform at a level higher than the majority so how can the majority be gifted?

    I really don’t think that people are getting more intelligent. Some school systems may be making students more knowledgeable, but I believe the same small percentage of them are gifted as were 20, 50 or 100 years ago. I still question: if you line up a group of 35 year olds, will you be able to guess at what age they learned to read, what grade they took Algebra and how their school rated on National exams?

    I also have a hard time understanding why people feel that more money should go into teaching gifted students. A truly gifted student needs mentors and guidance but very little teaching. Gifted students will succeed regardless of boredom. Isn’t teaching gifted students a little like cooking for the hungry? A group of hungry people can certainly make me look like a good cook.

  9. I think of a place like Palo Alto. Even given second generation regression to the mean, a significant percentage of the student body is going to be more than a standard deviation brighter than the national mean. Still, there will also be a significant percentage of “national average” students. Thus, even in Palo Alto, you’ll need both “non gifted” as well as “gifted” education approaches.

    If we are going to challenge the gifted Palo Alto students, we need bright teachers who can do more than just administer the tests (meep) for the next grade. That will cost some money. But if those gifted students have greater potential for high achievement as adults (which seems likely if not certain – Twill00 & NDC), the investment seems likely to be justified. (or not? Grad School Mom)

  10. The term “gifted” should certainly be related to the actual level of achievement, but in large part it really is just something you are. Gifted children, in general, are able to grasp a concept the first or second time it’s presented. “Average,” or “normal” children usually need three or four presentations in order to understand. (Thus, yes, with some short experimentation I probably would be able to pick the early readers and algebra students from a group of 35 year olds.) This leads, of course, to boredom in a regular classroom, and failure to reach full potential if they’re kept there.
    Gifted children are quicker than their peers, but they are still children, and they still need teaching. I’d object to the analogy of “cooking for the hungry” — a gifted child knows when a teacher isn’t putting forth a lot of effort, or teaching them well, just like an “average” child. They might perform better than other children would with a poor teacher, but they still won’t reach their potential. Gifted children still need to be challenged, lest they put their quick brains to bad use. (I have long held the theory that the preponderance of computer viruses are created by bored gifted students.) And it is worth noting that while some gifted children, like meep, are autodidactic, others are not, and need as much guidance in their learning as “regular” children.

    As to the rising percentage of “gifted” students in Maryland and Northern Virginia, i and many of the teachers I know find it frustrating. I grew up in Fairfax County, VA, and was in gifted education from 3rd to 12th grade. In those days gifted students above a certain level were bused to a center-based program embedded in a “regular” public school. My class of 24 pulled from at least three, probably five elementary schools. By the time I was in 6th grade, there were 36 of us from these same schools. My magnet high school pulled its 400-student freshman class from the three surrounding counties.

    I still keep in touch with my fourth grade teacher, now teaching sixth grade at the same school. Every time I visit her, she expresses her frustration with the current group of “gifted” students. Instead of one class of 24, there are now three times that many, pulled from fewer schools. There are many more center programs than there were fifteen years ago, and in her opinion most of the students labeled “gifted” these days are not truly gifted. Their parents either want them to be, or think they are, smarter than their peers, so they push for retesting until their child is finally admitted to the program. The result is that the gifted classes can’t operate on as high a level. The children are usually willing to work hard (which, i must admit, is more than could be said for a few of my former classmates), but they need the extra two or three presentations to grasp the material, so the pace of the class has to be slower, and the children have to spend more time on their homework than elementary students should spend.

    This seems bad for everyone. Pushing children that hard at that young an age seems like it would lead to burnout before high school. I wish I knew at what point having normal intelligence became a stigma.

  11. The population can be more intelligent than 50 years ago. The food stamp program dates back to Johnson’s War on Poverty, and reliable nutrition during childhood contributes to adult intelligence. Put another way, before assured access to food, malnutrition would have stunted the potential of many poor children.
    I submit that a good teacher teaches. A teacher who has very able students will be able to cover more material more effectively than a teacher who teaches students who are less able.
    We cannot conclude that the best teacher is the teacher entrusted with the ablest students. Teaching the different groups of children may well call for the teacher to use different methods; one group of students may need only hints, and pointers to where they can retrieve more information, while another may need to have information presented in a more organized, detailed fashion.
    I am influenced in this thinking by _Doomed to Fail_ by Paul Zoch. We place too much emphasis upon the teacher, and not enough emphasis on the student. Some students have a good work ethic, and find learning interesting. Make the school curriculum more demanding, and don’t make kids wait for their peers to catch up.
    Americans are sorting themselves into ever narrower communities. This sorting process is accelerated by education patterns, assortive mating, and by the clustering of industry types. Within any elementary school, the entire student body can’t be in the top 10% of that school . The entire student body could, however, be in the top 10% when compared to national norms.
    I see the growth in the gifted movement as a direct offshoot of progressive, anti-tracking educational philosophies. A certain strand of educational theorizing seems to be built on the premise that all children should learn at the same rate; no child should get ahead. Parents who have children who learn quickly and well are pushed into the opposite camp by the obvious disjunct between theory and reality. The secular home schooling movement, in my opinion, is also driven by the cumulative dumbing down of the standard curriculum.

  12. It’s less a “strand of educational theorizing” then a feature of all hierarchical organizations exacerbated by the particulars of the public education system.

    Hierarchical organizations are, by nature, inflexible; data moves up the organization being distilled at each level until it reaches the level at which a response can be initiated. Then the response travels back down the hierarchy being refined to the particulars of the part of the organization effected until the response hits the level of the organization where some appropriate action is taken.

    All that “upping” and “downing” takes time, introduces the possibility/probability of confusion, self-service, delay and inefficiency. The less that needs a response the less work, and the less exposure everyone in the organization has. That makes change and flexibility difficult to institutionalize.

    Smart kids represent such a requirement for flexibility. If you don’t provide some means for them to maximize their advantage then the kid, and society, is cheated of fruit of the disciplined exercise of those advantages.

    But the requirements that smart kids place upon the system are troublesome. Do smart kids need smart teachers? Seems so but that introduces *another* the requirement for *another* element of unwanted flexibility. Now, not only do you have to differentiate the kids, you have to differentiate the teachers as well.

    That’s a policy that’s troublesome whether it’s implemented or not.

    If smart kids get the smart teachers where’s that leave the dumb kids? The average kids? And why, to take the parent’s role, should *my* kid be saddled with a teacher who’s second-rate?

    The typical response, rational from an institutional viewpoint, is to do is little as is required to satisfy the demand. There’s no particular value in doing a great job but there’s considerable value in doing a just-good-enough job.

  13. One of the best math teachers I’ve ever seen taught 7th Grade Honors Math (very, very well) and all the remedial math classes, and from what I heard did quite well in all of them.

    And after a few years, the public school bureaucracy drove him out…

  14. When my daughter started kindergarten at our neighborhood Palo Alto school, she could read fluently. Her favorite books were written for third and fourth graders. In a class of 28, there was another girl reading at that level and three other students who were nearly as advanced.

    Many of the parents were doctor fathers married to nurse mothers; the rest were engineers and high-tech entrepreneurs. Career Day, when the parents came in to talk about their jobs, was boring. Too many radiologists.

    Since “all our children are gifted,” Palo Alto schools provided no special gifted education program, but they did have reading groups. And, as a parent volunteer, I led a “critical thinking” class for third graders who finished their routine work quickly. The teacher gave me a bunch of hand-outs and eight to 10 kids.

    One of the reasons my daughter had such a great experience in Palo Alto schools was that her classmates were so smart and motivated.

  15. I feel kinda cheated. I was only in GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) throughout elementary school, because my district didn’t have gifted classes beyond that. Aside from taking part in courses such as Junior Great Books and Math Olympiads, I don’t remember any sort of special classes (and MO wasn’t really a class, anyway). Plus, as far as I know, JGB and MO were not necessarily designated for gifted students only; they were simply based on teacher recommendations. I do know that I was allowed to skip sixth grade math so that I could help the special ed students with their reading, and that’s about it.

    My two best friends, on the other hand, went to different schools in different districts and were both qualified as gifted; they remember actually being in special classes.

    Two questions: for those of you who were in special classes, what sort of lessons and projects did you do?

    Second question: I’ve heard that while the majority of the general population is considered extroverted, most gifted children are considered introverted. Is this true? I know that I’ve always been a strong introvert, and so have my two aforementioned friends. And if it is true, anybody know why this is?

  16. Two questions: for those of you who were in special classes, what sort of lessons and projects did you do?

    In the East Bay during the ’60s, there wasn’t much available. I think I went to an enrichment summer school program one year. It probably lived up to its name, but had nothing to do with a regular curriculum.

    In 7th and 8th grade I had a teacher who actually attempted to bring in some advanced materials, but trying to use them while in the same classroom with “normal kids” was problematic.

    Most of the time I just had to sit through the lectures, as working on homework or reading outside material was generally not allowed in class.

    Second question: I’ve heard that while the majority of the general population is considered extroverted, most gifted children are considered introverted. Is this true?

    I guess I am by nature. But mostly I think it was just maladjustment to being “different” in a less-than-ideal social and educational setting.


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