Ungifted and unchallenged

Alexandria, Virginia parents are complaining the schools have made it harder for students to qualify as TAG (Talented and Gifted); kids left behind in mainstream classes aren’t being challenged, parents say. Virginia’s Standards of Learning exam is a minimum competency test for fairly bright students, writes Patrick Welsh in the Washington Post. Other students need lots of work to pass SOL.

To allay parental anxieties, Superintendent Rebecca Perry has said that the students at the top of the regular classes — i.e., the white kids who didn’t get into TAG — will help to “challenge, mentor and coach” the students struggling with the SOL material.

George Mason parent David Rainey charitably calls Perry’s statement “an interesting perspective.” But “the unanswered question remains,” he says. “What else could these students be doing instead of reviewing material they already understand as they challenge, coach and mentor their classmates?”

Welsh, who taught high school in Alexandria, isn’t a fan of the “gifted” label, but predicts white, middle-class parents will leave the public schools if their children’s needs are ignored.

Why not offer harder assignments or enrichment classes to all students willing to do the work?

My daughter was identified as gifted in reading and math in first grade. Then Palo Alto decided all students were gifted so no extra enrichment was required. As a parent volunteer, I spent half Allison’s third grade year photocopying for the teacher. Then, when I asked about the disappearance of the gifted program, she gave me some “critical thinking” questions, six or seven bright kids and an empty room. At least, I saved the kids from boring work they didn’t need, though I did lose my mad photocopying skills. In fourth grade, the teacher slipped Allison a copy of Tuck Everlasting, but told her not to tell the other kids that she was reading a “gifted book.”

About Joanne


  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Whoever decided to eliminate laneing deserves to meet Procrustus. Instead of the brighter kids tutoring and encouraging the “less bright” kids, I suspect sometimes he tutilage is the other direction.

  2. I wondered why in your quote of the article there was so much emphasis on race. It is clear now from reading the entire article that this is a racial issue in this school and it is presented as such. There is no reason to believe that your solution of enrichment classes wouldn’t result in de facto segregation.

    I wish the author of the article had said something about gifted black students who are failed by the elimination of G&T as well as white students.

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    The problem is not the existence, or not, of TAG classes; it’s the incentive to the teachers provided by the standardized tests. Teachers could work with and challenge the brightest students, whether those are the most gifted students, or brightest students who don’t qualify for a gifted program. But teachers do not do this, because they know that they are evaluated on whether the less able students pass the test.

    It’s clear that in this environment, a teacher ought to spend her effort on getting the bubble kids, the ones who are just barely at the failing level, to pass the test. She will therefore ignore both the able students, who will pass the test without her help, and the poor students, who won’t pass the test even with help.

  4. I think that so long as the emphasis is on the demarcation between “gifted” and “not gifted” the problem will never go away.

  5. wahoofive says:

    Bart’s right in that no matter where you draw the line, SOMEbody is going to be at the top of the remaining class.

    Cardinal Fang is also right. In teaching we always have a choice between providing challenges for the fastest students or trying to keep the slowest students from falling behind. Whether you agree or not, NCLB has decisively voted in favor of the latter.

  6. Cardinal-
    It is improbable, if not impossible, for teachers to adequately tailor instruction to multiple skill levels within single classes. Thus, they are forced to choose between the successes of the individual groups, and often choose to aim most of their instruction to help those that need it the most.
    Is it fair or appropriate? No. Single teachers can only do so much, though, and the aim to differentiate instruction is an unfair burden to place on a teacher.

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    The JV football team at my high school averaged 205#, and I was about 100. It would have been foolish as well as painful to put me in that class. ailue to group by ability is a sin and a shame. That idea has run its course.

  8. Eric Jablow says:

    This statement is damning in more ways than I can say:

    To allay parental anxieties, Superintendent Rebecca Perry has said that the students at the top of the regular classes — i.e., the white kids who didn’t get into TAG — will help to “challenge, mentor and coach” the students struggling with the SOL material.

    1. Are there no black kids who are worthy of the TAG classes, or are nearly worthy? Does the school and its predecessors not bother finding them?

    2. We do not expect children to have the maturity to teach other children, no matter how much they know. That’s one reason we pay teachers to do their jobs. Why does this school system assume that the more knowledgeable students have the maturity to do the teachers’ jobs? Is it because the system doesn’t trust the teachers to know how to teach?

    3. School systems now take the school supplies parents buy for their children and redistribute them to the entire class. Do the school systems now attempt to redistribute learning itself? Shouldn’t the student “teachers” resent that they are not given the chance to learn new things in class? What would happen to such a student who refused to cooperate?

    As long as schools refuse to challenge all their students, they fail their purpose. NCLB may be necessary, but it certainly is not sufficient. Perhaps this is another consequence of the Lake Wobegon Effect; when all the children are above average, it’s possible for the school system to ignore everyone, and ignore its job.

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Palo Alto takes the proceeds of money raising events and distributes it to all schools. I haven’t noticed whether there are fewer eventa but I suspect there are.

  10. “Welsh, who taught high school in Alexandria, isn’t a fan of the “gifted” label, but predicts white, middle-class parents will leave the public schools if their children’s needs are ignored.”

    I’m a data point supporting Welsh’s statement. My son didn’t qualify for TAG (GATE in my district.) and his classes were just not challenging enough. I spoke to the school principal, who explained that there was limited room in GATE. I understood that. What I wanted was for the normal classes to start giving more challenging assignments.

    That meeting was when my son was in eighth grade. My son’s now at a Jesuit high school where he truly does get challenged — partly, I believe, because he was not prepared very well in public school. I’m glad we made the move when we did. I only wish we had made it sooner.

  11. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Ms. Jacobs:
    I see an article for you, if you haven’t already written it. You mention that your daughter was considered gifted in math in the first grade. If I recall rightly, she wound up with a degree in “American Studies.” There is considerable interest in the techie press about why so few women become techies. You may have something to contribute about how your daughter went “astray.” As a born techie, my first mental draft did not have the quotation marks. A view from outside the techie mind set may be useful.

  12. Deirdre Mundy says:

    In fifth grade, my teacher eliminated reading groups. She had the whole class read the same book, then paired up the best readers with the worst (and the average kids with each other) for all the tests and assignments.

    Each pair was to do the work together, and then share the resulting grade.

    What happened? In the best-worst pairs, the good readers did all the reading and work (we didn’t want to risk jeopardizing our OWN grades just because the kids we were working with were semi-literate) and the bad readers sat and stared out the window or doodled.

    Elementary School kids don’t make good tutors. Especially if they’re afraid it will affect their own grade, and if the kids they’re supposed to be “teaching” are the same ones who make fun of them / beat them up for being smart.

    Though coopertive learning DOES give the teacher time to catch up on her grading…

  13. Eric: to be fair, the author was not quoting the superintendent with the line “the white kids who don’t get into TAG”. He was drawing from his experience as teacher to note that the TAG had many white parent advocates … but he also neglected to say if there were 1) other backgrounds in the TAG class 2) not white kids who were on the cusp and no longer in the TAG system.

    Supersub: differentiation is not an unfair burden; it does call for different skill sets than the prior approach of lecturing from the front or giving a common homework sheet. there are other ways to deliver it eg tracking is differentiating on a classroom level, but that creates other problems.

  14. Richard, my daughter has an underlying gift for pattern recognition that she’s applied in all areas, but her verbal talents outmatch her math talents. Her father, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who majored in math, agreed that she was not destined for a high-tech career.

  15. Walter E. Wallis says:

    That teacher who paired the best readers with the worst was merely embracing the teacher’s union philosophy.