Quirky kids shut out of 'gifted' classes

Gifted classes exclude very smart children who are good at math and science but weak on social skills, wrote Katharine Beals of Out in Left Field. Kids who are good in reading, writing and group work are preferred. Girls are much more likely to be placed in gifted classes, reports the New York Times.

. . . research has shown many gifted children (male and female) to be developmentally skewed or “asynchronous” (see, e.g., here and here), and, in particular, often socially, emotionally, and/or organizationally immature.

As I discuss in my book, the reasons for considering global maturity may have more to do with current fashions in education than with what academically challenging programming intrinsically requires. Today’s classrooms, and gifted classrooms in particular, increasingly emphasize collaborative work, reflections about personal feelings, and organizationally demanding projects. At the same time math–an area of relative strength for boys–has become less and less mathematically challenging (and increasingly infused with language arts).

In a follow-up, a reader adds the story of twin boys tested for the gifted program in elementary schools. Only one boy was accepted. The mother was surprised to see that the rejected boy had higher scores than his brother. He was “more socially shy and awkward.”

Another mother writes of her school:

Good behavior was “rewarded” by being admitted into gifted classes. When I subbed in emotional support and autistic support classes, I would see lowered expectations and some very brilliant insights. When I taught in gifted classes, I would see well-behaved kids who were great at regurgitating concrete facts.

It takes highly quirky, intelligent teachers to work with highly quirky, intelligent students, Beals writes. They may not be the sorts to make it through “dissent-crushing education schools, much less avoid getting fired for insubordination by today’s line-toeing principals.”

About Joanne


  1. Diana Senechal says:

    Thank you for pointing out this piece. It seems that much of current pedagogy favors the supposedly “rounded” individual–that is, the one who gets along with everyone, does a bit of everything reasonably well, and has no quirks. (Will Fitzhugh calls this “Critical Likability.”) It is sad to see this happening to gifted education as well, but I am not surprised.

    The irony is that schools are trying to create cultures of respect and tolerance but ridding kids of anything in their souls and minds to respect or tolerate in the first place. The “author” Kozma Prutkov (a made-up figure, very funny) wrote a number of aphorisms, including the famous “You cannot embrace the unembraceable.” One might also say that it means nothing to accept the unrejectable.

  2. This is currently happening to us. Before I became a teacher and my daughter was in 5th grade her teacher even told us the reason the school won’t admit her into the PASS program is because she doesn’t speak out often enough in class and is quiet and somewhat introverted. It didn’t matter that she made straight As or scored advanced in either all areas of the state tests or almost all of them. This year (she’s just completed 6th grade) she scored advanced in all areas of the state test and straight As all year long (one of which was an advanced class) and she still is not being admitted into the gifted program. Oh, but we’ve been told she’ll be in advanced ELA next year and probably advanced math and science next year as well. It’s very frustrating. I think the standards for admittance into gifted programs needs to be changed.

  3. SuperSub says:

    While I don’t disagree with organizational skills and work effort being considered for admittance into gifted programs, ability has to be a primary factor. I worked at a city school with a very heterogenous population… and with a few exceptions, the honors and advanced classes were populated entirely by the children of middle and upper class parents, many of whom were dumb as a box of rocks.

  4. SuperSub:
    Who was dumb as rocks? The kids or their parents?

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The critical distinction here seems to be between being gifted and being good at school. There is often a correlation between these two things, but they are not the same.

    The question, then, is whether a gifted program is supposed to be an environment of enrichment and additional opportunity for those with greater degrees of raw talent, or whether they are supposed to be the segregation of those who are best at the tasks that school demands.

    Here’s my theory on what happened, based solely on my own speculations and without a single drop of hard evidence other than my own experience and the sorts of things I have observed and seen firsthand in my relatively short and uneventful life:

    There was once a time when someone had an interesting idea: let’s have separate classes and enrichment programs for those students sitting bored as hell in the back of the class quietly murmuring to themselves that their teacher and their classmates are all idiots.

    Some very bright, very enthusiastic teachers were brought in to run these classes and pulled-out-of-class programs. They grew in popularity as it was shown that they really did help the otherwise bored as hell students. These programs were filled with all sorts of nerds and geeks and dweebs, many of whom were exactly the sort of person who might as well slap a label on their forehead that says “SOCIAL PREY” before going out to recess.

    Along the way, people started to notice that the people in those gifted classes were getting into high school AP classes, and the people in those AP classes were getting into Harvard, and that these gifted classes were thus EXTREMELY well-correlated with financial and career success.

    Additionally, as the commentor on OILF pointed out, because these students were a mixture of the omnicompetent and the intellectually specialized — neither of whom is as a general rule particularly susceptible or interested in the destructive social atmosphere of the junior high school — these programs started to look like shelters from the storm.

    Naturally, every middle-class parent in the nation immediately began thinking about how they could get their child into the gifted programs and thus insure Precious Snotleigh a spot at Yale and to keep her out of trouble. This is how the “good at school” line of thought entered into the picture: it was a correlative benefit that began to be one of the things sought after ex ante.

    Being able to exert their will as a body on the shape of school, these parents pushed their children — many of whom are decidedly ungifted in the intellectual sense — into the gifted programs en masse, and transformed them virtually overnight.

    The clever, intelligent, enthusiastic teachers who were in charge of the gifted classes and the AP classes noticed that their students weren’t able to handle the workloads and the sheer amount of skullwork that was required back before the adulteration of the population, and the curriculum changed accordingly. The classes began to emphasize the sorts of scores that people who are “good at school” are good with: Plays well with others; follows instructions; smiles and displays emotional development; etc.

    School principals (and the rest of the administrative apparatus) then realized that those teachers who had been the object of jealousy, envy, and resentment for their casual brilliance and their “monopoly” of the best students in the school no longer really were needed to push the gifted curriculum. Any teacher could do it, because the gifted class would no longer sit there and think that the teacher was an idiot. Instead, they would smile and play well with others and follow instructions.

    Except the really smart kids, who still sat there in the class, looked at their average teachers and their average classmates, and said to themselves “What an idiot.” And even if they were well-behaved enough to not say what was on their mind, everyone knows it’s what they are thinking, anyway.

    Well, that makes people uncomfortable. We can’t have that. And so they go.

  6. A school which implemented student-selected, self-paced curricula could avoid the judgment calls required by classification into G/T, regular-ed, and sp-ed. The obvious problem with self-selected, self-paced curricula is that they would demonstrate (1) that at least 2/3 of the population could get through the usual K-12 sequence by age 14 (ten, if parents started early enough), (2) that schools could operate smoothly with 100 to 1 student/teacher ratios, and (2) for most students teacher expertise other than subject-area expertise is largely irrelevant.

    In the current system schools give G/T classes to union cheerleaders and admin flunkies and assign seats in G/T classes to the white-collar parents who would otherwise send their kids to Plush Privare Academy.

    Of course, I could be wrong. “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment can answer. In the realm of public policy, this means decentralized policy regimes or a competitive market in goods and services.

  7. In both elementary and middle schools, the best grades and the gifted recommendations seem to go disproportionately to what I call “teacher pleasers”; kids who behave quietly but volunteer a lot, work well in groups, do or say nothing controversial, ask no awkward questions, are happy to discuss feelings and do creative writing (or pretend well) and are willing to expend lots of time and effort on artsy stuff. There are more girls than boys in this profile and boys that fit this profile may risk their social standing with other boys.

    I think there is also a lack of clear academic purpose and a certain anti-academic mindset at work at these levels, especially elementary. Most elementary school teachers never were serious scholars and many do not appear to value serious academics. They really do like the artsy-crafty, touchy-feely stuff and writing stories. There is also the issue of their content knowledge in math, science, geography and history; highly able kids who have significant interest and knowledge in these areas are likely to ask questions that unprepared teachers have difficulty handling, even in early ES. Other kids can see this and I’ve seen teachers make kids pay for asking these kinds of questions.

    Supersub: I can’t fault middle and upper class parents in urban districts for their effort to get their kids placed in gifted and advanced classes, since the other classes may well be both chaotic and academic wastelands. Ideally, all kids should be in an orderly class that matches their academic level in each subject, but that isn’t happening in many schools.

  8. Michael,
    Your scenario looks plausible. I would add one additional factor: people noticed that when government schools on the Eastern seaboard conditioned G/T classes based solely on test performance, Jews and East Asians obtained an unrepresentative share of seats. This exposes schools to legal liability.

  9. (Momo): “Ideally, all kids should be in an orderly class that matches their academic level in each subject, but that isn’t happening in many schools.”

    It does not happen in any class that marches a “class” of students at a uniform pace through the curriculum. I make the analogy with team participation in the marathon: sometimes four friends will tie themselves together and compete as a “centipede”. A centipede must take more time to finish than any individual participant would have run the race by himself, since some people start slow and warm up, some start fast and fade, and some get a second wind, whild the team must move at the pace of the slowest person at every point of the course.

    I admit the above argument omits social reasons to work and the benefits of mutual support.

  10. I’m not sure how they tested for the gifted classes in my district, but when I was the GATE (gifted and talented) teacher, I had a room full of hyperactive goats.

    After the first week of being a GATE teacher, you learn that multiple intelligences is not just a theory. Every child excelled in some way; few excelled in the same way. Herb spoke 5 words the entire year. Erin wouldn’t stop talking for 5 seconds.

    GATE students generally are not good students. The fact that they excel in just one way makes them a little unbalanced.

    You’d think GATE students had a high rate of graduation but they don’t.

    Being gifted and talented in our school system, even with great GATE teachers like myself, is a disability.

    A few my students went on to become college professors, but too many became victims of depression and drug addiction.

    Yes, I couldn’t be a GATE teacher now. As a GATE teacher, we fed the homeless. That kind of nontraditional activity would have me fired in today’s restrictive, liability obsessed climate.

    But “dissent crushing education school?”

    I wish mine had crushed dissent. It would have prepared me for the reality of the public schools.

  11. tim-10-ber says:

    Malcolm — thank you! I like your ideas and comments!

  12. The district in which we lived until December set as a requirement for acceptance into the GATE program that the child scored at least in the 98th percentile in BOTH math AND English on the state standardized tests. Doesn’t matter how well a child scored on one portion, if he/she scored in the 97th percentile on the other, he/she was S.O.L.

  13. The scenario laid out my Michael is all too likely and has been accompanied in recent years by much hand-wringing over the fact that gifted/honors/AP classes have disproportionately few blacks, Hispanics and other preferred minorities. The remedy has been to decrease/eliminate the gifted and honors classes that formerly prepared the most able and motivated kids for AP work and push everyone (however unprepared) into APs, under the assumption that college is the best option for everyone.

    It is also likely that Malcolm’s recommended elimination (with which I agree) of the age-defined assembly line progression would show the same racial/ethnic pattern. Therefore, it will not happen. American schools are Lake Woebegon, where all children are above average.

  14. tim-10-ber says:

    But…how do we know that Malcolm’s suggestion (and mine too) would give the kids that do not have the support system at home the opportunity to get the foundation they need and then excel? We don’t…so, I wish someone would have the backbone to try it and see what happens over a several year period. I bet people would truly be amazed…

    Of course, in this type of system the teachers must ALL have high expectations of ALL students…

    I think it is doable…but what do I know…I am just a parent whose voice has less pull than a teacher’s

  15. Our district does GATE by IQ score. Produces a group much like Robert describes. I get the good students/near misses in AP. I have the better gig.

  16. Tim-10-ber: I can’t see how it can be much worse than the current situation, in which the kids who start at the bottom fall farther and farther behind and neither the kids at the top nor those in the middle make the kind of progress they should.

  17. I dunno. I had a couple teachers promote me for the (then-fledgling) Gifted program in my district: I was, I guess, what you’d call “omnicompetent” and I also asked a lot of questions about how stuff worked and “why” certain rules (like grammar rules) existed. And I liked taking stuff apart. And I was good at science and math. And I wrote well.

    But I was kept out, because another teacher felt my handwriting was too bad and I needed to work on that instead.

    You want a kid with a “SOCIAL PREY” label on their forehead? Try being the kid that everyone thought was going to get into the Gifted program but didn’t, for some reason.

    Ironically enough, that made me, in the other kids’ minds, a “bigger retard” (their phrase, not mine) than the kids with genuine developmental or learning disabilities.

    On the other hand, it turns out that the Gifted program in my school district didn’t teach very much – rather than being an enrichment program that was tougher and went deeper, it was kind of a frittering-around program where the kids sat around and wrote plays (which I did in my spare time anyway) and did extra art projects (which I also did in my spare time anyway) and shot the bull and didn’t really seem to do “more” in the way I would have expected a Gifted program to do “more.”

    My parents sent me to a prep school for high school and finally I wound up in a place where I was both challenged intellectually and somewhat respected for having a brain.

  18. Thank you all. I’ve noticed this for years – G & T classes are a way of “tracking” without using all that “icky” non-PC language. For most, they are a place to put the children whose parents are:
    * rich
    * well-connected
    * savvy enough to coach their kid on how to get into those classes.

    But, heaven forbid that we call it tracking! Those parents are ALL in favor of the wide range of skill levels found in the “regular” classes – it’s so GOOD for them, and, of course, so EASY for the teacher to make that differentiation possible.

    Just don’t make THEIR precious sit with “those” kids.

  19. dangermom says:

    I do a field trip program for the local library, and it’s always immediately obvious which class is the GATE class–the kids are awkward and oddbally and clearly different. Many of the kids are relieved when they get in and discover other kids who think like them. At the same time, we have good friends in the program and I know they don’t do accelerated math. They do some large collaborative projects and such.

    So I’ve wondered about how well our GATE program is designed. Is it going the way that Michael describes? My own 9yo would test in, I think, but I’m not convinced that it’s the best place for her.

  20. Ten,
    Thanks for the kind words.

    One obvious objection to many G/T classes is that they offer bogus enhancement to a normal course rather than acceleration. If a bright kid can acquire the Alg I material we usually take two semesters to impart in one semester, why not try to give that student Geometry in semester two, rather than pad Alg I with cute enhancements and draw it out?

    Nothing better reveals the public works priority of government schooling than its resistance to acceleration.

  21. Tom West says:

    Crikey. At least in Ontario, the gifted program was (and I think still is) *exactly* for students who are very strong in some areas and have a deficit in others. Lots of Autism-Spectrum Disorder kids, etc. The unique problems they had was what justified using special-ed money on the classes.

    I remember hearing the sentence “that student is severely gifted”.

    I don’t know if that was the initial intention in the US, or whether it was always meant as simply an enriched curriculum for high IQ students. If it wasn’t, it seems kind of sad that the program’s original purpose has been subverted.

  22. When I was in elementary school, the “gifted” classes were to keep us pain-in-the-asses occupied while everyone else was trying to finish their classwork. [yes, we had tracked math and reading classes, but for some of us, we’d still get done “too fast”.

    It was just a bunch of random stuff thrown together… a lot of fun. And did keep us from annoying the other kids. Some were more normal socially, but most of us were a bit bizarre. Come on, most kids don’t do logic puzzles for fun.

    It became something real once I hit middle school. I had gotten used to the gifted class being play time, but all of a sudden we were writing 10-page papers on medieval history and then learning about the whole industrial salt production process. Got into a math class that had us go through Alg I & II and Geometry in 7th & 8th grades. Found it interesting. And yes, most of us still were weird. Only a few with noticeable mental issues; in another say and age we would have been considered “eccentric”. Or rather, we were geeks.

  23. ricki: “…rather than being an enrichment program that was tougher and went deeper, it was kind of a frittering-around program where the kids sat around and wrote plays…”

    I don’t know about now, but when I was in school in the ’60s it was called “enrichment”.

    I agree with just about everything Malcolm says here. One observation regarding the original post is that the boredom and frustration of being stuck in a busywork environment are not conducive to becoming a teacher pleaser. And being the smartest kid in the class, even if initially reasonably well-balanced, is not always conducive to developing strong social skills. These programs’ criteria exclude the very kids who need them.

  24. This sounds a lot like what the National Honor Society has become.

  25. I recently wrote a paper on G/T programs (well, the lack) for a teacher training class. As part of the research I came across a paper describing the system in Georgia. They allow nomination for the G/T program based on either test scores, teacher nominations, peer nominations, even self nominations. Then the students are evaluated for motivation, performance, and potential. That doesn’t mean situations like ricki’s are necessarily less likely, but it does allow for a wider net than just test scores.

    If interested, the paper is on my blog here: http://mutecypher.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/gifted-and-talented-education/

  26. say it with me says:

    i will never understand why so many SWPL upper middle class parents will tolerate this kind of nonsense from the public schools and not push for vouchers.


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