Baltimore County nixes ‘gifted, talented’

The “gifted and talented” label is on the way out in Baltimore County, reports Liz Bowie for the Baltimore Sun. The district eliminated accelerated classes for the brightest elementary students last year.

Replacing “gifted and talented” with “advanced academics” isn’t popular with parents of high achievers, writes Bowie. They fear their gifted children’s needs will be ignored.

Teachers say it’s challenging to meet the needs of high, average and low achievers in a single classroom.

One fifth of Baltimore County students have been chosen as gifted in third and fifth grades “based on achievement and other, more subjective criteria, including personality, creativity, curiosity and ability to concentrate,” she writes. (Most districts designate a much smaller percentage of students as gifted.)

In the elementary grades, teachers now teach different levels of students in the same classroom. They break students into groups by ability, and then work their way around the classroom, instructing each of the groups according to its level. Educators say the small-group model allows them to move students in and out of groups more easily.

Advanced students are placed in separate classes for fourth- and fifth-grade math and in middle and high school.

“Baltimore County school officials say too many children, particularly minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were relegated to lower-level classwork” under the old system, wrote Bowie earlier this year.

Johnathan Miles, a second grader, reads a book in Jessica Owens' class at Lyons Mill Elementary School. Baltimore County no longer has separate classes for gifted and talented students.

Johnathan Miles, a second grader, reads a book in Jessica Owens’ class at Lyons Mill Elementary School. Photo: Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun

“If you got the golden ticket, you would ride the train from third grade to 12th grade. If you didn’t, then chances are you weren’t going to step onto it later in your academic career,” said Wade Kerns, the school system’s coordinator of advanced academics.

However, the new policy hasn’t qualified more disadvantaged students for advanced academic work, writes Bowie.

In the 2012-2013 school year, before the program change, 21.15 percent of black children in the sixth grade were labeled gifted. Last school year, that declined to 19.69 percent. The percentage of Latino gifted students increased slightly.

For economically disadvantaged children, the percentage of sixth-graders labeled gifted declined from 19.41 percent to 18.73 percent.

Jeanne Paynter, a former head of gifted-and-talented education in the Maryland State Department of Education, told Bowie teachers may not recognize children with high aptitude or know how to differentiate instruction for very bright students.

She also said high-achieving black and Latino students often attend struggling schools with inexperienced teachers focused on raising low achievers’ test scores. “Generally what happens is the advanced group is going to wait and wait and wait until the teacher gets to them,” she said. “Every child should have the right to be instructed and grow and learn.”

Open the exam school doors

New York City’s elite exam schools, such as Stuyvesant High and Bronx School of Science, admit very few low-income, black or Hispanic students, writes Michael Holzman, research director for the Schott Foundation for Public Education, on Dropout Nation. Open up the exam schools to disadvantaged students, writes Holzman.

According to a recent series on the local New York City NBC television affiliate, “a dramatic race gap persists at the city’s most elite public high schools, a product of a single standardized entrance exam that privileges students who have been intensively primed and prepped through expensive private tutoring programs.”  The reporters go on to point out that “At Stuyvesant High School, widely viewed as the crown jewels of the top public high schools, just two percent of incoming ninth-graders are black, and 3.5 percent are Hispanic . . . In the general New York City public school population, the two groups comprise a total of 77 percent.”

Many Stuyvesant students — 115 of  843 in a recent year — came from private schools and the suburbs, Holzman writes. Those from public schools tested into Gifted and Talented programs in kindergarten. But children don’t have an equal chance at a gifted education: Some areas of the city test 7 percent of kindergarteners, while others test 70 percent.

New York City should abolish the very high-stakes test used to pick students for its selective high schools, Holzman argues.

. . . the school district should adopt a system used for college admission in various places around the country:  a quota, based on enrollment, from each middle and junior high school.  If a school enrolls, say, one percent of the city’s grade eight students, then one percent of the pool of students admitted to the specialized high schools should come from that school.  Each school should be permitted to set their own criteria for identifying those students, as who knows students better than their teachers?

Instead of paying tutors to help their kids cram for the test, parents might move their children to middle schools where they’d be in the top one percent, he speculates. These parents would pressure schools to improve.

Why not create more exam schools?

“We’ve been neglecting the education of high-ability youngsters,” write Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett, who’ve written a book on exam schools, on Ed Next.

States, districts, and individual schools, pressed by federal policies and metrics, have concentrated attention and resources on low-achieving and other “at-risk” youngsters, while paying scant heed to the fate of smart, eager pupils.

. . .  this negligence (coupled with our wariness of “elitism”) has produced a dearth of places and pursuits for able youngsters, both at the elementary and secondary levels.

. . . When access to rigorous programs is limited, or entry into them is handled simplistically (e.g., a child’s score on a single test), plenty of kids who might benefit don’t get drawn into the pipeline that leads to later success . . .

Educated, motivated parents will get their kids into top public schools or pay for private school, they write. Students whose parents don’t have the savvy to “work the system” lose out.

Study: Few gains in ‘gifted’ classes

Gifted and Talented magnet programs didn’t improve achievement in reading, math or social studies in a University of Houston study reported in Education Next.  Students in gifted programs did learn more science compared to similar students who just missed the the eligibility cut-off or those who qualified but lost a lottery.

Researchers aren’t sure why students didn’t accelerate their already high achievement when placed with high-achieving classmates in a more challenging program. One theory is that students who just made the cut-off were discouraged by going from the top of their old class to near the bottom of their new classes. Another is that high achievers who missed entry into the gifted magnets were able to find high-quality alternatives. The science gains may be a result of better teachers and well-equipped labs.


Don’t blame NCLB for high-flyers’ decline

Fordham’s high-flyers’ report, which argued top students are getting short shrift, is a Phantom Menace, argue Ulrich Boser and Diana Epstein of the Center for American Progress. While many high-achieving students don’t maintain their performance over time, there’s no evidence that efforts to close achievement gaps are responsible, they write.

All of Fordham’s data came from the post-NCLB time period, so without a pre-NCLB comparison, there is no way to make a claim that NCLB caused the decline.

Gifted and Talented programs are expanding in many states, write Boser and Epstein.  More fourth and eighth students are scoring at the highest level in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

School for the 'profoundly gifted'

Super-smart students are enrolling in Reno’s Davidson Academy for the “profoundly gifted,” reports AP. Davidson is a free public high school on the campus of University of Nevada, Reno.

“Schools don’t handle odd ball kids very well,” said Jane Clarenbach with the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Gifted Children. “The more highly gifted you are, the bigger problem you present to your school district.”

The school now serves 100 students scoring in the top 99.9th percentile. They take classes based on  “ability level rather than age.”

In Boise, Rachel attended six different schools, sometimes three in one day, to find classes that challenged her. Hanging out at the mall was not her idea of fun. In her spare time, Rachel is writing a seven-volume novel.

Being around intellectual equals at Davidson, she said, exposed her to a social network she lacked. The academics, she said, may have been her main reason for coming to Davidson, “but my favorite part has definitely been the social atmosphere.”

Some super-smart kids look like goof-offs in elementary school because they’re so bored Clarenbach said.

“Gifted and talented” programs may not provide much challenge to these kids — if they’re available.

My ex-husband let his daughter skip high school and enroll in a nearby college. She’s on track to earn a classics degree in three years.  Eventually, she’ll find intellectual peers her own age but it will take awhile.