Label Comes With Baggage
Jay Mathews, Washington Post, June 16, 2005
For more articles like this
Here are more
letters about Fairfax County's gifted and talented (GT) program,
sparked by Jacqueline Morgan's May 26 letter about how children
are affected by not being designated as gifted:
Here is the
original letter, followed by comments from other readers:
We have daughters in first and third grades at Haycock
Elementary School, which has a "gifted and talented" magnet
program. Our third-grader is a good writer but has a little
difficulty in math. Still, she works hard, always does her
homework without our asking and is well behaved. She also
participates in several sports and is a good athlete.
This is the first year that she has made good friends and is
gaining self-esteem and self-confidence and finally really
feeling comfortable in school and enjoying it. A couple of weeks
ago, she was sullen and had trouble sleeping, so I knew
something was bothering her. Finally, she told me that her two
best friends are going into the GT magnet program. She asked my
husband and me questions like, "Why aren't I in GT? Am I stupid?
Why aren't I as smart as my friends? Why am I stupid in math?"
Well, you get the idea.
It was heartbreaking to see that our 8-year-old child was
already being tracked in the "average" group and knows clearly
that she is not part of the "smart group" (her words, not ours).
Why are these children being tracked at such a young age? How
much of this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? It's
unbelievable to see the level of pressure from parents to get
their children into the GT program. Of course, if our child were
in the magnet program, maybe we would be perfectly content with
Our first-grade daughter is in a class with several children who
came into first grade reading at a high level (two boys read at
the seventh-grade level). The school is already pulling out
about six to eight kids for a GT program, of which our daughter
is not a part. I'm now teaching our 4 1/2 -year-old son to read
so he doesn't enter school behind. The amount of pressure and
pigeonholing in the school is dumbfounding to my husband and me.
By the way, good for you for advocating that high school
students take AP and IB classes. When I entered the ninth grade
at McLean High School in 1975, my father marched into the
principal's office and demanded that I be placed in the AP
English and history classes (I also had not been tracked GT). I
will never forget sitting in my AP history class in ninth grade
and feeling really good about myself because I was with the
"smart" kids. I ultimately received degrees from the University
of Virginia (as did my husband) and the University of North
Jacqueline Morgan, Haycock Elementary, School parent, Falls
Thank you for such a heartfelt and candid letter. As you
note, Fairfax County offers children beginning in third grade a
chance to enroll in separate gifted classes if they score in the
top 5 percent on certain tests and meet other criteria. Few
American school districts do this, though many pull high-scoring
elementary school children out of their regular classes for a
few hours a week for special lessons.
Many parents, as well as organizations that advocate more
services for gifted students, think this is a terrific idea.
Others like you are not so sure. The research is not clear. We
don't know how children who get the special services, and those
who do not, are affected over the long term, though we do know
that better and more challenging teaching produces more learning
in all children.
Few school districts have done as much as Fairfax County in
making their best courses, particularly AP and International
Baccalaureate, available to all students. Smart fathers like
yours no longer have to demand those courses for their children.
The rule here is that they are open to all, and I am always
interested in hearing about any violations of that rule.
But the nature and impact of special elementary school classes
for gifted children -- how to select who gets them, what to do
about those who do not -- remain difficult issues. I welcome
messages and letters from other Fairfax County parents,
educators and students who have thoughts about your concerns.
Dear Extra Credit:
I have no ideas for fixing the gifted-and-talented vs. average
problem. I was on the other side of the fence from Ms. Morgan's
daughter. I was in Haycock's GT magnet program.
By the end of the sixth grade, we so-called gifted children were
insufferable monsters. We'd been told from third to sixth grade
that we were special, wonderful, unique little people bound for
greatness. We were arrogant and rude to the "regular" kids. We
learned to say "regular" with an inflection guaranteed to
inspire rage in any kid outside the program. Of course, we
tested better than the other children. Like geese destined to be
pâté, we were given the best from the word go.
The school made no effort to rein us in. For example, the set
for our class play was a magnificent castle painted by the
students. The school insisted we share the set with the
"regular" kids, and the message was clear -- the regular kids
could not do as well. In one case, the teacher even said so.
Of course, the people running the program were wrong. When I got
to high school, I noticed right away that the more gifted
artists, actors and musicians tended to be in the "regular"
track, because traditional academics didn't appeal to them. If
the "regular" students had been allowed to design and create
their own set, it might well have been superior. But we'll never
know. I suspect the school did not have the funds to allow both
sixth grades to create sets from scratch. Whatever the reason,
it sent a demoralizing and cruel message to the "regular"
The gifted program is about as exclusive as a rainstorm, anyway.
All a parent has to do is get a psychologist to verify a child's
giftedness, and that's good enough for the county. The offspring
of famous politicians shared Haycock's halls (and the next step
on the GT tour, Longfellow Middle School) with me, and they were
no more gifted than my dog. They certainly didn't do well enough
on the school-sponsored tests to make the cutoff. The way school
leaders catered to these privileged scions was more entertaining
than anything on television.
It wasn't all bad. I attribute much of my success to being
tracked into the gifted program. The children in my neighborhood
were rarely expected to do well, and I might have fallen into
the same traps if not for a program that introduced me to
microbiology and Shakespeare before I'd lost all my baby teeth.
But the elitism is astounding, and being surrounded by wealthy,
lily-white students and their sycophants isn't good for one's
perspective. My experience at my local high school was my
salvation. It also released me from the pressure of impossible
expectations. I may have been gifted, but I still failed
algebra, and the GT program did not understand that one could be
gifted in some areas but not in others.
My advice to parents is to kick and scream and privately test
their darlings into the gifted program in elementary school for
the unbeatable exposure to the best the county has to offer in
the early years and then to send the kids back to the local high
school for a healthy dose of reality.
Sanya M. Weathers, Falls Church
Dear Extra Credit:
There seems to be a consensus that all kids have gifts and
talents and these manifest themselves in such diverse areas as
the arts, sports, interpersonal relationships and academics.
There also seems to be a consensus that those kids whose talents
include advanced academic achievement should be placed in
appropriate classes. The real issue to me is the "gifted and
talented" label that Fairfax County gives to the advanced
academics program for elementary-age children.
It is inaccurate, if not offensive, for Fairfax County to use
the terms gifted and talented to refer to a small subset of kids
who have shown early advanced academic achievement. All kids
have been blessed with gifts and talents. By labeling kids in
the advanced academics program gifted and talented, the
implication is that other kids are not gifted and talented. Why
doesn't the county use a more accurate label such as the
advanced academics program or the academic all-stars program?
This might eliminate some of the confusion and hard feelings
expressed by parents such as Ms. Morgan.
Pam Waldron, Vienna, Flint Hill Elementary School, parent
My son entered Fairfax County schools when he was in the third
grade. Like any doting parent, I knew my son was extremely
bright, and as his first teacher it was my highest priority to
ensure an optimal learning environment for him.
While I was enthused at the GT opportunities Fairfax County
provides, my son's efforts have managed my expectations. Because
he was enrolled in private schools from kindergarten through
grade 2, I paid for him to take IQ tests offered at George Mason
University the summer before he entered third grade in Fairfax
County. His dismal results devastated him (and me), so I
immediately focused less on those test scores and more on the
importance of his being a well-balanced student.
He's now finishing fourth grade and we continue to focus on
improving his study habits, reading and writing. His incentives
for doing his best include participation in football, wrestling
and summer camps.
Recently, he's been enrolled in a GT math "enrichment" class.
Even though this added to his workload, he is motivated to prove
he has earned a place in the math GT area. As for his other
subjects, I'm still encouraging/threatening/begging him to give
them his best effort.
While I still think my son is bright, I'm convinced that his
intelligence is not based on GT enrollment but more on his
efforts in performing his best, regardless of his grade-point
average. When he knows that he's done his best, he can strut
just as proudly as the kid who has the mind-set for the GT
program. So I think he's right on target for being a
well-balanced student -- and athlete. The bigger challenge we
face is to make sure he's not burned out before college!
Priscilla Branch, Centreville, Cub Run Elementary School, parent
Dear Extra Credit:
We empathize with Jacqueline Morgan, whose daughter is
"average." We have 7-year-old twins in second grade at a private
school this year. Our son has been accepted to the GT center at
Bull Run Elementary. His twin sister was not accepted.
Obviously, we are getting lots of questions from them, mostly
along the lines of "Is he smarter?" "Why?" and "What about me?"
Our answers have centered around the idea that everyone is
different and everyone learns differently and at a different
pace. We emphasize that the GT classes do not mean that he is
"better" or that she is "worse" in school; they just mean that
he learns some things faster and that each of them will be in a
class that is just right for them. From what we can tell, Bull
Run tries hard not to label the GT center kids as the "smart"
group or set them apart within the school. But the reality is,
that is why they are there.
Our son's level of learning and understanding exceeds that of
many of his peers. We have encouraged both our children to
learn, but he independently goes five steps beyond any guidance
Unfortunately he, like many other gifted kids, is teased and set
apart by other children in his class because of his natural
desire to learn and his ability to do so quickly. We are
thrilled that Fairfax County has the ability to provide a
challenging curriculum for him, with other children who are at
his level and will hopefully understand him. The biggest concern
we have for him is that he will become bored and either lose
interest in school or start misbehaving.
GT classes at a young age help us increase the chance that he
will work to his potential. In addition, Bull Run's GT center
program integrates various social development and practical
lessons into the curriculum, which many gifted children are
lacking. Our son will learn to relate to others, work in groups,
organize his work and not demand an unreasonable level of
perfection from himself. He will be challenged in his work so
that he doesn't give up later in life when he attempts something
that is difficult or takes extra time. And he will do this with
other kids who need the same skills and who can relate to him
and accept him as another kid, not as "the smart one" or "the
Our daughter, on the other hand, will be challenged very well in
a standard class. She does not need an accelerated or more
challenging curriculum to keep her engaged. Yes, she recognizes
a difference between herself and her brother, but we are careful
to emphasize that this is just one of many differences between
them and that she has her own strengths that may or may not be
related to school. Do I wish she were in the GT center program?
No. She would not do well there.
We should be celebrating the fact that Fairfax County provides
appropriate learning opportunities for all our kids, not just
the GT kids, but also those who need extra help, those with
attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and all the other
kids who don't learn according to a cookie-cutter standard. All
our children should get the help they need at whatever age the
need is observed. We don't wait until high school to identify
and help kids who learn more slowly than their peers, so why
should we wait until then to help kids who learn faster? And why
should the label of gifted be any more obvious or singled out
than a label of athletic or dyslexic?
Kristina Staton, Virginia Run, St. Timothy's School parent
Dear Extra Credit:
The letter from Ms. Morgan seemed to reflect her own
insecurities rather than those of her child. I was a mediocre
student, as were my children and husband. I always told my own
children, as my mother told me, "Smart in school does not equate
to being smart in the real world."
My husband, a successful businessman, has two master's degrees
(one from Harvard). I have two degrees from Columbia University
and a PhD in economic history from the University of Virginia.
One daughter is a stellar schoolteacher and trains polo ponies,
the other is a communications specialist with SAIC, and my
youngest runs a venture capital office in New York City. The
point is, we are all different and excel at different things at
different times in our lives. I do think that rather than
moaning and groaning about her 8-year-old not doing as well as
her friends, Ms. Morgan should concentrate on telling her child
that she has other gifts, which I am sure she has.
Lorna Gladstone, McLean, Former Cooper Middle School and Langley
High School, parent
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