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Article of Interest - Gifted Students

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'Gifted' Label Comes With Baggage
Jay Mathews, Washington Post, June 16, 2005
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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:


Dear Extra Credit:

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 the tracking.

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 Carolina.

Jacqueline Morgan, Haycock Elementary, School parent, Falls Church area

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" students.

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

Dear Extra Credit:

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 we give.

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 know-it-all."

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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