It’s Time We Stopped Playing the Blame Game with Gifted Programs
Everyone Has Met This Parent…
You and your children are at the library. You notice them begin to play with a “new friend” so you decide to strike up a conversation with her parent and immediately realize you have made a mistake. You should have hidden your nose in a book. What started out as a pleasant conversation, quickly takes a detour when the topic of school enrollment comes up. “Public school?” the mother states, with a face that looks like she has just realized she has the stomach flu. “We are considering a variety of options.”
When she starts explaining what these options entail: a few hard-to-get-into public schools and an even larger array of private schools, you wish you hadn’t been so friendly. You have run into one of those parents. You know the type. Their children are so amazing: they roll over at two months, write their names by three and learn to read chapter books by four. These types of children would never do well in a regular public school. These children are special, unique… “gifted” (as opposed to other people’s kids who are just, well… MEH.)
Families spend thousands of dollars each year getting their children tested to assess their intelligence and academic aptitude; even when research shows testing young children for this purpose is of little value. Children’s brains develop at such a rapid rate, it is hard to say a child who scores high on one measure at the age of three, will continue to score at the top of their class even a year later. (Read more about new research on “growth mindset” here and here.) Nonetheless, “independent” (private) schools thrive on the model that there are “special” children who require a learning environment as unique and special as the children they teach.
If you find yourself getting angry with some of the perspectives I’m sharing… PLEASE, PLEASE, bear with me and read further. I’m being totally honest about how I have felt. I’ve made some realizations since then, that I will get to later. That said, it’s important for me to share where I’m coming from as both a pro-public school parent and educator committed to equity for all kids. This is my very particular point of view, and it’s relevant to the conversation (or lack of conversation) I see currently occurring among parents and educators when talking about gifted and talented programs.
That said, let’s examine my thinking further…
The Rise of the Gifted Program
While many of these parents do exist, it would be an over simplification to believe all parents who choose private education think this way. Moreover, it is easy to disparage parents who choose to self-segregate by opting out of the public education system. Still, you will find many parents such as these within our public education system. Parents who “have” participate in the enrollment lottery only in so much as it gives them what they want: Claire Lillienthal, Rooftop, Grattan, Sherman. If it doesn’t work out, they pull the plug. In doing so, they contribute in their own way to more and more segregation in our schools.
But it’s not only parents that are part of the problem. Public school educators, seeking to win over this demographic, and the economic and political capital these parents bring, have created many specialized programs to cater to the whims and desires of affluent and educated parents, even when it goes against what educational research says is true.
Practices such as these have led to our education system creating magnet, “gifted”, honors and charter school programs. This idea is not new. Interestingly, it all started around the 1970’s, at a time when many urban districts were looking for ways to desegregate our schools.:
From an article titled Magnet Schools by Christine H. Rossell via EducationNext:
“The idea was simple enough: draw white students to predominantly black schools by offering a special education with a focus on a particular aspect of the curriculum, such as performing arts, or Montessori, or advanced math, science, and technology. Federal and state agencies, anxious to avoid the growing messiness of coercive integration measures like forced busing, directed new resources toward these magnets, encouraging their pioneering academic programs and giving grants for new facilities. Glossy brochures were mailed to parents and press releases to local media. The hope was that these well-funded, themed schools would ignite a passion for learning as well as spark a movement to voluntarily integrate schools.”
In a similar way, public and private schools have sought to “market” themselves by creating “gifted and talented” programs. IQ tests along with teacher observations and other measures of academic achievement have been used to identify students in order to place them in specialized classes or enrichment programs. In most cases, once students have been identified gifted (usually in the 2nd or 3rd grade) they stay “gifted”. It doesn’t matter if their grades go up or down, or if they struggle in a new subject, once they receive the “gifted” label it follows them for the rest of your school career.
What is the opposite of gifted? … stupid?With this context in mind, it is understandable why educated parents who cannot afford to put their children in private schools might feel strongly about getting their children in such programs. Nobody wants to think that their child is being left out, or left behind. What is the opposite of gifted? … stupid?
We LOVE our children. Every parent thinks their child is unique, wonderful, special. And, any parent with the resources to do so will do whatever they think is necessary to get the best education they can for his or her kids.
Honors Classes Turn Out to Be Another Form of Tracking
Initially, many educators and parents argued that this new system would allow teachers to focus their instruction to better target student needs. Kids who needed it, could get extra help without dragging down their peers who were ready to fly. Yet, over time education researchers started to find the practice of tracking students by ability was yielding negative consequences: for students in both groups.
I remember when I was a child, the “gifted” kids would leave class for an hour each week to do enrichment activities. Those who were not identified as gifted, were consistently reminded how “unspecial” they were. When I was in sixth grade, I remember being asked by one of my friends, “Why am I not gifted?”. I had no response. I remember feeling guilty and confused. I didn’t work any harder than my friend. She deserved to go as much as I did.
My husband recounted a related experience when he was in the fourth grade. His mother got a call to come to school and speak with the principal. Apparently, my husband and his twin brother had started a rebellion in class that day. They explained to their teacher they no longer wanted to participate in the TAG (Talented and Gifted) program. They did not think it was fair to be pulled out of class (via intercom announcement!)to “do fun stuff” while their peers had to remain in their regular class.
After a while, my husband and his brother decided they didn’t feel right leaving their peers behind. They explained to their teacher, they did not wish to go. This so upset her so she informed the principal who promptly called their mother. My mother-in-law, explained to the principal she agreed with her sons, and in support of their decision pulled them from the program. After word of this got out, some of the other TAG students also asked to be pulled from the program as well. Though the school continued the program, they stopped announcing it over the intercom and made other changes.
Don’t Believe the Hype: Honors Classes ≠ Learning
As it turns out, not only are honors classes unfair to students who get left behind, research shows they also do little to further learning for those in them. (For a great summary, see the excerpt from “Introduction of Heterogeneous Classrooms” by Maika Watanabe at the end of this document.)
I remember my “gifted” class in 6th grade. We left the class each week so Mrs. Agony could enrich our bright and eager young minds. (This is not her real name BTW, but her real name wasn’t much better!) I don’t remember learning anything. The only thing I DO remember is the day she showed us slides from her vacation to China. It was readily apparent to all of us that she didn’t have any curriculum planned that day and had decided to narrate along as she showed a pack of slides she had hastily bought on her trip. She must not have viewed them ahead of time, because the presentation ended abruptly when topless showgirls started showing up in the photos. (True story!)
My view of gifted and honors classes was solidified when I myself became a teacher at the secondary level. I know many teachers of high school honors and AP classes, who are highly qualified to teach these courses. That said, it is common knowledge at many schools that Honors or AP teachers are often chosen based on seniority (e.g. they have been around longer than anyone else) or based on who their are friends are, rather than by their ability to teach advanced material.
The arbitrary nature of how these programs are been implemented is even more evident when you look at them from a district lens. For several years I worked with schools and districts to increase college and career access for underrepresented students (in SFUSD and OUSD, specifically). I have seen firsthand how selection criteria differs widely from one school to the next. I have also seen how students and families who are unskilled in navigating “the system” must overcome repeated barriers while privileged children are automatically scheduled into “college-going-courses” (as I was) and breeze on through.
As more and more research comes out about the negative effects of segregating students by ability, it has become harder and harder for districts and site leaders to justify the practice. Nonetheless, parents, who grew up with these programs during the 70’s and 80’s are often egged on by educators who benefit from academic tracking (e.g. honors teachers, schools that cater to “high performing” students). These vocal and active parents have often resisted the shift to heterogeneous (and equitable) classrooms.
“From court cases and legislative lobbying to their own fundraising campaigns, parents are putting pressure on states and school districts to boost services for gifted children, whose needs and abilities, they say, often aren’t met inside a traditional classroom.
While parents of the gifted have long faced challenges in proving the worth in providing “extras” for highly capable students, the fight has become even harder now in many districts where dollars are tight and other needs are deemed more pressing.
And, according to some advocates, the stakes can be even higher for low-income and minority parents who view gifted and talented programs as a means of providing their children with greater opportunity in cash-strapped school systems.
“In a low-resourced district, the concerns of parents of gifted students who can’t access gifted education services are often heightened,” said Natalie Jansorn, the director of those programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships and other funding to help gifted students. “They have no assurance their child will be challenged in the regular classroom that is focused on meeting minimum test requirements, and they don’t know where else to turn.”
As school funding in urban districts has plummeted, and pressure to “close the achievement gap” has increased, the fight for fewer and fewer resources has intensified. Over the past ten years, school “accountability” systems such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have forced many school teachers and administrators to prioritize their efforts on meeting the needs of students who are academically behind: English Learners, low-income students and students receiving special education services. Meanwhile, funding for programs like GATE and honors has gone by the wayside. In this scenario, parents and educators have become like rats in a cage, fighting over crumbs. Parents express concern that the education system’s only concern is teaching to the lowest performing students, while educators, especially those focused on educational and social equity, associate gifted/honors programs with overprivileged students and entitled parents.
OK, here’s where I come clean. When I wrote a post last spring about the District’s move to eliminate GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) and Honors programs at the middle and high school level, I was amazed to find that in making the connection between gifted programs and social inequity, I touched a nerve with many readers. (See the comments section at the bottom of the post.)
I have to admit. My first response was very similar to the one I describe at the beginning of this post… “Oh! Sure! You entitled, (White) parents! Of course you want a gifted program. You don’t want your kids in school with Black and Brown kids.” If I had wanted to, I could have stopped the conversation right there and patted myself on the back for being such a fearless, crusader for social justice.
Yet, as I have engaged in conversation with the commenters I have realized there is much more going on. Some of the parents I have spoken to expressed frustration at having their concerns brushed aside by educators who didn’t have the time or bandwidth to challenge their kids. One reader wrote about his families experience:
The teachers that are asked to differentiate instruction are often under-skilled, under-trained or under-resourced. Differentiation as it’s practiced resolves to the teachers asking her to tutor other students. That’s ok for some portion of the class, but she is not being taught at a level that provides the necessary challenge to maintain her interest.
Differentiation, or customizing instruction for the level of the student, is the district’s answer to meeting the needs of all students. But, is it truly happening in all classrooms? Not when “differentiation” is defined as having GATE students tutor their peers. Not when “differentiation” means more worksheets of the same type of work students can already successfully do.
But how can we expect teachers to meet the heightened demands of a fully differentiated classroom when they are provided with little training and no additional resources? It is unrealistic to expect teachers (and even principals for that matter) to implement district initiatives such as these without district-wide systems linked with resources, training and support. It’s no wonder many teachers express frustration and apathy when asked to “up their game” to challenge kids who are performing beyond grade-level expectations when they are already maxed out trying to help low-performing students catch up.
Conversations like these have made me have a change of heart.
As parents we may agree that segregation and tracking is bad, and still push for our children to receive instruction that is tailored to their needs. Wanting the best for our kids does not make us racist. Neither does advocating for our childrens’ right to challenging and engaging curriculum.
Conversely, educators who focus only on the needs of poor performing students miss out on opportunities to enrich learning for all students. Even worse, they blame struggling learners for their own inability to differentiate, and lower expectations for all our students.
Teachers feel overwhelmed when they are not sufficiently trained or supported in meeting the needs of diverse learners in their classrooms. This is not a reason for teachers or district leaders to blame “demanding” children or “nagging” parents for wanting more from their educational experience. Gifted students challenge their peers to expand their thinking and tackle academic problems in new and creative ways. Educated, vocal parents can be great allies for teachers and schools in fundraising and advocating for increased support of high quality academic programming for all students.
It’s Time we Stopped Playing the Blame-Game.
Instead of getting caught up in the “entitled” parent versus “lazy” teacher debate, parents and educators must have honest, challenging conversations about what it means to be truly gifted and talented and what good differentiated instruction looks like for any child and what district-wide systems need to be put in place to support classroom teachers in meeting the needs of ALL children. When I say all, I am including English Learner students, black and brown students, newcomer students, students who receive special education services, and YES, students who consistently exceed our expectations and think in new and innovative ways.
Change Brings New Opportunities
Having new standards creates a need to develop new curriculum.
With the new Common Core State Standards implemented this year, changes in instruction are inevitable. The new standards are already more challenging than previous CA State Standards; they stress critical thinking and problem-solving, require an increase in academic vocabulary, a higher level of reading comprehension and a deeper understanding of abstract mathematical concepts.
These new standards have meant a new district-wide curriculum in English and Math. This year was the first year district teachers began implementing the new SFUSD Core Math Curriculum. Last year, district teachers began implementing the SFUSD English Language Arts Pre-K Core Curriculum. Over the past few years, the Curriculum and Instruction Office has worked teams of teachers across the district to map out unit plans and learning goals for English and Math at each grade level. In doing so, there now exist new opportunities for these same teacher teams to develop and share resources and best practices for meeting the needs of exceptional students in heterogeneous (mixed) classrooms, whether these students are gifted, English Learners, or students with learning disabilities.
Having new standards also means thinking about assessments in new ways.
STAR tests, which were previously used to identify GATE students, have gone away. STAR tests have been replaced with Smarter Balanced Assessments, vastly different end-of-year tests that require critical thinking, reasoning, and writing ability. As new state and district assessments go into full effect this year, the district must develop new measures for gifted and talented abilities.
Hopefully we will find better indicators of gifted ability than in the past when we used mainly grades and multiple-choice tests. Students will have to demonstrate innovative thinking and higher levels of academic achievement than just being hard-working or good students. These shifts could also create a more equity in our schools by giving more black, brown and English Learner students access to GATE resources and supports. (I have seen many under-performing students turn around their academic achievement once they were properly challenged in class.)
New brain research on neuroplasticity should also inform a new understanding of how often we assess for giftedness. Being assessed once as a third-grader and never again, simply does not make sense knowing how the brain is constantly changing and growing new neural networks. What about students who show promise in middle school or high school. Shouldn’t they also have access to more challenging work?
These are just my initial thoughts in this very important conversation. It is critical that parents AND educators start talking about their hopes, fears, and questions as we move forward to create a more equitable and effective GATE program in our district. Please take a moment to share your ideas, experiences and comments below. And share this post with other parents and educators who may be interested in this conversation.
Also, check back regularly on this blog. As a GATE Parent Representative for my daughters’ school, I will be asking questions and attending district meetings to gather more information and resources which I hope to share here. Parents play an important role in supporting quality education for all kids. They also play an important role in supporting our teachers… the amazing folks who dedicate their lives to educating our kids! We must be active participants in the GATE redesign process; to monitor, support and advocate for equitable classrooms that differentiate for all types of learners… including those with exceptionally bright, creative and talented young minds. 🙂