I’m posting this essay on here rather than submitting it to the place it was originally intended for. I think this audience might be more receptive to an outside-the-box conversation. Although this is not about religion (I warned you, I wander), this is relevant to this blog.
The Truth about Gifted and Talented Programs
(and How to Help All Students)
The truth is, if you are a socio-economically advantaged family, there are certain things you know about the Gifted and Talented (GT) program in your school district that others typically don’t. You know that if your child doesn’t make the cut for the high-IQ team the first time, your son or daughter can take the assessment again. And again. And again. If your child is close to making the team—or what you consider close—you can call the GT coordinator and pressure him or her to reconsider. Sometimes this works, especially if you have something that you can barter with, like your time or other resources.
The truth is that, once in, parents and teachers tell GT kids how exceptional they are, how different they are. So different, in fact, that they should stay in a pack with other GT kids, with their “true peers.” Many times, these students are already clustered (read: homogenized) in the classroom all the way through high school graduation, but they oftentimes won’t interact, by choice, with the kids they deem average or inferior. Yet these kids will find that, once in college or the workforce, it’s not always clear who is gifted and who is not. There are smart people who appear “gifted,” and there are “gifted” people who appear not so smart.
The truth is that there are a higher number of whites and Asians and boys and wealthy students in GT programs. The truth is that sometimes the assessments are unintentionally biased against minorities and low-income kids. The truth is that sometimes girls do not want to be identified with the “nerdy” kids, so they opt out of gifted classes. The truth is some kids drop out because they can’t handle the pressure. The truth is some kids just miss the cut, but they are still intelligent and would benefit from the more rigorous schooling. How many bright children have been left behind, bored, because they didn’t make it into GT?
Perhaps there is nothing more polarizing in our educational system than the “gifted and talented” label, which defines and divides our children. Identifying a handful of children as gifted and talented just isn’t fair to students, for both those with and without the label. And the kids—as well as the parents of kids—who don’t make the GT cut? They know. Because of one set of assessments at a single point in their young lives, the implication is that they are neither gifted nor talented. This will be a salient memory in their school years, a little scar that will never go away. The parents feel dejected, too, having their kid deemed ordinary. If you don’t think moms and dads take it personally, just ask a GT coordinator.
The GT label becomes a burden of sorts. If you’ve been to a parent support group for the gifted and talented, where they discuss the education of their children, you’ll find that every single meeting is sabotaged by not one but many parents who want to stand up and tell the world how wonderful their children are (and, by proxy, they are). They feel the weight of having to ensure that their progeny are being adequately challenged by the school district, curriculum, teachers and peers who are not quite up to par with their gifted children.
There is no doubt that participation in a gifted program provides opportunities and enrichment that other students won’t get in the regular classroom: GT teachers oftentimes have additional training; they use novel teaching techniques and a specialized academic program like the William and Mary Integrated Curriculum. Even in elementary school, students will have more creative projects like building roller coasters or the chance to play sophisticated simulation games like the Stock Market Game. They take more exciting field trips; for example, to Six Flags, where they will use physics principles to measure things like acceleration and velocity of rides. There is also no doubt that GT students need all of this and more, and that other students may be able to benefit, too.
A great deal of the gifted programs in the U.S. have faced cutbacks over the last few years. In some districts, GT students are given a mere two or three hours a week as enrichment through pull-out programs, and they must go back to the classroom where oftentimes the material has already been learned, where they must slow to a jog or, sometimes, are asked to help tutor other students. In high school, challenging course selections, especially in math and science, can be limited.
There is a fix for all of these issues. The Khan Academy addresses the intellectual continuum in a student population, and when used in the classroom, provides a differentiated education for each pupil, discreetly. This works well for the slow-learner, the average-paced learner and the high-ability learner. Kids acquire new information and skills at their own speed, which means the student who learns fast can move ahead and will not get bored, and the kid who learns slowly will not feel intimidated but will continue to acquire and master new material.
In a sense, Salman Khan, the creator of the academy, has leveled the educational playing field so that smart kids with curiosity and drive can have the same opportunities as the kids who are identified as GT. The cool girls who didn’t want to be seen as nerdy won’t be sequestered. The kids in GT pull-out programs won’t have to suffer through time spent teaching to the middle of the class, and they won’t have to act as tutors in their regular classrooms. School districts can save money by eliminating a special-needs program. This would promote inclusivity and encourage friendships between diverse student populations. Everyone benefits.
Educators should also embrace some of the learning strategies the GT programs currently use. Incorporating both group and individual projects will help those students who learn tactilely as well as inspire and engage students in deeper learning. Students should be encouraged to participate in fun enrichment activities such as Math Counts and Destination Imagination, which the GT have traditionally been drawn to.
The truth is, all children could benefit from differentiated instruction as well as the methods and approaches used in GT programs. Yes, some kids have more abilities in the classroom than others. But our students will grow up and live in a world where everyone is supposed to be given the same opportunities, where everyone has unique gifts and talents, and where only they will be responsible for how far and how fast they go, regardless of IQ.
The truth is, telling only a few students that they are gifted, limits all of them.