Sunday, February 19, 2012

Gifted and Talented

I was listening again to an old Radiolab episode and though I know it's a bit out of date and the conversation about this episode has probably long dried up, it just bothered me so much that I felt like I needed to rant about it somewhere.  My husband says that's what blogs are for, so here's the episode:

In it, Malcolm Gladwell talks about why he doesn't like gifted and talented education.  I've been entrenched in the gifted and talented debate in schools for my entire life because my older brother was identified as exceptionally gifted.  My younger brother and I were also identified as gifted, but I had a severe deficiency in reading that helped me integrate more into a public school environment because I wasn't yards ahead of my classmates.  My older brother though, was exceptional all around.  My parents trusted to the public school system to meet his needs, but like many very bright students he was bored.  So bored in fact that when the classes started to get legitimately challenging, he had trouble keeping up as he had never learned study skills because he had never needed to study.  My mother, throughout my brother's school career campaigned for gifted and talented education because the needs of her child were not met.  So I guess this all makes me ridiculously biased, but as a teacher, it has helped me work with my students because it taught me a very valuable lesson- school has to meet students where they are and it has to set expectations tailored to each student's abilities.

 Maybe I'll deal point by point with my disagreements with both Robert Krulwich and Malcolm Gladwell's comments.  I love Radiolab and Robert Krulwich, but I feel that in this instance, they didn't really know what they were talking about.

About a minute into the show, Krulwich says, "As we all know, in America, there's a real hunt on from a very early age to find the gifted and talented children.  And we have programs all over the country trying to identify exceptional kids."  Perhaps it's just Oregon, but here, Gifted and Talented programs have all but been eliminated from the public school system.  My mother has been fighting for the last 25 years to force the Oregon government to adhere to laws about TAG (Talented and Gifted) students in our state because these programs keep getting cut despite regulation meant to ensure that TAG students' needs are met.  She and many other TAG parents sued the Portland school district for noncompliance and won.  TAG programs are just another expense that school districts are reluctant to pay for, especially once No Child Left Behind was passed because NCLB forced schools to expend resources for the students at the bottom of the achievement spectrum, students at the top could be ignored.  The thought that there's a hunt out there to help these bright students succeed is laughable.  Portland just tried to close the highest performing school in the district because it was a "brain drain". They thought that those students, when redistributed among the other high schools, would help those high schools meet AYP. I know that perhaps he meant any gifted and talented students- those gifted at sports, art, or music.  Not necessarily those who are identified as Gifted and Talented academically by state tests.  These academically gifted students though, because their needs are not being met, make fewer and fewer gains as they move up through school and often end up having very poor grades or dropping out because their entire experience with school has been boring and frustrating.  Unfortunately, I have a terrible memory, and this is a rant, not an essay or an article so I won't dredge up statistics for you.  My mom could.  But how often have we teachers bemoaned the poor grades of our brightest students?  I know I and my colleagues have.

About a minute and a half into the show, Malcolm Gladwell, after Krulwich comments that Gladwell hates Gifted and Talented education says "It's ridiculous... We identify a child and call that child gifted because of their performance at the age of, whatever, nine or ten or eleven years old.  Why do we care particularly how well a child performs at nine or ten or eleven years old?  They're nine or ten or eleven.  They're a good 25 years from making any kind of substantial contribution to the world.  Why don't we wait?  What's the hurry?... So one child learns to read at 4 and one child learns to read at 2 and a half. So what?  Why does it matter?  Are the things that are being read between 2 and a half and four are of such incalculable..." And here's where Krulwich cuts in.  I get to what Krulwich's response is in a minute.  I can't even begin to express how much Gladwell misses the point with this comment.  He thinks that we identify early readers because we're interested in finding the next American author?  His comment makes it seem that education is about grooming students to serve society later in life.  This is an entirely valid perspective on education at a macro level.  Yes, education is about raising a new generation of thoughtful, intelligent and creative people to carry our civilization into the future.  But I as an educator am not interested in creating the next Obama, the next Gladwell or the next Bill Gates.  I am interested in helping my students learn to love learning.  I am interested in helping them learn to navigate the world so that they can explore and work towards goals that will make them happy.  I'm interested in helping them become happy, as well as successful human beings.  I am interested in the micro.  Gifted education is not about us selfishly selecting the brightest students to serve society in 30 years ala Ender's Game (If you haven't read this book, you should).  Gifted education is about helping students navigate school successfully without getting bullied and without being bored.  Gifted education is about challenging students so that they don't get lazy, as bright students are apt to do, so that they learn important study skills, expand their knowledge, interact positively with the world around them rather than disengaging as soon as they can no longer coast by.

Now to Krulwich's response: "No no no, it's just a normal parent's response to 'oh, if he's reading at two and a half, think of the things he'll do..' and it's just an extrapolation."  This response makes it sound like parents' only interest in their child's early skill is for boasting purposes or to satisfy a parent's pride.  What about those parents who recognize that their student will go to school and will be told by a friend, or a teacher "you're not supposed to read yet."  Or "it's nice that you can read, but the other children can't yet so you'll just need to sit here until they catch up."  These are comments that are made to young children when they can do things other students can't and it cuts down their morale, makes them feel freakish, tells them that what they do naturally is not ok, or that school is about sitting around being bored.  Parents become frustrated when their children are unhappy, and parents of gifted students are very frustrated.  My mother gets calls and e-mails daily from parents torn about what to do when their children come home from school demoralized, unmotivated and sad. (To make another literature reference- Wrinkle in Time has a great example of how gifted students can get treated at school.)

Now I know that this is not what Gladwell and Krulwich were focusing on.  There are parents out there that push their children to succeed out of selfish motives.  In many cases, there's no need to separate high performing students from average students.  But there are students out there who have special needs- just like deaf students, or a students with dyslexia.  Exceptionally gifted students need special programs with teachers who understand them in order to become successful, well adjusted adults.  I had dyslexia and I was accelerated in math.  Both of my needs were met.  I was challenged in both reading and math and being challenged taught me the beauty that could be found through learning and education.  I have a good work ethic because I was constantly challenged to keep trying, keep pushing, keep engaging with the world.  All students need this challenge, all students should have programs and teachers that work with them from where they are to where they want to go.  Even naturally academically gifted students need guidance and support. Krulwich and Gladwell have forgotten that education is also about students, not just about society at large.


  1. Interesting essay. But all I really want to say here is don't read Ender's Game. Or, if you do, borrow someone's used copy and don't give that author any of your money. The author is a board member of National Organization for Marriage, which I think says it all.

  2. This essay got me thinking about things I haven't thought about before. Thanks!

  3. I know that Orson Scott Card is a terrible, terrible person but I just love that book soooo much. My little brother keeps telling me that good art exists as an entity independent of its creator and in this instance I try to think of Ender's game in that light.

    Thank you MC! I'm delighted to have made an interesting enough argument to spark new thoughts! I was just really angry and wanted a forum in which to vent so I'm not sure if my post was all that coherent.

  4. I've got 2 kids attending a "gifted center" in the Chicago Public School system-but I doubt they're truly gifted. To keep middle class families in Chicago, a lot of kids who score in the top 10 percent of a secret entrance exam receive the gifted label. The gifted schools are also demographically balanced, while the remaining neighborhood schools tend to be segregated and struggle to meet NCLB benchmarks.

    I too loved reading Ender's Game, but it does imply that to succeed in war you can't be anything less than totally ruthless. I can't remember how many bullies Ender beats to death in the story-all with the approval of his educators (and the author) who manipulate circumstances to make such brutality seem necessary and appropriate.