Gifted education

Rod Dreher has a post about plans in Louisiana to cut the budget of their residential public high school for gifted and talented kids. Read the whole thing, but these bits stick out to me:

It’s distressing to me how gifted education is typically seen in this country. We tend to spare no expense to provide for the needs of students who are handicapped or challenged in particular ways by the normal classroom experience. But we don’t spend nearly the energy or the money on gifted education — this, even though many gifted kids face their own set of challenges that cannot be easily overcome in a standard classroom. When I was in college at LSU, I remember getting into an argument with a friend over this; he believed that gifted kids had natural advantages by virtue of their cognitive skills, and didn’t need or deserve any special consideration.

I don’t believe that’s true at all. Of course nobody feels sorry for gifted kids, and nobody’s asking them to. The point is that to the extent that it’s feasible, all kids should be in an educational environment in which they can flourish to the extent of their own talents. If a kid cannot do as well as he otherwise could because of a particular learning disability, then insofar as it is possible to accomodate that child’s needs, we should seek to do so. Similarly, though, there are reasons why many gifted kids struggle in standard classrooms, and their needs should not be dismissed simply because of their intelligence. In my case, my grades were good in my old public school, but I struggled with depression because I was such an outsider, and was constantly picked on by the in crowd. The great thing about LSMSA — and I think lots of kids from small-town schools like mine felt this way — was not so much the superlative academics as the great blessing of not having to bear the emotional burden of being bullied and socially marginalized because you got good grades and liked books. […]

[The Louisiana School] was a place where, for the first time, we could feel accepted and affirmed, not marginalized and bullied as nerds and outcasts because we liked books and ideas. We could hardly believe our luck to be living and studying in a place where we didn’t have to keep our heads down and our mouths shut to avoid crossing the dominant peer culture in our hometown schools. When I graduated, I took with me a powerful sense of confidence, of being at home in the world, one that I had not known before. That gift was, literally, priceless.

I’ve talked extensively about my (mis)adventures in higher education (starting here); I’ve not really talked about more, shall we say, elementary matters. I’ll start out by saying that while it’s great that Dreher and people like him have had this experience with gifted education, it is worlds away from what mine was like. Perhaps, like so many things, the best thing to say is that gifted education is one of those things to which you either have to commit fully and do it right, or don’t do it at all, because to to do it in a, uh, half-fast manner will be worse than doing nothing.

I started to learn to read when I was probably 3. My parents claim that nobody taught me how to read; they would read to me, I would memorize the books they were reading to me, and (so they say) I started instinctively linking sounds to text. I don’t know; I don’t remember. I do know that when I was four or five, I was reading, and memorizing passages from, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

When I started kindergarten, within two weeks somebody realized that things weren’t quite right. I was given a diagnostic reading test after school one day; a couple of days later, I was told I was being moved up to first grade. What I found out later was that I had scored at the twelfth grade level, and that they had wanted to move me up to fourth or fifth grade. My parents decided that was probably going too far, and agreed to the one-year bump.

First and second grade, to say the least, were a struggle. I had, really, two friends, and they were both two grades ahead of me. (Aaron Spencer and Jamie Metrokas, where are you guys, anyway?) I tended to get along with adults better than other kids. It was really tough for me to stay engaged in class, because I would just read and work ahead very quickly, which of course isn’t what my teachers or fellow students wanted me to do. I would bring other books to occupy myself when I was done with what was assigned in class, which also isn’t what anybody wanted me to do. I soaked up whatever anybody put in front of me, and I had a big imagination that would start transforming the information into other things, too. Numbers I wasn’t (and am not) so hot with, but what that meant (at least up until high school) is that I was done with assignments five minutes before everybody else rather than a half hour.

Also, being less than athletic, I was at once the Smart Kid and the Fat Kid.

Like I said, it was a struggle. I just wanted to read my books, write my stories, and get along with people, and I didn’t understand why it seemed so hard. My first grade teacher told my parents that, realistically, it wouldn’t be until college before I’d really “come into my own,” whatever that really meant.

Just before I started third grade, we moved from Wenatchee to Woodinville, which back in 1984 was a reasonably-affluent almost-rural suburb of Seattle (as opposed to the nouveau riche extension of the Microsoft campus that it is now). The Northshore School District, as it worked out, had a (now much re-worked and re-titled) program for third through sixth grade called, prosaically enough, Talented and Gifted (TAG). My parents enrolled me, and hoped that it would mean better things for me.

Eh, not so much. Not really.

The trouble was multi-part. First of all, the program was a “magnet” (in other words, it was based at a particular school and you went there, rather than it being at your home school), and at least when I got started, it was floating magnet, having been at two or three different schools in the four or five years it had been in existence. So, we were among the “normal” kids, but we were sequestered from them somewhat because we were told we were “different”. That made for a weird, weird, weird dynamic, let me tell you.

For years four through six, we were at our own school, but it was the oldest and most rundown building in the district (built in the 1920s, had asbestos, fun stuff like that), and we were put there with the special education kids. This posed its own problems — we felt like freaks and afterthoughts, to a certain extent, and there was a certain amount of normal kid stuff which was expressly forbidden specifically because administrators were worried that the special education children might try to imitate us. We were “different”, we were “special”, but the way were treated, these terms did not appear to mean anything positive. It seemed to mean we were a problem best shoved aside and kept out of the view of everybody else.

As well, we were still kids, and kids will stratify themselves. It’s what they do. We were all theoretically “the smart kids,” so the smart kids separated themselves into “the popular smart kids,” “the not-popular smart kids,” “the smart smart kids,” the dumb smart kids,” and so on. Because we were smarter, part of what that meant is that we knew how to hurt each other more efficiently. Ever read Ender’s Game? It was sort of like that. Two of my fellow students absolutely brutalized me emotionally on a daily basis from third grade through fifth grade — and I mean they sought me out every free moment they had, and they were as intentionally merciless as they could manage. Their hobby was making me miserable, they were really good at it. My teachers told my parents on a regular basis that there was nothing they could do about it until it became physical.

Which, at some point, it did, when one morning I got spray cleaner blasted right in my eyes. Then somebody did something about it.

Another practical issue was transportation. We were bused to and from the school; that meant taking the bus on our normal route to what would have been our normal school, and then another bus picked us up there to take us to the host school. Getting home meant a special set of buses. I lived roughly five minutes from the school, but since they were trying to get everybody home from the host school on two or three buses, it took an hour to get home.

Since this program ceased after sixth grade, that meant that we were dumped back out among the “normal” kids in junior high. We had an Honors English and History program at that point, but that was it. In other words, we’d been kept separate from everybody for the last four years, and now were expected to “mainstream” ourselves. Since large groups of kids knew each other from the mainstream elementary schools, knew they didn’t know us, and knew why they didn’t know us, the 5-10 of us former TAG kids were instantly easy targets. Junior high was a long, agonizing three years — it was going to be anyway, of course, but this way it felt even longer.

A lot of us TAG kids wound up doing theatre in high school and thriving in that setting, interestingly enough. Make of that what you will.

All of this is to say, I’ve got really mixed feelings about so-called “gifted education”. I can’t lay all of this at the feet of TAG, necessarily; another issue was home life, which is its own long story. The relevant point I’ll share for the moment is that my parents, while not being stupid people by any means, are very practical people, and it was hard for them to relate to where I was. There were many times where I would tell them something I was excited about, and they would look at each other and say, “Are you sure this is our kid?” As a result, it was difficult for them to know what to cultivate in me or how to cultivate it, or to tell me how to deal with what I was going through.

Maybe the Louisiana School is a place that is able to do it right; maybe a residential high school, rather than a magnet elementary school, is a better way to go. If so, more power to it and to its students — but I’m not by any means going to cheerlead “gifted education” as an absolute.


17 Responses to “Gifted education”

  1. 1 outdoorgrrl 7 May 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Wow! I had a completely opposite experience with gifted education. I was part of LWSD’s “quest program” – their equivalent of TAG. It sounds like it was set up much the same. We were bussed to a school that housed a couple of grade levels of the questies. Then the next year we were sent as a class to a different school. I never in a million years felt the kind of isolation you talked about. At recess we played dodge ball, 4-square and tether ball and swung on the monkey bars like everyone else. We did do some weird things too – like banding together to put on plays for our class on our own initiative. No one seemed to notice or care. As far as anyone else knew, we were just kids from Ms. Tennis’s class or Ms. Phillips class or Mr. Teeley’s.

    I do remember that I no longer felt angry and frustrated in class because so-and-so just didn’t get it on the umpteenth explanation. Because we grasped things so quickly we moved on to creative applications of our knowledge – like building an entire Nutcracker village in our second grade classroom or investing in a fictional stock market (for the record, I wasn’t very good at it, but others became classroom moguls). We had the freedom to pursue things we were interested in that kids in regular classes didn’t have time for.

    The shift in educational experience happened when I went back to regular classes. We moved to the Northshore district at the end of 5th grade, and I chose to go back to the regular class for the last two weeks of 5th grade and 6th grade. What a mistake. I spent a year and change being the teacher’s TA and tutoring the other students who couldn’t pick up the basics of fractions. Talk about an isolating experience. When we got to jr. high and high school, I actually felt better there because we tracked together in the same English, social studies, and math classes. Those three classes were the place where I continued to feel safe being a smart kid. In the regular classes, I struggled with how to maintain being cool without compromising my educational experience. (I think I still have that problem today, but probably less so in law school where most people are extremely bright.) I also actively sought out opportunities to interact/befriend kids outside of those classes.

    By high school I was … well … okay, I checked out for a year and went to Germany. Never mind … that’s an isolating experience in and of itself.

    I guess all of this is to say, I wonder if your experiences didn’t have as much to do with the make up of the people in your classes, how you chose to deal with being an outsider when you got into that situation, and the fact that it you didn’t actively seek out participation in activities outside of school with “normal” kids.

    I’m not trying to devalue what you experienced at all, just suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t all the related to the way the gifted program was set up. I’d hate to see the baby thrown out with the bath water.

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 7 May 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Perhaps one thing that wasn’t clear is that from 4th through 6th grade, when I said we were at our “own” school, that meant we were it. They re-opened the ratty old Woodinville Annex building specifically so we would be kept separate from the “mainstream” schools. We didn’t isolate ourselves on purpose, in other words — the district did that for us. The Annex shared facilities with C. O. Sorenson School, which was the special education school for the district. A few years after I was there, they built Woodmoor Elementary next to Northshore Jr. High, which became the magnet school for all “tracking” programs in the district. Had we been kept at mainstream schools throughout elementary school, as sounds like was the case in LWSD, perhaps different dynamics would have emerged. Looking at Woodmoor’s present profile, it looks like they still have the tracking programs, but also house mainstream classes. Sorenson is now a preschool, and the Annex was Woodinville City Hall for awhile.

    At any rate, you may well be right that it was the makeup of the people involved; I know that I’m not the only person who went through that program in those years who remembers it the way I do, so take that for what it’s worth.

  3. 3 Troy Peterson 7 May 2009 at 2:47 pm

    There are thousands of programs in the country and just like anything there are some good, some bad and some just there; just like schools in general. I hated school from day one. But I would not want to abolish schools because of that. As a middle school teacher I am deeply interested in reform of schools. But with it being a national political issue now I doubt that ever happens until the bottom falls out.

    • 4 Richard Barrett 7 May 2009 at 2:53 pm

      Troy –

      As a middle school teacher, what do you see as being potential ways of achieving reform — money and political viability being non-issues for present purposes?

  4. 5 Troy Peterson 7 May 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Wow- that is the million dollar question. Much of what I see that needs to change goes beyond the school walls. The issues schools deal with are mostly symptoms of a sick culture/society. As long as that is case I don’t believe any change is possible and if it were I don’t know if it could affect much, things being what they are. Education is not really valued- only the credentials it provides- and only that by some. But if I could wiggle my nose and make it so I would change things from the bottom up.

    I would start by eliminating grade levels being tied to an age. Children could enter the system at age 5 and move to 1st grade when they have demonstrated they are ready with subsequent promotions going much the same. Many of the students I see who struggle and are behavior problems are frustrated because they are behind and have been all of their academic lives. Not every child develops at the same pace so it is absurd to expect them to.

    I would then do something to get the notion that every child can “be whatever they want to be” dead and buried. I think it is great to encourage and even push students to do their best- but the idea that if I push Johnny Thug a little harder and a little harder that he will be what Bobby Brains is, is as ignorant as thinking that if someone pushes me hard enough in basketball I can be as good as Michael Jordan. But this idea is deep seated in K-12 circles and would take years to overcome and impossible to eradicate.

    A very tangible and therefore more concrete reform would be special education. The acronym FAPE stands for Free and Appropriate Public Education and it guarantees any child with any disability be served by the public schools by federal law. That sounds great on paper but in reality it means that students with behavior problems account for resources at a 20:1 ratio (I am totally guessing at that). It also means a school district is very limited in disciplining a child diagnosed with a disability. I have zero problems with serving children with disabilities, but many students biggest disability seems to be acting like a jack-ass (maybe because they are frustrated-see above). Federal law also states that kids need to be in the least restrictive environment. So children are “mainstreamed” or put into general education classes when they are actually far beneath or beyond their peers. Again- this is great for many students- but a disaster for many others; not to mention the students in the classroom that are not receiving services. These two concepts dictate much of all else that goes on at any level in many public schools. I would do away with both laws and look at ways that best serve the education of each child rather than force them into roles society wants them in- a social leveling of sorts.

    Another realistic reform is open enrollments, vouchers, charter schools- anything that opens the system up for parents to choose what is best for their child and for schools to innovate and offer something different than the status quo. If I had one it would start with non-grade level thinking I described above and work to move each student to the next level they were ready for. That’s me and a lot of parents I speak with would love that and gladly enroll their children. Others may not and hopefully there would be a school somewhere close where they could enroll their child under one of those three reforms above.

    Thank you for asking me this question. This is a very brief (comparatively speaking) and skeletal response to what I could go on about for a very long time. I know there are no easy answers out there and that I probably can’t see the forest through the trees. But educational philosophy in this country is very dogmatic and to question it is to be labeled any number of harsh things and be without a job. Again, this is a bigger issue than I can address in a few paragraphs- even if I did take my time to outline something first rather than just shoot from the hip. Thanks again.

    BTW- my own children are in public schools, in gifted programs and I am actually pleased with their education thus far.

    • 6 Richard Barrett 9 May 2009 at 9:15 am

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Troy. Couple of questions —

      While I tend to agree with you, how do you answer the typical criticisms of vouchers and charter schools — for example, making it too easy for the privileged parent to opt out of having their kids educated with “the wrong people”, thus getting a better set of options for their own children at the expense of the system in general? I will say that to me this seems like specious criticism, because it suggests that parents ought not to act in their child’s best interests.

      It occurred to me a few years ago when I was reading an article about problems Catholic schools face these days that perhaps part of the problem is that we’ve turned the job of being a primary educator into a middle-class career, whereas it seems that it used to be primarily performed by people who either didn’t have high material expectations from life or who were only doing it temporarily — people in the religious life and young, unmarried women come to mind as the stereotype. I don’t know how you get around this, but I’ve wondered at times over the years if part of the solution would be encouraging at least a subset of people to be primary educators as a form of community service, parallel to their “real” careers. My father used to be involved with an organization called Junior Achievement, and when I was musing about this with him, he claimed that what they do is similar, at least, to my thought.

      I’ll be curious to hear your reply. I am no expert in this stuff by any means and do not yet have children going through the public school system, so I tend to assume that beyond evaluating my own experience (and perhaps not even there), my opinion probably isn’t to be trusted.


  5. 7 Troy Peterson 15 May 2009 at 5:21 pm

    I hate the idea of “white flight” , but living in an urban area that is transforming into an immigrant community I am seeing first hand that when communities begin changing it is not the way the people look that cause people to leave, but rather the way the people behave. I truly do value diversity and am glad my children have the opportunity to be friends with people from different backgrounds. But if the school my kids went to became dangerous or declined a great deal academically I would not keep them there.
    It is a specious criticism. And I believe that kids who have parents that do not care a great deal (or anything) about their kids would have their kids in failing low quality schools. I think it would really bring out the fact that many or most of the kids who fail in school have little or no support from parents. And resources would leave those schools with the kids who leave too. It could be very telling.
    I think that the “any one can teach” theory is accurate if you get out of the current mindset of putting on three-ring-circuses for kids who are “reluctant learners” or what ever a locality has labeled students who don’t care. I imagine back in the day those kids were just allowed to fail and suffer the personal consequences. And that goes back to the idea that parents are the primary party responsible for their children’s education. Being a teacher today is not really about teaching as much as it is all the legal paperwork/documentation and social work. So my response to your theory is yes that is accurate when speaking about teaching- at least fundamentally, but not it is not accurate in today’s public (and some private) education industry (the fact I said “industry” is indicative in and of itself).
    We have had Junior Achievement in the past. It was nice because people were coming in and presenting lessons on economics from a real company’s point of view which made it little more tangible. We had to stop doing it because the state test mandated what was taught more and more and we could not justify the lost class periods any more. In short JA was a nice little supplement- but not something that replaced a teacher or curriculum. However, a similar program could- if we were only teaching kids who wanted to be taught and not doing all the other things.
    I do think that people who “don’t have high economic expectations” should be the people in teaching; even today. But it has become middle class and for that I am guilty. I am the sole bread winner in my family. But most of my colleagues have spouses who bring it home economically. I don’t buy into the idea that I am underpaid (especially with 9 month work years) and I believe that school choice reforms would bring salaries down and more in line with what you are referring too. When I got married we planned on my wife being the primary earner. That has not happened but I guess it would have to if I got my wish concerning reforms.

  6. 8 Adrienne 3 December 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Hi there.

    Found your blog through a Google search. I’m a Woodinville Annex TAG alum and your post has some insightful points about the program that seem oh so familiar. I still keep in close touch with several fellow TAG alums – I suppose they’re the only ones who will really understand how something like that shapes a person. Do you mind if I link to this from my facebook page or from a small alum group on facebook?


    • 9 Richard Barrett 3 December 2009 at 10:37 pm

      Hi Adrienne! Sure thing. When were you there?

      • 10 Adrienne 3 December 2009 at 10:56 pm

        3rd – 5th in 1988 – 1990. My mother re-mainstreamed me in 6th grade. She later confessed it was the worst decision about my education she ever made. TAG certainly had its issues, but the cultural change was a bit too much of a shock for an 11-year-old. Looks like you were there earlier, eh?

      • 11 Richard Barrett 3 December 2009 at 10:59 pm

        I was there 1984-88, 3rd-6th. Looks like you came in immediately after I left. Where’d you go for Jr. High and High School?

      • 12 Adrienne 3 December 2009 at 11:16 pm

        Northshore and then on to Inglemoor. I graduated from Inglemoor the year before it became an IB school which was unfortunate. The honors/high cap. classes were good, but full IB would probably have been better.

        I identify quite a bit with what you’ve said about your parents. Getting good grades was important, but I don’t feel like I had the educational support that would have allowed me to really thrive and do my best. Doing that kind of stuff just wasn’t their thing. I’m still a bit miffed at my mother for not letting me take the SAT again. No, mom, 99th percentile is not enough unless your score is perfect! 🙂

      • 13 Richard Barrett 4 December 2009 at 10:40 am

        Yeah, in retrospect I am a bit ticked at Inglemoor for eschewing AP classes as well. I was gone long before the IB stuff was even thought about, and I had some friends tell me some mixed things about how that all worked out.

        What are you doing now?

        We probably know some of the same people, since, when I graduated, I had friends from 1-4 years behind me.

  7. 14 Christopher Holtorf 7 February 2012 at 2:42 am

    My God Richard.

    When I arrived in Southern California’s public School system (in an economically depressed area of Oragne County, no less) I felt literally thrown to the dogs. After only one and a half years in the TAG program, I felt as though I had been placed in the prison system with crazed barbarianas, bent on tearing me, the ‘new fish’ apart. It was horrible.

    The time in TAG was the best early education that I had ever had the break from it to “the system”:still hasn’t left me. I was appalled, thought the public schools were for barbarians. Seriously. This post strikes to the heart.

    • 15 Christopher Holtorf 7 February 2012 at 2:42 am

      there’s a comma missing there.

    • 16 Richard Barrett 7 February 2012 at 3:03 am

      I think it was maybe in my early 20s I started comparing notes with some people from those days. I certainly wasn’t the only one who felt this way about the program. There are those for whom something definitely worked, but that wasn’t my experience. My first-grade teacher’s prediction was pretty accurate: I struggled to figure out how to survive until high school.

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