HomeHealth & BehaviorLearning & Development

Gifted – or just privileged?

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By Gail Robinson

Overusing the G word

Although experts believe only 2 to 5 percent of the population is gifted, seven states placed more than 10 percent of their students in gifted programs in 2006. In affluent Montgomery County, MD, about 60 percent of white and Asian students qualified for gifted programs, according to the Montgomery County Education Forum, but only about one fifth of all black and Hispanic students did (though that’s still a staggeringly high percentage compared to 2 to 5 percent).

The Montgomery County Education Forum is seeking to stop labeling students “gifted” before third grade. Instead, they want more rigorous learning for all students. "Our philosophy is to make every school a high quality school," says Ana Sol Gutierrez, a former school board member who now serves in the Maryland House of Delegates. "You recognize low-income kids are coming in with a disadvantage … and help them catch up. … We don’t deny that there's a difference, but we want to provide rigor and challenge for all students."

Some areas are like Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average. As Devra Renner, coauthor of Mommy Guilt, wrote "The word 'good' is like the new 'bad.' Why settle for even 'smart' when you could instead call your child 'gifted'?"

Other kids left in the cold

Controversy also stems from the process by which school districts determine giftedness. Many rely entirely or in part on an IQ test, but experts caution that many tests for giftedness have serious limitations. At best, they provide a snapshot — a rather fuzzy snapshot at that — of the child on the day of the test. Most tests do not measure artistic or social abilities and may give short shrift to a child with extraordinary math abilities, but ordinary talents in other areas.

In addition to tests, schools may use classroom observations, grades, and samples of work. The more subjective judgments can lead to biases — a teacher may not consider a child who constantly acts out or one who does not speak fluent English gifted, regardless of how smart she is.

No standard approach

Even for those parents and educators who find value in the gifted label, the current system leaves a lot to be desired. Many schools lack programs for gifted students and when they do exist, they vary widely in quality. The majority of states do not have a full-time person working on education for the gifted; and twenty-four states require no specific training to teach in gifted programs, according to the National Association for Gifted Children. Twenty states don’t bother to monitor gifted programs. And the classes themselves, according to the association’s 2010-2011 State of the States report, represent "a crazy quilt collections of services and inconsistency from district to district and even school house to school house."

No one model has emerged as the standard for gifted education. As a result, parents find their choices limited by what is available in their community and their own resources. But finding the right program — whatever it is labeled — does make a difference, parents say.

Jennifer Glover quickly saw the change once she put Emma in the charter school. "All of a sudden, my child is thriving academically and socially. She's finding kids who are in the same mindset," she says. Emma's classmates at the public school considered her a "weirdo" for playing the cello, Jennifer says – but at her new school, there are many "highly imaginative, quirky" kids with similar interests. "Every day, I could almost cry seeing the welcoming committee of her friends."

*The family's names have been changed.

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Gail Robinson is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer specializing in education and other public policy issues. Her work appears in many publications, including Inside Schools and the Huffington Post. She has two children who went through the New York City school system.