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Gifted Student Stifled--The School District Responds

Since the story of Drew Gamblin (see the column posted just below this item) does not put the Howard County schools in a favorable light, since the column in the paper had space for only a small part of the county's response and since here at the Struggle we have infinite space, I told Howard County schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan I would post the full text of the statement she sent me on Friday in response to the draft of the column I sent her. Here it is, followed by some comments from me:

Dear Jay,

First, let me stress how irresponsible it is to generalize about an entire school system’s commitment to meeting the academic needs of its students based on the alleged experiences of one child. Educators in Howard County are committed to providing all students with a rigorous, challenging education experience. And we are hardly “clueless” about the importance of the total high school experience in the student’s intellectual and personal development. By the tone of this piece, it is obvious that you have already determined that the information provided by the parent is accurate and that the school system is a heartless bureaucracy, rather than a group of dedicated professionals committed to serving the best interest of children.

Central and school-based personnel for the school system have spent an overwhelming amount of time working to address the needs of this particular student. The school system has offered numerous opportunities and accommodations to no avail. We respect the laws governing the confidentiality of student records and therefore, we will not comment further on this child’s circumstances.

Education involves more than simply scoring well on tests. The standards we have implemented are designed to uphold the integrity of the high school diploma; another responsibility we do not take lightly.

The Maryland High School Assessments are end-of-course exams. In order to meet the Maryland Graduation requirement a student is required to successfully complete the course as well. Howard County curriculum is far more extensive than the baseline knowledge required to pass the HSA in each content area. Class discussions, group work, research, and other activities that take place in the classroom enrich and enhance the educational experience.

Education also involves more than just intellectual development so when deciding whether to move a student to an advanced grade, educators consider (and discuss with the parents) the following factors:
· Academic achievement level
· Age of the student
· Previous accelerations
· Attendance record
· Parental concerns
· Developmental factors
· Health factors
· Emotional factors
· Report card
· 504 Plan

The HCPSS does award credit for home schooling and college courses provided those experiences cover the same objectives as a comparable course offered in our high schools and the student demonstrates mastery of the content. Credit will only be awarded if the student completes the college course.

We take great exception to the statement that “Howard has been slower than other districts in this area to embrace acceleration…” Grade skipping is not the only way to accelerate instruction. Since the early 1980’s the HCPSS has offered comprehensive Gifted and Talented programming and enrichment opportunities in all schools. Currently over 40% of our students participate in our Gifted and Talented program offerings across all grades.

In elementary schools, our GT mathematics curriculum is accelerated by at least two years. Other enrichment opportunities are provided through school wide enrichment programs general exploratory activities, instructional seminars, curriculum extension units, and research investigations. In Middle Schools the school wide enrichment programs continue and students also have access to advanced course work in Geography and World Cultures, US History, English, Science, and Mathematics as well as an after-school accelerated G/T Mathematics Program.

Our high schools address the needs of our most gifted students with G/T, honors and advanced placement courses, college-level independent research and a well-established Intern/Mentor Program.

Should you have need for clarification of any of the above information, please feel free to contact me.


Patti Caplan
Director of Public Relations

My response:

I didn't reach my conclusions based on the experiences of just one child. I have been reporting on Howard County's difficulties in providing a challenging environment for all students since 1998, through the annual Challenge Index ratings in the Post and occasional stories, like this one in the Oct. 24, 1999, Washington Post Magazine. (Sorry, the only electronic copy I could find was on

I also was not relying only on what Drew and his family told me. They provided many documents including emails from school officials and the text of the school board's detailed ruling against them. Everything they told me so far has checked out. I wish the county had been able to tell me more, but the family's story squares with what I have heard from other Howard County families and educators, and what the data show: Howard is doing much better on this issue than they did in the past, but there is still room for improvement.

I agree that education involves more than simply scoring well on tests. But it seems to me the Howard school officials failed to act on that principle and take the most sensible step---have a teacher in the field talk to the student and assess his knowledge of the subject matter before deciding that what he learned in college classes and home schooling was not sufficient. That is what good colleges do when they have new freshmen asking to skip the introductory course in a subject. They give a placement test, or have the kid talk to a professor. A district as well equipped as Howard should be able to do the equivalent. They DID do that with Drew when his family said he had already mastered algebra, but then, for reasons they do not explain, they disregarded for four months the recommendation from their own expert.

I am afraid I don't find very useful the long list of factors that must be considered in granting course credit. It leaves too much power in the hands of educators who, at least in Howard, appear uncomfortable accelerating students. If they have data on how many students they have accelerated, I would be interested in seeing it. The 40 percent of students participating in Gifted and Talented program offerings is also not a very helpful statistic. As many parents of gifted children have explained to me, and as Howard's own AP record shows, such classes often do not provide much of a challenge in those districts uncertain about letting kids jump ahead to the next step, like college level courses for high schoolers.

Howard has lagged in AP participation for some time for a district with so many affluent, well-prepared students. But it has, as I said, gotten better, from an AP participation rate of 0.649 (ratio of college-level tests to graduating seniors) in 2000 to a rate of 1.670 in 2008. That is still below the rate of 2.692 in Montgomery County, very similar to Howard demographically. Howard's willingness to accelerate math for some students by as much as two grades is also a good sign. I hope they keep it up, and think more creatively in the future about how to handle students like Drew Gamblin.

By Jay Mathews  | October 5, 2009; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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FROM HCPSS: "The HCPSS does award credit for home schooling and college courses provided those experiences cover the same objectives as a comparable course offered in our high schools...."

I think parents should know WHICH college courses transfer to the high school. How much effort does it take post a list on the Board of Ed's website? I could not find this information on my own school system's website. It's not clear, but I suspect this is part of the problem in Drew's case. Transfer credit rules, at least from the closest community college, should be readily available to us. As a parent, this makes me suspicious that the school system is hiding valuable information that could make a big difference in my kids' educations.

Posted by: doglover6 | October 5, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

"Howard's willingness to accelerate math for some students by as much as two grades is also a good sign. "

The GT program accelerates math two years (so that Calculus is completed in 11th grade). At the same time, the HCPSS has a 3-year accelerated math curriculum that has the students completing Calculus in 10th grade. My oldest (8th grader) is in the program now and as a mathematician I have been extremely impressed with the quality of the instruction, as well as the commitment of both the instructor and the system. My understanding is that HCPSS has been offering this accelerated program for more than 25 years.

Posted by: FYIColumbiaMD | October 6, 2009 6:53 AM | Report abuse

I have not had a child in Howard County schools, but have experience in two adjacent counties and two other states. I have seen pretty much across-the-board disapproval of acceleration, with some exceptions in math. I don't think I have ever encountered an ES or MS teacher that approved of grade-level acceleration. In a one-on-one discussion of the practice, a MS teacher stated that she was sure my kids - several of whom she had had in class - would not do as well academically or be as socially mature and confident if they were the youngest in the class. She turned several colors when I told her that ALL of them were the youngest; some by two years or more. So-called "enrichment" is a waste of time, since it usually involves lots of arts and crafts, not more or deeper content.

Posted by: momof4md | October 6, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

To Mom of 4 in MD:

Please rethink your stance on '"enrichment" is a waste of time,since it usually involves lots of arts and crafts.....'

Children, but especially younger children, need opportunities in which to nurture both their imaginations and fine-motor skills. It is especially helpful if they get these opportunities under guidance, encouragement and not feeling under the gun of a test grade.

On a practical level, arts and crafts offer myriads of opportunities for innovation and creative problem-solving. As our society faces ever-more bewildering crises, we will need all the creative thinking we can get.....this kind of thinking does not occur in a vacuum. It does, however, often occur in a supportive, relaxed atmosphere, often after a period of intense work.

Short-changing children in areas that are often their strengths at a young age is very sad and sometimes irretrievable. Picasso said it best: "All children are born artists. The problem is how to remain one when he[she]grows up." This is not to say that all people need to be practicing artists, but rather to be able to retain the wonder and insights that come from having had artistic experiences.

Finally, most arts and crafts programs have serious educational underpinnings in back of them. For further references, here are a few of the major thinkers and researchers in the field over time: Robert Henri (The Art Spirit), Viktor Lowenfeld (Art Education), Howard Gardner (Multiple Intelligences), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow the Psychology of Optimal Experience) and Betty Edwards (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain).

Pamela Michaels, ret. Art Teacher

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 6, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

I would like to stress how irresponsible it is to ignore the research on acceleration and hold back a child from an appropriate curriculum because an objective research-based process is not in place. Enrichment opportunities are wonderful - but in a situation where real accelerated pacing is required, no amount of enrichment will suffice. To provide 40 percent of the student population with G/T services also denies the different levels of giftedness - and can't possibly serve the needs of 2 percent of the population with an IQ of more than 130.

I don't know what this particular student's ability profile is - but level testing and/or an interview with a teacher experienced in the subject should have solved any problem or question of mastery. Seems as though the school district is more intent upon making this student jump through hoops to fit an arbitrary model of high school rather than meeting this student's particular needs.

Posted by: jbernish | October 6, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Interesting that the best response Howard County could conjure up was to get defensive and then emit a bunch of irrelevant information.

Why bother responding at all?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 6, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I agree - "shortchanging kids in areas that are often their strenghs at a young age is very sad and sometimes irretrievable" - LET'S ACCELERATATE THESE KIDS TO THE LIMITS OF THEIR ABILITY AND DESIRE. Not all kids like arts and crafts, especially when it is substituted for content. All of my kids hated such projects and would have welcomed more and deeper content at a faster pace. They also would have liked to take art history and music appreciation, but neither was offered, although many kids without significant artistic/musical talent and/or desire would have liked such courses.

Posted by: momof4md | October 6, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: blogger421 | October 7, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

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