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School Rules Stifle Gifted Student

Anyone who wants to appreciate how strong a grip high school has on the American imagination, and how clueless some school districts are about this, should consider the story of Drew Gamblin, a 16-year-old student at Howard High School in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Drew, a child so gifted he taught himself to write at age 3, craves a high school diploma and all that comes with it--debate team, music, drama and senior prom. When a series of inexplicable decisions by Howard County school officials--such as requiring him to stay in an algebra class he had mastered---led his parents to home school him and put him in local college classes, he still insisted on his high school dream.

So Drew is back at Howard High, even though the school district is making it hard to enjoy all the school has to offer. He is being forced to take a modern world history course he already had at Howard Community College and a junior year English course he took at home, as well as other subjects he has already studied. He hopes that school district superintendent Sydney L. Cousin will exercise his authority under the Code of Maryland Regulations and develop an alternative way for him to fulfill graduation requirements, but it doesn’t look good.

Drew could, of course, go to college right now. He passed the Maryland state High School Assessment test in sophomore English at the advanced level (Howard County so far refuses him credit for the course) and did the same in American Government. Two years ago, he scored in the 92nd percentile on the PSAT, and was in the top 4 percent of all African American students who took the exam.

But he wants those high school memories, and victory over his tormentors. “If I’ve earned the credit, I’ve earned it,” he said. “I’m fighting for what is already mine.”

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the Howard County schools, said school officials "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."

In a nine-page Aug. 19 decision, the Howard County Board of Education denied the family’s request for credit for courses taken in college and at home. The only hint of any regret for what they put the family through was recognition that “because of their persistence, the parents were able to persuade the administration to accept the Japanese language [one of Drew’s college courses] in fulfillment of the modern language credit. It is unfortunate that situation took so long to be resolved.” His parents have appealed the decision to the state school board, but that will take months.

It didn’t have to be this way. Some school districts have welcomed children as obsessed with learning as Drew is. Drew’s mother, Ellicia Chau, said the first clue to what her son could do came at the age of 18 months, when he put together a 50-piece puzzle. At 21 months, he was sounding out letters on the sides of delivery trucks on the street. During Thanksgiving dinner when he was three, his mother wondered who had written the name “Ike,” one of Drew’s uncles, on a napkin. Drew eventually persuaded her it was he.

A big supporter of public education, she put him in the Howard County schools. In the middle of third grade he was promoted to fourth grade. But when sixth grade became too slow for him, the district refused to move him to seventh. “It is not our policy,” an official said.

She pulled him out to home school him, but at his insistence enrolled him in Howard High for ninth grade in 2006. She said she tried to follow the rules, but school officials kept changing their interpretations. One agreed that Drew had mastered algebra, but it wasn’t until November that he was allowed to move to geometry. It took another month, because of red tape, before they would give him any assignments in that class.
This is no surprise to advocates of gifted education, who report clumsy handling of kids like Drew all over the country. Howard has been slower than other local districts to embrace acceleration, although it is getting better. Its participation rate on Advanced Placement exams in high school has doubled since 2002.

Most American high schools look hard for ways to give struggling students their diplomas. Maryland let 4,000 students graduate this year by doing special projects when they didn’t pass the required state tests. Meanwhile, Drew Gamblin is told he has to listen to old lectures and take tests he has already passed in order to achieve his goal of finishing high school.

“I don’t want to be 40 and not have these memories to look back on,” he said. In a way, he is getting his wish, because being bored to distraction often comes to mind when older Americans think of high school. But I don’t think that is what Howard County school officials intended when they decided to tell this bright student that their interpretations of the rules were more important than his education.

By Jay Mathews  | October 5, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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Next: Gifted Student Stifled--The School District Responds


Jay, I enjoy your columns. And I agree with you that in many places some gifted students may not be getting what they need. However, I am concerned that we are not getting the whole picture with this story. We are only hearing the parents side. If 40% of kids (in Mont. Co. for example) can score in the "advanced level" for the Maryland State Assessment Tests, whoopee doo, how does that tell you anything other than the boy passed these particularly dumbed down tests. I am guessing that the college courses the boy took at the community college may not have been similar enough to the high school classes. Also, while 92% on the PSAT is really really good, it is not in the National Merit Scholar range in Maryland so again, whoop dee doo, doesn't prove that this boy should be excelerated beyond other gifted and talented children. We need to hear the other side before assuming that this boy is being treated unfairly. Parents like to inflate their children's abilities and tell tales. Sorry.

Posted by: commentator3 | October 5, 2009 6:17 AM | Report abuse

The problem is not just about gifted students, it is about large school systems wanting to use a "one-size-fits-all" approach to education. There is a very simple way to have a standardized school curriculum and still allow students to progress at their own individual rates.

In the pragmatic business world, when training is needed, students take a class with specific objectives, pass a test on those objectives, and move on to the class that is based on the previous one. Is this such a revolutionary idea? It would eliminate much of special ed and gifted classes -- the students take the same classes, but more adept kids can pass the test and go on to the next one sooner, while kids who need more time can take the class over several times until they either pass it or go to a remedial class (instead of resource) in the subject.

You could have all the levels of English classes at the same time(ESOL could be one of the basic classes), then all the levels of math or science. Kids of different ages would be in the same class. One kid might be at a lower level in math and a higher level in English or vice versa. Most of us are better at one subject than another, anyway.

What happens if a kid still can't master the objectives? There will always be a need for remedial classes and even self-contained classes for the most learning-disabled kids; this is nothing new. What if a kid gets very far ahead of his age mates? He could then be given the choice of helping teach in the remedial classes, or a challenging project to complete by himself. He should certainly have credit for passing any subject that he has mastered. What if there are not enough students to make up a class at a certain level? They could sit in a study hall and work out of a book or from a computer based class. Again, if they can master the skills and pass the test, who cares how they learned?

If classes are available for the computer (or even on books, for that matter), parents could check them out during school vacations (perhaps with a credit card number in case of loss) so their kids could study then. This would be especially good when a kid has not been doing well in just one subject. It would give them a chance to catch up.

I don't expect any action to come from this post, but there are times when just a simple change in approach can make all the difference in the world. With this approach, no one has to lose. I'd love to see a private or charter school try it for a couple of years just to work out the bugs.

Posted by: DarlaT | October 5, 2009 7:54 AM | Report abuse

It is very common for students to feel like accelerated students, but as for achievement, it is another story. I have students in the 9th grade studying calculus, differential equations, and abstract algebra while at the same time studying AP English Lang and AP English Lit.

Though the students told me they wish the clases went faster, I have also taught them how to socially handle the situation and that was a big plus for them.

Posted by: ericpollock | October 5, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Commentator 3---you are not bothered that one of the district's own officials assessed him and said he had mastered algebra, and yet it took them 4 months to switch him to geometry? Making him retake courses he had already passed in college is not a problem for you? This is not a competition, in which we serve only those kids, who like Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory, who build nuclear reactors at age 10. We want every child to proceed at his or her own pace. The school district in this case was working hard to make sure that did not happen.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 5, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse

I only partially agree with commentator3 that some community college courses are not equivalent to the required high school classes for a MD diploma, thus it's better for parents to check with the Board of Ed before having their child take the classes if they expect to receive credit. Most county school systems have agreements with the community colleges on this topic. The lesson for these school systems is to PUBLICIZE which community college courses are approved for transfer and replacement of the high school courses with a passing grade. An average person would assume a college-level course trumps a high school-level course--bad assumption in the state of MD. Also, Jay did not mention if the courses Drew took were college level. Again, none of us can assume a high school-level course taken at a community college will transfer to a MD public high school.
However, I wouldn't be so rude to say that the parent has inflated their child's abilities. Obviously, his parents AND elementary school teachers noticed he was gifted at an early age.
This is an administrative problem at it's worst. Perhaps his parents should have started the process to get him into geometry during the prior school year. Further, so much of the tracking for high school starts in 8th grade. Because he wasn't in public school for 8th grade, his parents would have needed to work closely with the Board of Ed to compare his homeschool strategy to the middle school GT strategy and determine the risks and benefits if he were to return to public school at anytime during high school. This kind of thinking requires a lot of coordination and contingency planning.
As far as AP classes, I beleive AP classes are all open enrollment? IF that is the case, it's hardly worth the discussion of acceleration. Certainly, AP classes are full of kids who are on a GT track, but any high schooler can try them. Acceleration in Drew's case meant matching him to a curriculum that challenges him, regardless of the average age of the other students.
The HSAs are a reflection of what a student should have learned in an associated MD public high school class. It is strictly a measure of that and nothing else. If any child passes a MD HSA, then that child should receive credit for the class that would have prepared them to take the relevant HSA. To deny a testing-out option is ridiculous in Drew's case. Good luck Gamblin family.

Posted by: doglover6 | October 5, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Whose interests are being served by making Drew sit through high school courses whose material he's already mastered? Seriously, if he's happy, his parents are happy, and he can pass the course's final exam, that ought to be good enough for Howard High School.

Let him take some electives if they've run out of academic courses. That's what I did when I was in high school, and I think I turned out better for it. I took metalworking, small gas engines, study hall, weightlifting, photography, choir, and a few other electives.

Not only did I enter college with 3 semesters with of credit, I can fix my lawnmower if it ever goes on the fritz.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 5, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Minnesota's PSEO (post secondary enrollment option) program allows qualified high schoolers to take community college and/or university classes, paid by the local school district, which can be used to meet state graduation requirements. It is a great option for kids who need acceleration or wish to take classes not offered/not competitive at their local schools. I agree; let's get rid of the one-size-fits-all idea. Use PSEO and challenge exams; no child should have to sit in a class covering material he has already mastered and no kid should have to sit in a class so far advanced that he cannot understand the material.

Posted by: momof4md | October 5, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

for doglover6---Good comments. And 15 years ago, when I began to look into AP policies around the country, I shared yr assumption that AP courses would be open enrollment. Sadly, no. The actual situation, then as now, in a large number of schools, perhaps most, is that you can't get into an AP course, no matter how eager and willing to work you are, unless you have a strong B-plus GPA or a teacher's recommendation. This was the situation that led me to write my book Class Struggle in 1998 and start the Challenge Index, which measures schools by how successful they are in involving as many students as possible in AP and IB courses and tests. Because I have been measuring all Washington area schools that way since 1996, I have had an opportunity to monitor carefully Howard County's AP policies. For a long time they were among the last districts in the area to abandon the bad old policy of discouraging enrollment in AP to all but their top students, even though there was plenty of data showing that participation in such courses and tests helped average students prepare for college. As I said in the column, they have improved in the last six years, but still lag far behind their neighbor Montgomery County, with very similar high-income demographics, in AP test participation.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 5, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I found the article unpersuasive, and I believe there is more to this story. I think if it were my child, I would have not chosen to go to the Post, but rather taken it as a time for a lesson in getting ahead in life. The trauma suffered by this student (having to take a course when they think they already know everything) just doesn't sound so awful to me, compared to real trauma that people suffer. Why not just do what the county asks and get the diploma? If you already know the course material, there is time to dig deeper, or to volunteer and help other students. Why is is so important to "make them admit their [alleged] mistakes"? My sympathy is with the school officials.

Posted by: michaelingp | October 5, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

My concern is that you are presenting one side of the story. The family told you that it took 4 months to change him. I am in a profession where I am often told things by parents and when I hear the "other side" the parents are exaggerating or not telling the story right (I won't say lie).

I am not familiar with the Howard school system. My personal experience with a child labelled "gifted" or "acclerated" has been that the "presigous" private school let him down and it is the public school that has been able to meet his needs and seems to meet the needs of students even more accelerated (like one person who posted that 9th graders take calculus).

I am just suspicious of this women's complaint, that we're not hearing the whole story.

Posted by: commentator3 | October 5, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Jay followed up with Howard County schools and got a "No comment blah blah blah confidentiality blah blah blah".

I imagine Jay got the Gamblins' permission to discuss the situation with the school, so there should be no confidentiality issue here. I've found that when people say "No comment--client confidentiality," it usually can be translated to, "No comment, because if I say one more word, I'm going to look like the biggest jackass on the planet and I don't need that embarrassment right now, thanks."

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 5, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

This is not necessarily true. I work in the medical profession and I absolutely cannot discuss a patient with anyone that I don't have written permission to release the information to. I imagine it is similar in other arenas where privacy is an issue. Look, this family could be 100% correct and the Howard County School System is filled with clueless bureucrats, but we don't know that. This family may have an ax to grind and are using the media. I've seen the media jump on a story or portray things in a way to make one party appear bad perhaps not intentially. I just approach these types of articles with caution. That's all.

Posted by: commentator3 | October 5, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

School Rules Stifle Gifted Student.

School rules stifle all students.

What a strange article?

Over 50 percent of children in poverty areas are failing the fourth grade and we get an article about one gifted student who wants to stay in high school because of the memories.

In many schools gifted students are bored stiff. This may be regrettable but not a major problem. Really gifted students would probably be bored in many college classes.

Perhaps when public schools have fully met the needs of the majority of their students they will have the funds and time to create new rules for gifted student.

Just for the record I was in special progress and graduated at high school at 16. School was horrible and many times boring but I considered myself fortunate when I knew of 18 year old students that could not read after graduating high school.

One grows very tired of the "Gifted" term. Are children gifted or simply intelligent? Are the children at the opposite end the UnGifted or accursed?

Really it is only to a parent that a child is gifted and one is grateful that God has been kind. Education might be better in this country if we got rid of the term "gifted"

Posted by: bsallamack | October 5, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I am just amazed at the comments here. Seems kind of odd that people don't recognize that any possibility of progress lies on the shoulders of kids like Drew, not the over 50% of kids who are failing fourth grade.

Failing kids are a completely separate issue (which should be dealt with), and what sense does it make to bring it up here? It's sort of like comparing the US to some African countries where one would be lucky to be able to read at all, and saying that the kids who are failing should be happy that they got to go to 4 grades instead of working.

So let's all celebrate mediocrity and deny the brightest the chance to shine and improve everyone's lives. Yeah!

Posted by: malyshka | October 5, 2009 7:36 PM | Report abuse

"I am just amazed at the comments here. Seems kind of odd that people don't recognize that any possibility of progress lies on the shoulders of kids like Drew, not the over 50% of kids who are failing fourth grade."

Many of the 50 percent that fail will wind up costing society a great deal. Public school systems that have up to 50 percent will under perform and stifle the other children who in life might have have obtained the benefits that an education could provide. This is why there is a continuous cycle of poverty, violence, and crime. The money we save on not dealing with the problem of public education we pay for in jails and unsafe streets.

If the contributions of the "gifted" were stifled by being bored in high school, all progress would have stopped.

The "gifted" are still providing us with benefits. Look at our economy where the "gifted" on Wall Street have had an effect on all our lives. ( Years ago I worked on Wall Street and it was boring.)

Public education is alot like being in the orphanage, the fat kid does not get more than the non fat kids.

Just remember that kid who is being bored in his classes is luckier than the honor student in Chicago who was beaten to death last week by the results of allowing a dysfunctional public school system.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 5, 2009 9:15 PM | Report abuse

For those interested there is now a new article on the response of the school.

The Washington Post and this columnist are definitively in a different universe.

On October 1st, this columnist reported on a new DC teacher evaluation program.
On October 2nd, 5 percent of the DC teachers were fired and escorted out of schools.

This columnist has not mentioned the strangeness of announcing a new teacher evaluation one day and then on the next day firing 5 percent of the teachers.
This must be a new world record in evaluating employees.

I am sure the columnist will continue to believe that the administrators of the DC public school system are competent.

Oh by the way the school system can not tell where 79 special education who were transferred back to the DC school system are. It is 10 am do you know which school your students are in.

Hopefully the DC public school system is working on a new administrator evaluation program as it appears it sorely needs one.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 5, 2009 9:59 PM | Report abuse

A review of National Educational data would indicate that there is an educational epidemic in all poverty areas throughout the nation. DC simply is the worse since it is a small concentrated poverty area.

The following website shows that in poverty urban areas large number of children who live in poverty are failing in basic skills. The percentages are higher than 60 percent.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 5, 2009 11:25 PM | Report abuse

"If the contributions of the "gifted" were stifled by being bored in high school, all progress would have stopped."

Well, thankfully, schools haven't been around long enough to completely stifle all gifted. And, parents who recognize that their child is able to perform faster and at a higher level generally provide for that child outside of school. The children who get left out of this are the ones from the poorer families, as their parents cannot provide enrichment ops. for them.

"Public education is alot like being in the orphanage, the fat kid does not get more than the non fat kids."

First of all, this is an absurd comparison, especially considering that our schools are tooting "differentiation", etc. and promoting the idea that "equal" does not mean "the same". Second, the only children that need to be in an orphanage are the ones who don't have parents, but generally, public schooling is mandated, and most in the lower socio-economic class do not have alternatives. Third, this would also mean that there is no other kind of special education, and any child who is unable to do the work on the level of the "average" kid will simply fall behind, and most likely drop out without the school batting an eye. Finally, I'd guess that even in orphanages 16 year old boys got a different amount of food than 3 year old girls. Just because otherwise they'd starve, or the girls wouldn't be able to finish their food and it will be thrown out.

"Just remember that kid who is being bored in his classes is luckier than the honor student in Chicago who was beaten to death last week by the results of allowing a dysfunctional public school system."

This is completely irrelevant, again. Remember that you are a lot less lucky than Bill Gates. Remember, you are a lot more lucky than someone from Darfur. This is a separate issue and should not take away from the one being written about here. Or, maybe we should put all issues on hold until there's peace on earth and no one goes hungry?

"Many of the 50 percent that fail will wind up costing society a great deal. Public school systems that have up to 50 percent will under perform and stifle the other children who in life might have have obtained the benefits that an education could provide. This is why there is a continuous cycle of poverty, violence, and crime. "

If you add another 2% (the gifted population) to the 50% who already underperform what would that accomplish? You'll have 52% who underperform (I assume by "underperform" you mean do worse than they could, not do worse than average).

Poverty and violence does not come from someone underperforming in school. It's generally the other way around. Government handouts, though, do quite a bit to keep people poor, but that's a whole other conversation, which is not related to this issue.

Posted by: malyshka | October 6, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Drew's talents are definitely extraordinary; however, his experience of difficulty with the public school system, unfortunately, is not all that uncommon. We at are building a next generation platform that will help gifted students, homeschoolers, and unschoolers reach their goals of accelerated learning. There is no reason for students to think of schooling in terms of 4 years of high school and 4 years of college, when many of them can collapse them and graduate from college by the age of 19. This is the future of education. If you'd like to be a part of it, then please sign up at

Posted by: glenmoriarty | October 6, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

First of all, this is an absurd comparison, especially considering that our schools are tooting "differentiation", etc. and promoting the idea that "equal" does not mean "the same".

This is the problem with our society. Public education should be the same for everyone in the sense that all children get a fair share of resources. The public school system of New York is running "gifted children" programs for very young children with 6 children in class rooms while other children are in class rooms of 40.

Instead of dealing with providing a equal and fair opportunity to all, public school systems are parceling out limited resources to groups while ignoring the majority of students. An excellent example of this is the announcement of Chicago that the city "will be spending $30 million a year on just the 10,000 adolescents most at risk". This is out of a 410,000- student population.

These are the problem students who are likely to be involved in violence and become either victims or the perpetrators of violence.
The 10,000 students will be given jobs. In other words if you are disruptive, do poorly in school, and likely to be involved in violence you will be rewarded by a job.

The city of Chicago simply ignores the mayhem that is caused to the majority of students that must live in an environment where they are thrown into school randomly with 10,000 students who are likely to participate in violence.

Instead of using the 30 million dollars to set up separate schools for the 10,000, the city will reward them for their behavior.

At some point public school systems will have to recognize that with limited resources, equality is providing equal opportunity to the majority.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 6, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

The family in this article is not alone in their struggle with Howard County high school rules and bureaucracy. My son, also 16, attends a different high school in Howard County, he has gone to school here since Kindergarten. My son as well as many of his friends have been told they couldn't take an Advanced Placement or GT level class because it didn't fit in their schedule. Not that it would not be the best class for them to take, but just that it wasn't offered at the right time. The school system has a list of classes that can be taken at Howard Community College for high school credit, math, foreign language, history - BUT you must have the principal of the school sign a form before you register for the class or else it doesn't count. It took me over a month this summer to track down the form, the guidance department never did find it and wrote out a letter, and have the principal sign it. So if a child takes a class that has already been approved by the school system has meeting the requirements for high school credit, and the student has gotten a good grade in the class, why does it make a difference whether they got a piece of paper signed before or after they took the class??

The school would like my son to repeat course work he took at the community college in order to fulfill his Technology Education requirement. He is in his third year of computer science at the school, he has competed on the computer programming team and the robotics team, he has attended a summer engineering program at the University of Maryland, but he can't graduate, because he didn't take the 'right' introductory course.

We have been lucky. My son's schedule has been worked out. There is a test he can take to get tech credit. But why should it be so hard to allow bright children to live up to their potential.

Posted by: elainean1 | October 6, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

elainean1: "The school system has a list of classes that can be taken at Howard Community College for high school credit, math, foreign language, history - BUT you must have the principal of the school sign a form before you register for the class or else it doesn't count."

Where is the list? Someone's office or on the internet? The pdf. list of approved HCPSS courses refers to Howard Community College credit, however I'm sure there must be more classes than listed here.

Drew's Japanese class was [reluctantly?] accepted for credit, but we still don't know if the real problem was in regard to not receiving pre-approval for courses. Granted he was a homeschooler, would it have made any difference had he transferred from a private school? From another state? Would Howard High School have reviewed the course objectives and standards of the state's courses he transferred from to match Maryland's?

Posted by: doglover6 | October 7, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

"He could then be given the choice of helping teach in the remedial classes, or a challenging project to complete by himself [...] Again, if they can master the skills and pass the test, who cares how they learned?"

I agree that this student should be given credit for any material he can demonstrate that he has mastered, but promoting the idea that gifted students can just be sat in a room with a book truly does a disservice to these students. Don't gifted students deserve a teacher who can guide, challenge, and stimulate them as much as typical or remedial student? Do they not deserve to have classes with other advanced student so that they can participate in academic discourse and debate that meets their level of intellect? Saying that all they need to do is pass a test is promoting the worst aspects of our standardized testing society. They need to learn to communicate, to present, to discuss and share idea, to hypothesize, to investigate an experiment, to work with peers for a common goal and to critic the work of others, assess the literary value of writing, determine the legitimacy of arguments, and to be innovate, not simple follow examples in a book. None of this can be learned by reading a book or sitting at a computer. It takes interaction and discourse and a sense of belonging and freedom to share ideas. Even the brightest of students can jump to an incorrect conclusion if not guided by a teacher or mentor, and by 'housing' these students rather than addressing their needs, these small errors can become ingrained in their thinking, and an obstacle to further success.
Further the idea of having gifted students 'help' teachers in remedial classes would not only be looked upon as torture to many of these gifted students, but is clearly not even attempting to educate these students on any level. Whether you are a fan of No Child Left Behind or not, I believe we can all agree that the basic premise- that every students needs should be met - is a sound one. These suggestions tell gifted students that as soon as they meet the minimum standards for graduation, which many of them do freshman or sophomore year, their need for academic stimulation no longer matters. These suggestions leave our best and brightest behind.

Posted by: MDHSteacher | October 8, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

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