The Pros and Cons of Squelching Gifted Students
I have been writing about schools for a long time. It is difficult to surprise me. But some of the many people who wrote to me about my Oct. 5 column on Howard County’s reluctance to accelerate a gifted student shocked the heck out of me.
They said I was wrong to criticize county school officials for telling 16-year-old Drew Gamblin that he had to re-take courses he had already passed in college if he wanted to earn a high school diploma. Dealing with insensitive bureaucrats was GOOD for him, they said, and would teach him how to survive as a gifted person in the real world.
“High school is drudgery, but it prepares you for college,” said Howard County parent Rosa Thierer. “Just being bright does not. My daughter had many friends who tested better than she did and could skate through course material. When they got to college they had not developed the discipline to work towards their degree and in at least one case flunked out.”
Lisette Bauersachs, a southern California parent, said “gifted is not fighting rules, but succeeding despite obstacles. Perhaps, gifted is saving your fights for the debate team and not using them against all teachers and school administrators. Perhaps, gifted is sitting through some boring ‘required’ classes and not complaining about it--just take the A and run.”
Even a recent student, who graduated from Drew’s school, Howard High, in 2004, argued that classes that taught her little and discouraged her from doing more were not worth complaining about. I don’t usually quote people without using their names, but she insisted, and convinced me she was a real person, so here is what she said:
“Over the years, I had teachers at Howard discourage me from taking AP exams, grade me down in class for ‘not paying attention’ even though I received over 95 percent on every assignment, and generally not teach the subjects for which I signed up. I never let these problems get in the way of my education. It is my firm belief that a great student will excel in any environment. There were many days when I was bored in class, but I did not let that stop me from pursuing my academic interests. I read voraciously outside of the English curriculum, I worked with a neighbor who was a math teacher at a different high school to expand my knowledge beyond the Calculus I was taking, and I participated in numerous after-school activities.”
Okay. I get it. I approve of character-building exercises. Life is tough, and we have to learn how to survive. But isn’t this America? Aren’t we obliged as citizens to try to make our world better so others can skip the stupid obstacles and use their energy to overcome serious problems, like cancer and war?
Readers Thierer, Bauersachs and that member of the Howard class of ’04 seem to be saying that it’s a bad idea to tell the county to fix the pothole that just blew one of your tires, or get the supermarket to throw out the rotten bananas, or suggest that your healthy drinking buddy stop parking in handicapped spots.
Fortunately, most readers appreciated the problem Drew and his family faced. They realized that plenty of high school students, whether labeled gifted or not, don’t need to have the same lessons repeated every year. They are ready for something more, if the school district has the good sense to give it to them.
“Are these supposed educators in the district so full of themselves and their need to impose conformity that they have lost the creative edge that is so vital for both teacher and administrator?” asked Jeffrey Frances, a rabbi who teaches religious studies at a private school in Rockville.
Kelly Sorensen, who lives in DeKalb County, Ga., said her local school officials first refused to let her son skip a grade despite his very high IQ test scores. Then they said they would only consider a change if he scored that high on tests they administered. When he did, they reneged, insisting they never had made such an agreement.
“Luckily, I’d dealt with them often enough at that point that I’d kept a paper trail with this in writing and held them to it,” Sorensen said. “The absurdity of having to fight with teachers and administrators for my child to have adequately challenging work is disheartening, however.”
Velda Carew, who had a similar experience in Texas last year, said one assistant principal said “she does not support accelerating students and that my only option is to send my daughter to private school.”
Ellicia Chau, Drew’s mother, wrote me to emphasize what many parents of gifted students have said. Some people had suggested that she was seeking special treatment for Drew, when in fact “we have never asked for any exceptions to policy. . .; we’ve only asked that the Howard County Public School System follow existing county and state policies, and that it do so in a timely manner.”
Of course policies can be interpreted in different ways. I applauded a comment on the case that a reader found on a blog, “Humanity by Starlight,” written by an unidentified New Jersey high school student who appears to have personal experience with gifted programs. The blogger noted that the Howard County schools spokeswoman had told me “the standards we have implemented are designed to uphold the integrity of the high school diploma.” The blogger said: “The integrity of the diploma my foot. A student with straight D’s gets a diploma. It’s not some sort of high honor that we’re talking about here. In addition, yes, education is more than mere test scores. However, you’re working quite diligently against the true nature of education (learning). Might want to fix that before you go on about what education really is.”
One of the most useful messages came from a professional expert in this field, Kimberly Hymes of the Council for Exceptional Children, based in Arlington. She had some intriguing theories on why this knee-jerk resistance to acceleration exists, particularly in this test-conscious era. “If major decisions concerning a school or teachers are based on how well students do on a test, why would a school or teacher want to lose a high test score of a student [by skipping him to a higher grade]?” she said.
It is something to think about. I am still bothered by the notion that intelligent readers would think resisting a child’s desire to take the next step was a good thing. Am I wrong? Let me know. This issue will be with us a long time.
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