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Why gifted classes are not enough: the Warren Buffett case

[This is my Local Living column for December 10, 2009.]

Alexandria School Superintendent Mort Sherman has discovered that the city’s gifted education program needs revision. Sherman likes to poke at beehives. Few issues inspire as much angry mail as changing gifted programs. He wants to find ways to get more black and Hispanic kids into the program, but if I were he, I would go much further than that.

Start with the story of one particularly troublesome Washington area gifted child, Warren Buffett, as described in the biography “The Snowball,” by Alice Schroeder. By age 13, Buffett, later to be the richest man in the world and a Washington Post Co. board member, had had it with school. I wonder whether it might have been better if his parents had let him quit right then.

At newspaper gatherings, Buffett sometimes mentions the Washington Post paper route he had as a boy. It sounds quaint and charming, until you read the book and discover that the kid had so many routes that his annual income (including proceeds from his tenant farm and other investments) was greater than that of his teachers at Deal Junior High and Wilson High in the District. His father was a congressman. His family was comfortable. But he had made all that money himself as a boy genius entrepreneur. By age 14, he had filed his first tax return.

For him, school was a problem. He was so bored in class and so eager to pursue his business ideas that his grades fell and he dabbled in grand larceny. His prime target was Sears on Wisconsin Avenue. He stole hundreds of golf balls and once walked out of the store, unmolested, with a full bag of new clubs he had not paid for.

The only teacher who got through to Buffet was the school golf coach, and only because he took the student to the racetrack in Charles Town, W.Va., where the future investment guru tested his theories on speed handicapping. Buffett’s grades improved only because his father threatened to end his newspaper delivery business if he did not shape up.

These days, we have many fine teachers in the Washington area trained to help gifted children. Many parents are happy that their children have been designated gifted. But we have no data to show that such children wouldn’t be better off if they were just taken to the library and told to read anything they liked. That was how Buffett spent much of his time, devouring volumes on every imaginable subject, including every business book he could find.

In Alexandria, Sherman wants to expand minority enrollment in elementary-level gifted programs. The city School Board has ordered that all students take the second-grade aptitude test, rather than the old policy of referring just some children for screening. That doesn’t address my problems with gifted education: the deceptive nature of the label and the idea that only some children are good enough for enriched instruction. Saying your kid is gifted makes us parents feel good, if we ignore the fact that the lowest-scoring gifted child and the one who just missed getting the designation are pretty much the same, yet one gets special attention and one doesn’t.

Many school districts are trying to eliminate this inequity, but very quietly because so many parents love the label. Montgomery County is offering advanced programs to just about anyone who wants them. Fairfax County is going in the same direction, even though both districts still have special schools for the highest-scoring gifted children.

I wonder whether risk-taking superintendents such as Sherman might be willing to end the sorting altogether and find ways to let all students explore their talents. I have interviewed many successful scientists, educators and entrepreneurs, and few of them were slotted into gifted programs based on a second-grade test. Our schools try to help kids like these, but many of their parents tell me they do better if they are home-schooled or, like the restless teenage Buffett, given as much time as possible to pursue their own interests, as long as they are not deemed to be felonies under the law.

By Jay Mathews  | December 9, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Morton Sherman, Warren Buffett, gifted class discrimination, gifted education, home schooling  
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It isn't so much that parents "love" the label, although I don't deny that may be a factor for some parents.

But in reality, when the gifted program is eliminated, so are the services. Gifted programming would benefit more than the kids that get the label. Agreed. But unfortunately, eliminating the label generally means that the schools give up doing anything for advanced learners.

Some kids come home and beg to be homeschooled because they are so bored in class. Getting rid of a gifted program doesn't make the regular classroom any more enjoyable.

Posted by: EduCrazy | December 9, 2009 11:44 PM | Report abuse

The highest scoring special ed student and the one who just missed the cutoff are also pretty much the same, but I don't hear you calling for the elimination of special education.

If educators are fine with giving special attention and services to kids who are far out of the mainstream on the low end of the spectrum, why is it so controversial to provide specialized services to kids who are far out of the mainstream on the high end?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | December 10, 2009 1:46 AM | Report abuse

We live in a district that does not provide gifted services at all. The district mantra is that they provide "differentiation". My second son is on an IEP due to a hearing impairment. He receives all sorts of attention and differentiated work. He is happy and successful in school. Meanwhile, my oldest son, who had taught himself multiplication in first grade, is restless, angry, and bored. In his entire time in school (he is now in 4th grade), no teacher has made even the slightest effort at differentiating his work, or letting him do anything extra. Mainly he is ignored, since he doesn't cause trouble. If we had a gifted program, at least he would get a label, like my second son, and might have some chance at having his educational needs met.

Posted by: bkmny | December 10, 2009 6:14 AM | Report abuse

Not much new here from Mathews here- just another in a long line of columns that is highly critical of gifted and talented programs. What is new about this column is that Mathews discusses how Warren Buffet’s education largely took place outside the classroom. I guess Mathews’ argument is that if a gifted and talented program was not needed for Buffet, why should they be needed for others? For my part, I went to what was essentially a gifted and talented high school, and I believe that that helped me substantially later in life. Of course, both Buffet’s story and my own are just anecdotal evidence. I would like it if one day Mathews would discuss the current state of study into the effectiveness of gifted and talented programs. Mathews states here, as he has done previously, that we have no evidence to show that gifted and talented programs are effective. That could mean a number of different things however- it could mean that there has been solid, well done studies of the issue and no differences have been found or it could also mean that this is an area where they have been few studies.

One thing that I particularly dislike about this column is Mathews’ repeated assertion that parents are simply happy because their child has been designated gifted: “Saying your kid is gifted make us parents feel good.” Perhaps parents are mostly happy because they know their children and know that beginning in a gifted and talented program is good for their child. Last week, Mr. Mathews praised a parent because she decided that the best educational opportunity for her child was to send her to the Duke Ellington School in the District. Mathews should acknowledge that parents of children in gifted and talented programs are making choices, rightly or wrongly, because of our concern for our children.

Posted by: Wmcfam | December 10, 2009 7:27 AM | Report abuse

I believe that one of the main problems with gifted programs is the refusal to acknowledge the distinction between mildly and profoundly gifted. The percentage of children labeled gifted in Montgomery County boggles the mind. And true to form, the system is geared to the lowest level. Mildly gifted students can indeed be mainstreamed and served with pull-out classes and such. But the profoundly gifted, of which there are a small number, are ignored by the schools. They are denied the chance to skip grades, they are told to tutor the others, and they are denied an appropriate education. Gifted education isn't enriched regular school; it is a completely different animal. Gifted is not something you hope your child is: gifted is something you help your child handle.

Posted by: darf | December 10, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, Jay, you missed the boat on this one. I will grant you that we need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids across the spectrum; no kid should lose a chance because he doesn't look like someone's stereotype of what "gifted" is. But pp has it right: you do away with the program, and you do away with any additional support or services for the kids who are gifted.

I know, so what, right? Your own example shows so what. When smart kids aren't challenged in school, they tune out and go look for excitement elsewhere. Didn't you yourself report on a study a year or two ago that showed that gifted kids make up a ridiculously high percentage of dropouts? Warren Buffett was damn lucky that he didn't get caught, and that he found a more productive outlet for his energy. Many, many kids are not so lucky. And even if they stay in school, well, idle hands and all that.

My own daughter is a good example of this -- she was constantly getting in trouble in kindergarten and first grade. I mean, every day I was getting reports home. So I went in to meet with the teachers to figure out what was going on. What was happening? She was getting her work done in 1/3 the time allotted -- then running around telling all the other kids what the answers were. And somehow, it didn't occur to the teachers to give her more work -- they didn't want her moving ahead or getting out of sync with the other kids in the class. So I ended up with a 6-yr-old who already felt like a "bad" kid and who didn't like school.

Oh, and btw: it's pretty offensive to suggest that parents who care about G&T just like to be able to brag about their kids being "gifted." I want my kid to be in the class that is right for her -- one that is challenging without being overwhelming, and which moves at an appropriate pace. Labels don't have a damn thing to do with it.

Posted by: laura33 | December 10, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Jay, Jay, Jay. As the others above have noted, please, stop with the idea that somehow parents love the label of "gifted" for bragging the rights. No, we want our children to receive an appropriate education. Fullstop. As Crimson Wife notes, we do it for the lowest end of the spectrum, so why should those on the other end receive any less or basically be told, sorry folks, we can't help you, head to the library and homeschool. Not everyone can.

But I'll call your bluff. I'll head to the library and homeschool--but then don't tell me I can't use college courses or other supplemental courses in my homeschooling because the primary instruction has to be done directly by the parent (yes, this is how the State of Maryland is currently interpreting its homeschool regulations.) Parents of highly gifted-plus kids are being placed in an untenable situation. Fight for watered down "gifted" programs. Or opt out.

So Jay, I'm with you if you can crack the nut of persuading school administrators to TRULY meet the needs of gifted kids, namely giving accesss to middle school and high school courses in elementary and middle school, allowing distance education (CTY and EPGY and AoPS) and independent study--and not just slotting them the school system's little age-proscribed conceptions of what gifted kids should get. But until then I will fight for every scrap of "service" I can wrest from the system.

P.S. Amen to darf!

Posted by: SwitchedOnMom | December 10, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Check out the blog post by your colleague Valerie Strauss on online learning:

There are options that should be explored. But too many school officials seem intent on closing them off.

Posted by: SwitchedOnMom | December 10, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

For every anecdote in which the schools failed to meet a child's needs, there is another in which a student flourished because of their school experience.

Revamping a program and eliminating it are not one in the same.

Gifted education is special education, just on the opposite end of the spectrum. If you are calling for the dissolution of gifted identification, will you encourage the same to be done for the other end of the spectrum?

Posted by: jane76 | December 10, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Jay states that one of his problems with gifted education is "the idea that only some children are good enough for enriched instruction."

I have spent many years as an advocate for gifted education as president of PGTAG (Prince George's County parent group), a member of the Maryland State Council on Gifted and Talented Education and currently president of MCGATE (Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Education) and I have never heard a GT advocate make such a statement. What I have heard is a restatement of one of the National Association for Gifted Children's (NAGC's) Guiding Principle on Curriculum & Instruction:

"To ensure continued progress, it is imperative that the level, complexity, and pace of curricula should be matched to a student's readiness and motivation."

Through no fault of their own, gifted children need a level, complexity and pace of curricula that is not appropriate for all children. This does not mean that only gifted children are good enough for enrichment. It simply means that gifted children need services that are different from those provided in the regular classroom because the goal of education should be to take every child from where they are today and move them forward and gifted children start further ahead and move forward at a faster pace than the norm.

And to suggest that gifted children might be as successful if left to their own devices in a library because the son of a wealthy, well connected man would have benefited, ignores the existence of gifted students who are low income, ESOL and gifted with special learning needs. (After all, a gifted student with dyslexia would hardly succeed in such an environment.) And providing services to such children is exactly what the Alexandria Board and Superintendent are trying to do by requiring that all students take the aptitude test, a move that is in line with NAGC's Program Guidelines on Identification.

Laura Carriere

Posted by: lauracarriere | December 10, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree with darf about the profoundly gifted child. I'd like to see a column on this.

Posted by: pittypatt | December 10, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Jay, You are justifying educational policy decisions on the basis of anecdotal evidence. Surely, you know better.

Yes, there are parents who cannot resist the allure of the cachet of a gifted and talented label. However, that does not detract from the reality that there are able learners in our public schools. “[W]hat do you call it when a sixth-grader who is able to read at the level of a high-school graduate is forced to languish in a class that doesn't challenge her to her fullest academic potential? … Experts in the field of gifted education call it a travesty,” reads a news release from the University of Iowa.

Do such children exist? Yes, they do and, I know that for a fact.

I go further than the University of Iowa--I label it a tragedy. It is a tragedy our nation can ill afford at this time. That is why I strongly advocate gifted and talented education, for properly identified students, in my column ( Shameless plug aside, gifted education needs to be nurtured for the sake of this nation's future.

Posted by: DC_Gifted_Education_Examiner | December 10, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I've been involved in the Fairfax County Public Schools since 1962, following my years in schools where a "gifted education" involved the teacher giving you a more advanced textbook to work through on your own.
Today's world is better.
That said, Jay is correct in that some people do see the "gifted" label as something to mention to neighbors. I don't see pursuit of this as a bragging right, per se, but more the need to avoid the embarrassment of their kid NOT being in GT. Most people see two worlds in our public schools; those who have a bright future - the GT kids - and those who will always need help to get by - everyone else.
Over the years what I've seen is the pursuit of the "gifted" label to ensure that kids don't mix with those kids who are part of the "everyone else." One prime example of this is TC William HS in Alexandria. Look in their GT classes and you'll see the white kids. Look in their regular classes and you'll see everyone else. Were the "gifted" classes to be ended, the white flight from that school would be so abrupt as to cause a thunder clap!

Posted by: LoveIB | December 10, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Matthews writes "I have interviewed many successful scientists, educators and entrepreneurs, and few of them were slotted into gifted programs based on a second-grade test." Strawman argument. A better question is how many successful scientists, etc., received gifted education based on some *recent* (at the time) measure of their academic abilities.

An even better question: how many people who achieved academic success after high school were consistently given assignments that challenged them in grade school and high school?

Matthews also writes: "we have no data to show that such children wouldn’t be better off if they were just taken to the library and told to read anything they liked." Would this library offer challenging problem sets in math and science? And would "such children" be allowed to skip their regular math and science classes? Finally, what about the many bright underachievers? Are we confident that they'd learn in the library as much as they would in appropriately challenging classrooms?

Katharine Beals

Posted by: KatharineBeals | December 10, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for these great posts. I would love to hear the specifics, where and when and why, of those districts that dropped gifted services, as some posters mentioned. I am totally with SwitchedOnMom in believing school districts should stop getting in the way of bright kids, and remove the roadblocks you mention. (I had a column this year about a Howard County student that faced that.) My problem is that the gifted ed programs in most districts appear to reduce, rather than increase, the number of kids who are getting the challenges they need and deserve. Too much bean-counting, which is what organizations do. Which leads to my next point. The profoundly gifted, as several wise posters here say, have unique needs that must be met. But having looked at what happens to such kids for many years in many districts, I am convinced that public schools in most cases are not capable of providing what such students need, and never will be. The teachers with the proper skills are too rare, and the understanding of what to do for such kids is too little. The solution seems to me is for parents to lead the charge to set up their own ways of teaching these kids, through home schooling groups, through charters, through the web, whatever works for their child. Even in the best districts they are likely not going to be able to find anything as good as what they can design themselves for that upper 1 to 2 percent. The fact that they are such a small group makes their chances of persuading districts to help them even smaller.
And I apologize for not making it clearer that the problem is not research that shows little effect from gifted ed, but the fact that there is very little useful research on gifted ed that tells us anything about programs' effectiveness, compared to what happens to similar kids in non-gifted programs.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 10, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I completely agree with you that the truly, profoundly gifted will almost never be served appropriately in a classroom system. The fly in the ointment is that the schools refuse to be honest and admit that they cannot meet the needs of every child. They know that if they say that the child is beyond what the system can provide, the school system is on the hook for tuition at an institution that can. So they continue their fiction that the child is not as gifted as you say she is, and there are kids like this in every grade, in every school, in every year and why don't you just stop whining. (The last line is a quote from a teacher to me when my child was in an MCPS school.) All I ever wanted was a straight answer.

Posted by: darf | December 10, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

"... the problem is not research that shows little effect from gifted ed, but the fact that there is very little useful research on gifted ed that tells us anything about programs' effectiveness, compared to what happens to similar kids in non-gifted programs."

No research? Oh really?

I think that Gross, Rogers, Gallagher, Assouline, Kearney, Colangelo, Reis and McCoach ... and many, many more... would disagree vehemently.

Here's a great starting point for finding full-text articles pertaining to gifted education:

I guarantee that you will not find yourself wanting for research any longer.

Posted by: horace1 | December 10, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Forget the labels---work with kids. Leaving a child out of the gifted class is just as bad as including a child in a class he or she can't keep up with. Too much time is spent looking for lables, teaching to tests and writing and re-writing curriculum. Let's go back to teaching each, individual child.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | December 10, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse


You're right that the heated rhetoric over GT programs far exceeds any evidence of their value.

I went through the Fairfax County GT center based programs in the 70s when it was more restrictive and it would be difficult to make the case that that the kids I went to school with had exceptional outcomes. It was an entirely white middle class group, except for me, the lone Asian-American. There was not a single African-American or Latino. Out of the 60 or so kids I knew in the GT program, only two of us went to the Ivies for college. It was simply not an academically exceptional group -- especially compared to my classmates in college or grad school. The admissions system was simply biased towards a preconceived sense of what gifted kids look like. I would hazard to guess the same applies today, though the stereotype tilts towards middle class Asians.

Now, as a parent of a 9 year old, I am amazed that nearly every upper middle class four year old tests as gifted. Somehow, my daughter and most of the applicants to "elite" private schools in the DC area test in the 99+ percentile on IQ tests like the WPPSI. IQ tests, especially in the younger years simply don't have a whole lot of predictive value for later years and they say nothing about how much effort and drive these kids might bring to their studies.

Posted by: liuj | December 10, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

In summary: Advanced students exist and require advanced education at elementary school level, elementary schools do not have appropriately trained teachers, school administrators at the school level are aware of this and are influenced by administrators at the state level to work around this in ways that discourage parents from pursuing warranted and appropriate education perhaps because cost is a huge factor given the cost to train teachers and re-structure the school system, I have a study that rates each state on their progress toward addressing this issue and many states fall way short in the very detailed metrics that each state has to provide. Because there is not enough pressure from parents, advanced students are being completely ignored by the elementary school system. Parents may turn to other avenues such as private schools or other forms of education however this can be a huge expense that many parents cannot afford and at this point in time getting the school systems and powers that be to pay is unlikely to happen without huge pressure from parents across the country. Add to this that the only alternative (if one seeks to allow your child to work at their potential) is home schooling but keep in mind this means that the school systems are getting away with not only shunning their responsibility to provide quality education but also with denying our children the social aspect of public school at our children's expense. I have recent hard documentation on all the above and find it sad that despite great supporting documentation that school systems and their administrators are allowed to suppress any movement by parents to shed light on this problem. Teachers also should be supportive but from my experience they are for the most part happy to put in their 8 hour day following the status quo when from my perspective they should rally to get trained so that this problem can be addressed. I do not fault the teachers per se, it is indeed a money issue for the school systems. They have been forced in the past to provide for other types of "special need" students and it did impact budgets. Our advanced students are no different in that they have special needs that should not be swept under the rug.

Posted by: prkctybum | December 10, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

What an enlightening article! We are treated to a lovely snippet about a day and time from several decades ago when a child delivered papers door-to-door and taught himself from library books. Mr. Mathews suggests, that such self-starters that are bored with school are much better served by letting them spend time by themselves in the library or even at home away from the boring classroom. Wow! I am sure such policy rhetoric will resonate with county executives and school boards as they grapple with ways to meet tight budgets this year and next --- Heck there's no need to spend a dime on those kids, they should be happy to be placed in boring classrooms. If not they can leave voluntarily to go deliver newspapers and read library books. Or more likely, until they become a discipline problem and are saddled with a different label --- one that parents might not be so happy about. In today's era, where the vast bulk of school resources (including the tax dollars of those parents of Warren Buffets-to-be) is spent to bring all students up to a very low, minimum standard; perhaps a more nuanced discussion of multi-level learning and differentiated instruction could have been fostered by our esteemed "journalist". Though, perhaps, bear-baiting is what Mr. Mathews intended.

Posted by: fishy11 | December 10, 2009 7:52 PM | Report abuse

Extolling someone (Warren Buffett) for using his many intellectual gifts to make the most money in the world seems particularly shortsighted.

Posted by: flcat | December 10, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

Jay, this is a very good article and a timely one. As a parent of children with disabilities on the low end of the spectrum, I have come to understand that parents of gifted children struggle just as much as sped parents do to have the needs of their gifted children met. It seems the school system is doing the same thing it has always done since its inception 150 years ago and that is just try to do an okay job with the average majority. Maybe even not that today - maybe 30th to 70th percentile.

In talking with parents whose children are in gifted programs, I always conclude that what is taught in gifted programs should be taught to all the students! One parent I spoke with last year actually pulled her child out of a gifted program in our district because he barely passed the SOLs. Her nongifted child passed with advanced proficiency. So I wondered what was up with that, and the parent said the teachers do not teach the SOLs but very eclectic style with mostly self-directed learning where they kids explore on their own. But her child, ironically, also had ADD, so the lack of structure was not good for him. Very interesting.

This week Style Weekly (Richmond area) ran a story on gifted programs and Virginia's approach. I never knew that there are two approaches to educating gifted students: enrichment and accelerated. I definitely think that we should be accelerating our gifted students. The enrichment approach is NOT serving the truly gifted. I think the truly gifted students should be homeschooled! These kids should be going to college at age 13. The public school system is just not going to teach to that end.

Here is the link to that article:

Keep up the good work! I enjoy your articles!

Posted by: concerned36 | December 10, 2009 9:35 PM | Report abuse

prkctybum, I just read your post. It is excellent. You have summarized well. What you just posted is so perfectly the exact same problem with special education. You might as well have been talking about special education. My children have disabilities and let me assure you, special ed is NOT special. School officials cite the high cost of special ed but believe me, we parents are wondering where it all goes because our kids do not get any of this IDEA funding! Our kids, for the most part, are dumped and ignored! Jay has written articles about this as well. The districts get extra federal funding to serve kids with disabilities, but it is pathetic. Special ed parents must deal with issues of abuse and neglect (constant battle) and restraint and seclusion, and our kids cannot necessarily come home and tell us what is going on. The segregated programs for kids with disabilities are simply babysitting services we call PlayDoh 101. In high school, these kids are used as janitors to clean sinks and water fountains.

I think the public school is failing many, many students who fall outside the narrow curriculum targeted for the average student. It is not rigorous for any of the students really.

Schools do the same thing with special needs kids. The schools cannot meet their needs. Teachers do not know how to teach kids with disabilities. Schools cannot admit this because parents would force schools to pay private tuition, which is very expensive.

I just wanted to point out how similar our situations really are. So don't think sped parents don't understand what gifted parents are going through. I do think dumping gifted students is a huge travesty, our brightest kids are being tossed aside. I think homeschooling would be the best way to teach gifted students. Schools are not going to do it. There are not enough good teachers to do it. Homeschooling is so huge now, that I am sure there are many parent groups and resources that would help parents get started.

The social aspect of school is not that significant because much of the socialization students get in public school is negative. There are plenty of opportunities for social outings with homeschool groups. In fact, you could spend hours each week just participating in all the social events that are scheduled. I would dual enroll my high school student in college courses.

I think the gifted student would thrive in homeschool and be much happier reaching for the stars!

I know my girls, even though they need to be in a structured environment with peer models, are really much happier and more well-behaved at home and also advancing more rapidly academically. Which makes me really wonder what they were doing in school, since they only work at home a couple of hours a day. They made more progress in September than they made the entire school year last year.

Posted by: concerned36 | December 10, 2009 10:52 PM | Report abuse

Horace1---I have read many of those sources and haven't found anything very convincing. Tell us the one research piece that you think makes the case best. We will read it and see if we agree. I will do a new post on this.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 10, 2009 11:10 PM | Report abuse

You've already been appropriately taken to task on using an anecdote--and an exceptional anecdote at that, but I cannot believe you are so ill-informed on your data that you don't know that pretty much all reliable research on tracking demonstrates that tracking improves the top students' performance. That's precisely why zealots want to get rid of it--heterogeneous classrooms depress smart kids' performance at the benefit of a very small increase in the lowest ability students--and there's no certain evidence that the increase in performance couldn't be found in other ways.


From the last one:

"Parents of highperforming
students also favor tracking
because research shows that students
assigned to high-ability groups make
greater gains in achievement. However,
in studies published in 1986 and 1999,
my colleagues and I found that students
assigned to low-ability groups score
lower on standardized tests than if they
had been placed in mixed-ability or highability

Notice how she says this like it's no big deal--like everyone knows it and doesn't dispute it?

That's because no one does, Jay. Despite the fact that all those bright kids not in tracked classes could be off at the library reading just like you want them to, all evidence available says that tracking helps the brightest kids.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 11, 2009 12:42 AM | Report abuse

Jay -- I suggest you contact the Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Connecticut to see how their research is going re: what happens to kids in a gifted program vs. a standard program. Here is information on their research:

Posted by: VAOrangeFish | December 11, 2009 12:43 AM | Report abuse

I was one of the ones who posted about our district which has no gifted services. Jay Matthews asked the question in a post above : "I would love to hear the specifics, where and when and why, of those districts that dropped gifted services, as some posters mentioned.". The answer in our case is that our district never had gifted services. We live in NY, a state that does not mandate or fund gifted services at the state level. Thus, many school districts do not do anything. Our district refuses to let kids skip grades or do accelerated work as well as not providing any gifted classes. Their reason is that (they say) the work will get hard enough on its own. Well, my son is now in 4th grade and it hasn't happened yet. I think your suggestion that parents of gifted kids homeschool is almost ludicrous, except that it is pretty much what happens now. This means that gifted kids from poor families, and from less educated families, are guaranteed to never get the education they need, because their families are probably too busy earning a living to homeschool. Even in our middle class area, most families have both parents in the workforce, and are not able to homeschool. That is just a way of getting the schools off the hook.

Posted by: bkmny | December 11, 2009 6:28 AM | Report abuse

The sad case is that this topic goes well beyond Advanced student's need for quality/advanced education (and I use the term Advanced because there are different levels of abilities based on many factors and a child does not necessarily have to be a "gifted child or prodigy" to fall in the category of children that require advanced education), all children at elementary school level are affected. Here is an example: Two young chlldren of elementary school age and equal ability are struggling and want to play basketball. One parent decides to devote one solid month, one hour each day teaching his child how to play basketball. The other parent decides to hire Michael Jordan for one month for the same purpose. At the end of the month which child will emerge as the better basketball player? Given this scenario, how many parents would be able to afford hiring a Michael Jordan? Get the picture, money does come in to play as well as other factors I elude to in my previous post. In short, yes, parents are a critical link in a childs education but parents that have the financial capability are without doubt at an advantage.

Posted by: prkctybum | December 11, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

What's Jay saying?

1. Sorting is bad because elitist parents are offensive and because sorting somehow prevents many students from exploring their talents.

2. Instead, let's let each individual student realize his/her idiosyncratic talent through serendipity, self-direction and parental attention. Or, if that's not an option, each student can explore options in an individualized, egalitarian classroom.

I would say:

1.a. Parental craving for a particular type of adademic excellence is correlated with socio-economic status, and should be tolerated just like other socio-cultural dispositions.

b. Sorting's opposite--warehousing--prevents students from exploring their talents.

2.a. Serendipity and self-direction are necessary, but not sufficient; and they are not a program.

b. Individualization in some ways is ideal, as the student/teacher ratio approaches 1:1. At 30:1, individualization becomes warehousing.

Each child's education should be "enriched" relative to the current warehousing. This is facilitated by grouping and identification.

Posted by: fredstichnoth | December 11, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Just 2 comments, Jay:

1. You stated that Mr Buffett was a "boy genius entrepreneur". That is true. But how many "Warren Buffetts' are there among our kids, who if left on their own, would start 'devouring volumes on every imaginable subject, including every business book he could find'?

2. Also, had there been a gifted program in school at that time that meets Mr Buffett's educational needs, may be Mr Buffet would not have found school a problem or got bored in class. That, we never would know.

Posted by: Jalan | December 11, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I am the Advanced Academic Resource Teacher at Bailey's in Falls Church. I go into every classroom and teach all students Model Thinking Lessons that introduce students to critical thinking strategies such as questioning and visualization. I spend twice as much time with the general population of students in the school then I spend with the students who are labeled gifted. Also, out students who are labeled as gifted are a very diverse group.

Sally Buzzell

Posted by: rbuzz2 | December 11, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

If Warren Buffet was in school now, he might be reading from a laptop. Learning for free from some of the finest instructors in the world. Listening in another language. He might be chatting online with brilliant students and adults from throughout the world. Each day the restrictions on learning and geography are being removed and hopefully all our children will be able to learn without "districts".

In that sense, gifted education is not enough.

Posted by: ShirleyBridges | December 11, 2009 9:23 PM | Report abuse

Incidentally, just days after this first post, Tom Loveless comes out with another study about tracking. Jay, you need to read it.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 11, 2009 9:47 PM | Report abuse

When schools fail to challenge our most capable learners (since you seem to dislike the "gifted" label) what they learn is that effort is not required. After years of telling them to slow down, sit down and shut up, we then expect them to produce a large body of work product and/or develop a paradigm that will change the world. But *WE* have trained them to spend minimal time on their work, and now they don't know how to do things differently.

Unless, of course, some adult gives them the chance to do thing differently, and to focus on something fascinating. My kids have found these things often in school, but out of their classroom. But they are lucky children who have dedicated adults who encourage them to do the "extras". Much of the learning they participate in takes place before and after school and during the lunch period.

We are lucky to have a school administration that works these extras into the budget and adults who give their time with little to no compensation because they see it as important. It makes such a difference!

Posted by: mom22 | December 12, 2009 8:47 AM | Report abuse

For more research on exceptional and profoundly gifted children, check out Miraca Gross' research in Australia. Her 1993 book Exceptionally Gifted Children presents fifteen subjects selected from a longitudinal study of 40 Australian children with IQs in excess of 160. The second edition was published in 2003.

I do take issue with the statement "The solution seems to me is for parents to lead the charge to set up their own ways of teaching these kids, through home schooling groups, through charters, through the web, whatever works for their child. "

Most families cannot afford to devote the amount of time it would take to meet exceptionally gifted and profoundly gifted kids' needs.

Posted by: mgaal | December 12, 2009 9:17 PM | Report abuse


I just do not understand the arguments to eliminate the gifted programs arguments. Would you also extend this idea to private schools--that they should take everyone? If we're talking just about public schools, then would you feel the same way about rigorous programs at public universities? Why should it be different at public schools in k-12?


Posted by: mgaal | December 12, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

The District of Columbia Public Schools offers NO GT programming on the elementary level.

Apparently it did exist at one time (I've heard rumor)but it went away, like so many of our leaders...

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | December 13, 2009 7:11 AM | Report abuse

It is unfortunate that many school systems are not required to offer gifted programs. The IDEA 2004 does not require these types of services. I hope that new future legislation will incorporate this into IDEA. We work with many children with speech-language therapy disorders in schools all over the country and often this is the only service that they are provided even when they are in gifted classes. We work on social skills and various other language based activities to support them in their educational endeavors.

Posted by: mellingsen | December 13, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

The key is to "find ways to let all students explore their talents."
A few kids and families may be able to do that on their own; however, most need help, for many reasons--financial, social, cultural, language, ethnic, gender, religious, intellectual, emotional, and many more. Most of the concerns I hear from parents relate to their children showing signs that their public school experience does not meet their needs, and parents don't know what to do. Teachers often are overwhelmed by the wide range of abilities within their classrooms. Few college education classes provide preparation for teachers to deal with kids who enter their classroom already knowing most of what they plan to teach. Decision-makers at all levels (educators and administrators in buildings, districts, regions, and states; school board members; state and federal legislators) have to juggle what COULD be done, what SHOULD be done, and what CAN be done with available resources. They need support and guidance, too. Teachers too often are dismissed because their complaints about needing more professional development are dismissed as self-serving. That means that PARENTS are the ones with POWER to effect change. To do that, they need information about HOW to become effective advocates for their children's ALL levels. I believe we all can agree that we want to provide the best educational experience for all kids. That's why organizations like NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children) and their state affiliates (I'm in Illinois), Davidson, Neag, and others exist. For example, NAGC's Mile Marker series offers guidance and resources for families on their journey.
You're not alone, and you don't have to recreate the wheel. Just like we want our kids to learn, in order to get what you want, you have to put forth the effort.

Posted by: iagcgifted | December 14, 2009 8:11 AM | Report abuse

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