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Gifted education outrages

[This is my column for the Local Living section of Jan. 7, 2010]

My Dec. 10 column about that troublesome Washington area gifted child, future billionaire Warren Buffett, said our schools are never going to help such kids much. I said the gifted designation was often arbitrary and should be disposed of. Instead, we ought to find ways to let all kids explore their talents.

This produced a flood of comments on my blog. Many readers thought I was callous and daft. “Unfortunately, eliminating the label generally means that the schools give up doing anything for advanced learners,” wrote a reader signing in as EduCrazy. Another commenter, CrimsonWife, said “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?”

But some wondered if there might be promising alternatives. “When schools fail to challenge our most capable learners, what they learn is that effort is not required,” said mom22. “Unless, of course, some adult gives them the chance to do things differently, and to focus on something fascinating. My kids have found these things often in school, but out of their classroom.” I wonder if she realizes the consequences of such an approach, taken to its logical extremes.

Take, for instance, Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, Penn., a Pittsburgh suburb. Linda Conlon, an academic specialist there, explained to me what they are doing. If you are easily shocked, please stop reading. I have checked Conlon out. She is telling the truth. Her school is like many in the Washington area, mostly middle class kids. But Quaker Valley lets them get away with stuff that flouts well-established educational rules and procedures.

One Quaker Valley student realized the established sequence of math courses barred her from taking calculus before graduation. She felt she needed that course to look good to colleges and prepare for advanced science, since she wanted to be a doctor. She asked to take trigonometry on her own over the summer, just her and the school textbook and maybe a tutor. Yeah, right, I said. But the Quaker Valley math department said yes. She passed the trig exam without taking the course, eventually took calculus, got the college she wanted and is now in med school.

It gets worse. While giving the PSAT to all ninth and tenth graders (another wild move), Quaker Valley counselors found one student with mediocre grades but high scores. His math teacher said he did well on class exams but never did his homework. I know some students like this in our best suburban high schools. They and their parents are lectured on the need to accept responsibility and do their assignments. No room for lazy geniuses in their school. At Quaker Valley, they just gave in. The teacher told the kid homework was his choice. There would be no penalty if he didn’t do it. His grades and his attitude toward school improved remarkably.

There’s more. They let a gifted musician take both an instrumental class and a choral music class that met at the same hour. The student chose which to attend on any given day, and rehearsed the major performance pieces on her own.

Many students took AP online or enrolled at local colleges if Quaker Valley couldn’t schedule them into that subject. When students complained about having to choose between AP physics, too tough for them, or regular physics, too boring--a complaint I hear often from Fairfax County---the Quaker Valley staff said they could skip regular physics classes that were too slow for them, as long as they spent that class time doing something productive in the library and did well on their quizzes, tests and labs.

Are they kidding? What kind of high school would let kids behave like that? One possible answer: the kind of high school many of the Washington area parents who wrote me would like their children to attend.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | January 6, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Quaker Valley High School; gifted education; letting students schedule their days; violating standard educational procedures  
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There are two parts to this article that are worth examining. The first is really about "roadblocking". Parents need to examine closely the comments from Crimsonwife - because it speaks volumes of the out and out discrimination that gifted students face in this country (Recall Richard Hofstadter's book entitled Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published about 50 years ago). Special ed is almost ALWAYS for the modest learners. We continue to turn our backs upon our gifted, as if they are either not needing any of our assistance or that they are threatening to the rest of us.

The second is all about attitude. Administrators need to take the "Quaker Valley High School" test. In a short essay, respond to the following two part question: what do you think of Linda Conlon's story? what is holding you up from taking on her approach? It's just that simple. Again, many of us are pretty sure that Americans cannnot stand when kids blow past the adults. Well, I hate to say it, but they did somewhere back in the late 90s, at least with technology.

What we CAN offer the best is perspective, insight and ultimately wisdom. I call it the Yoda effect. From a movie that was the Avatar of OUR generation. It is way past time to let the next generation fly, so that they can learn in their unique way the lessons that they must learn to become global citizens. Public education bureaucrats, beware! It appears that you are the Chryslers of the education industry.

Martin in NYC

Posted by: borntoinspire | January 7, 2010 12:15 AM | Report abuse

What if "special education" students, gifted students, and any one else, were all in the same classroom, each child with their own needs taken care of by a team of teachers and with students helping each other?
Well in Prince George's County MD, there is such a program. It is called "Making Education Accessible in Neighborhood Schools" (MEANS) It is based on research from Johns Hopkins University's "Boundless Learning" (They have a website)
My partner teacher and I have such a class in the second grade, and I can tell you that in my three decades of teching, this is one of the few "best ideas" I have come across.
And, it is not so much that the special ed students learn form the gifted, as it is the other way around.

Posted by: martyact | January 7, 2010 5:20 AM | Report abuse

It seems that everyone gets a special effort to educate them except the poor kids in the middle. So now we have special classes and special funding for the "learning challenged" and special funding for the "very gifted and special classes for kids who do not speak the english language and special funding to educate autistic kids." Are the kids who have not been given a special designation being short changed because the funding is being used for kids who are classified as special?

Posted by: OhMy | January 7, 2010 6:49 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Jay.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. For showing your readership that YES, IT CAN BE DONE.

Posted by: SwitchedOnMom | January 7, 2010 7:27 AM | Report abuse

Can more freedom, fewer rules help gifted students thrive? Yes. (My "gifted" child)

Can it help all students thrive? Yes.
(My "not" gifted children.)

In schools where we experienced multiple intelligence theory and more freedom, we've seen how teachers and students start to recognize how all students are gifted in some way. The students weren't labeled as middle, gifted, special ed. They were more noticed by their strengths. Also, previous "weaknesses" found a way to present as strengths. My young child summed it up very well: "Mom, do you know what is most different about this school (Fairfax County)? We all get the same homework."

Posted by: ShirleyBridges | January 7, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

What is outrageous about these examples? As a "gifted" student many years ago, I sometimes got advanced challenges, but more often was in classes where my questions did more to confuse the other students (good people, but they did not get it as fast as I did) so I quit asking and just cruised on nothing for that course that year.

If the students can really do two courses at once, and maintain the performance in each, why not? If the student learns what he or she should without homework, why insist? is the homework teaching any thing? or is it causes drudgery (as opposed to skill drilling) which kills the students enthusiasm to learn.

Be flexible, treat the student as who they are, and take them out of the pigeon holes.

Talented artists or musicians can be gifted in that area without a gift in maths or language, and vice versa (or at the late teen years, maybe in all of them) Implant a quest for knowing and learning, and don't bore the ones who can easily do more than others.

Posted by: Pogoagain | January 7, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

"But Quaker Valley lets them get away with stuff that **flaunts** well-established educational rules and procedures." --

Flaunt? Doesn't that mean 'overt or flamboyant display' or some such thing? I think the author really meant to use the word 'flout', meaning to 'treat with disdain'.

and I'll assume the snideness in the article, the faux gasping about Quaker Valley bending the rules, is simply Mathews attempt at injecting humor. Though it's kinda hard to tell at times.

Posted by: WilyArmadilla | January 7, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

This is the best column ever. I was only left wondering whether Quaker Valley publishes these homework and class options. Students and their parents should know what options they have, especially if those options can make a huge difference in the student's happiness. Instead, it sounds as if a lucky few were given practical options individually. Thus, it's possible for some students to need the same options, but not know how to obtain them.

Posted by: doglover6 | January 7, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Our three daughters daughters attended Pine View School, which was established in 1969, and is Sarasota County, Florida's public school for intellectually gifted students. As a public school, Pine View is open to students throughout Sarasota County. Pine View offers a special program designed to meet the unique needs of intellectually gifted students in grades two through twelve. Children are admitted based on a series of tests, recommendations and other pertinent data as required by the State Department of Education. These are reviewed by a committee of teachers and other personnel.

Generally, children are enrolled in the same required courses as are offered in other schools, using both state adopted textbooks as well as other instructional materials. Students learn at a faster pace than in regular classrooms, so there is very little repetition. They also learn from each other via projects and classroom questions. There are some curricular variations such as self-pacing, independent study, ungraded classes and mini-courses. Many children are enrolled in courses which cross grade levels. Teachers typically teach several grades and courses daily within a department.

Pine View was named to U.S. News & World Report's Gold Medal List of Best High Schools in America in December 2009. Pine View has been named to many such lists over the years. It's model of education works for intellectually gifted children.

Posted by: Louise618 | January 7, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

"Be flexible, treat the student as who they are, and take them out of the pigeon holes."

I think that's exactly right. I also think that it's not in the interest of a large school system to do that. It's less hassle to "pigeon hole" kids. In health care this is known as comparative effectiveness. Same procedure for everyone. More effecient and less expensive. Granted, results will vary by individual, but it's the best use of government resources.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | January 7, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse


Your columns always make me think, and pretty soon I'm doing the 'on the one hand/on the other hand' thing in my head. This one, however, misses an important boat. The years where separate gifted classes are most contentious, but where arguably they do the most good, are in lower grades -- not in the high school examples you mostly cite. It is without argument true that mindless administration-designed roadblocks exist in high schools, and your tireless work to eliminate the stupid hurdles set up for AP courses illustrates that well (bravo!), but with older children there are so many more options for the child and family.

However, in grades 4-8, things are so much different. Elementary and middle schools have less flexible programs and many fewer tools to handle a wide range of learning styles. They have dedicated, but not usually gifted, teachers. They are in a panic not to leave slower learners behind. All the teaching incentives are for the pass percentage on standardized tests. But for the children who learn faster, who need an accelerated classroom to stay engaged, it is naive to expect that intrinsic motivation will save the day if only the teachers would toss those kids the occasional upper level textbook or novel. Especially with younger boys, the maturity is way behind the ability. I'm generalizing, but there is only one way to develop good work habits -- you actually have to work.

You get no argument from me that the way gifted children are identified is haphazard and sometimes hopelessly unfair. But it seems foolish to also say that those in the 4-8 programs do not benefit tremendously by being pushed to work hard in a critical period of their education, and develop discipline that will help them navigate high school -- where their own initiative will be much more critical than whether their school has AP world history.

There are nuggets of effectiveness in gifted education in the lower grades. These need to be spread more widely, and be offered more fairly. But for pre-teens, and especially grade 4-8 boys, I think it is a fantasy to think you will get equivalent results without dedicated classrooms of peers.

(personal disclosures -- parent of multiple sons, now in their 20's, who went through Fairfax County g/t programs from grade 3)

Posted by: postsucks99 | January 7, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse


How do the QVHS test scores and college acceptance rates compare with the better schools in FFX or Montgomery county schools?

Posted by: shhhhh | January 7, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Ha Ha Ha! I will laugh all the way to the bank at the overdiagnosis of kids that are "too smart for homework" who don't get a chance to develop study skills or the self control to sit at a desk and force one's self to read a book. There are tons of parents who think their kid is too smart for high school homework, but very few who will subsequently get through college with decent grades.

That's the joke with DC Private schools. So much coddling and 4th chances in HS, and they get to college and flounder about costing their parents 5th and 6th years in college. Suckas!

Posted by: FormerMCPSStudent | January 7, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Loved the article! I hope that FCPS takes notice of your comment about AP versus regular classes! A complaint we have lived through for the past few years! There needs to be more choices for students who don't need the mundane tasks such as homework or the the rigor of an AP class.

Wife of...

Posted by: LoveIB | January 7, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Agree with my wife onn this (shock!). Wish Jay had also noted that the ultimate "gifted" public high school, Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County, lets its students "get away with" so many of these sorts of things, and more besides. And those kids truly prosper under that system. I sure wish the other HS in FCPS would offer their students the same freedoms. They'd prosper, too.

Posted by: LoveIB | January 7, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Agree with my wife on this (shock!). Wish Jay had also noted that the ultimate "gifted" public high school, Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County, lets its students "get away with" so many of these sorts of things, and more besides. And those kids truly prosper under that system. I sure wish the other HS in FCPS would offer their students the same freedoms. They'd prosper, too.

Posted by: LoveIB | January 7, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I think the whole problem is being entirely overthought. I was a child when the whole concept of "gifted" education took off. Iwas one of the earliest kids in soem of these courses, and I though even at the time they were ridiculous (can't I just do what the higher are grades are doing? Sheesh.)

Every parent knows that, objectively, school is easier than it was when we were children. This is to allow all kids to keep up rather to challenge anyone. That's not to say that the workload has decreased: My son has much more homework than I ever did, but it has been in idiotic stuff like phonics, or the retarded current math curriculum.

It's obvious to everyone that there is no standard for what a child should know and can understand at a particular age. Just let kids do the hardest work they can and forget about what arbitrary grade level has been assigned to it. That's all that Quaker shcool is really doing.

Posted by: Wallenstein | January 7, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse


Terrific column on an all too often ignored topic. Education reform, for kids with learning problems only? Nice in theory but it left out an equally important cohort of kids at the other end of the spectrum.

Here in Massachusetts, programs for the gifted no sooner got off the ground in the late seventies and early eighties than they were almost universally dropped because of our tax reform at the time, Proposition 2 and 1/2. Not enough money to go around under the new legislation, the first program cut was the gifted - boom! Many superintendents were also beyond fed up with the plethora of calls from parents insisting their child should have been selected for the program but somehow had been overlooked.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 7, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Gifted students' learning needs can be effectively addressed in such a variety of ways as the article suggests. My experience is that, as parents, we need to observe our children's learning rate and style from a young age. Both of my kids did very well with the approach of differentiated instruction combined with a hands-on style provided by the public elementary and middle schools they attended in Arlington County. We moved across the country and we learned that asking the right questions of school administrators opened doors to finding the right placements for our children. For example, the "Comprehensive Gifted Program" in AZ comes close to the quality of teaching in a regular classroom in APS. There's a unique charter school called BASIS that can be perfect for some gifted students but lacks the flexibility preferred by many adults and children. Making sure that our children receive the education that best suits them is really the responsibility of the parents. There are times when parents need to strongly advocate for their children in public schools; the administrators seem to expect and appreciate that.

Posted by: travelingmom | January 7, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

great catch, WilyArmadilla. I am fixing that. Want a job?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 7, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

And to share my learning process, which we all try to do on this blog, the word I wanted was "flout". My American Heritage Dictionary says flaunt and flout are often confused, which made me feel a little better.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 7, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Just as WilyArmadilla pointed out in the first place.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 7, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Long ago I decided that college must be too easy if high school kids can pass so many AP classes. Thus, I've concluded it's best to give many kids free reign, and even help, when they want to do something outside the lines. Gifted or not, many kids can do much more than we think they can or give them credit for. Let them propose--let them free--and let them learn.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | January 7, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate the discussion of gifted education, though I found your ironic tone a bit heavy-handed. I strongly agree that there are many common sense ways to challenge gifted students (and all other students who desire a challenge) which schools administrators and counselors routinely overlook in their adherence to policies that ought to be more flexible.

I strongly agree with postsucks99's comments; as an educator who has worked in gifted education for over 25 years, I have often said that middle school is the "black hole" for gifted students. At least in high school, the opportunity for acceleration exists, along with AP and/or IB options, and a much broader peer group for students with specific and passionate interests. In my many years as a middle school teacher, I found few of my administrators who were willing to allow such flexibility.

In addition, the notion of Pre-AP classes, while worthy in theory, has been mostly a joke. In my experience, the vast majority of Pre-AP teachers in grades 6-8 have never attended AP training and have not seen the AP exams for which they are supposed to be preparing their students. Many administrators believe that all teachers should have a chance to teach these "good" kids without providing them with the appropriate training. The College Board shares some of this blame by promoting Pre-AP for many years without offering the requisite training, though that has finally changed.

My belief is that all students deserve at least a year's worth of learning for a year's worth of schooling, and that this learning may vary for different students. This idea may have been lost in our zealousness to rely on testing as the sole source of accountability.

Posted by: tweinberg | January 7, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I cringe at postsucks99's sign-on, being a loyal and happy employee for 38 years, but the point is a good one. Would this stuff work in elementary school? I have no problem with gifted centers as long as the kids who miss enrollment in the gifted centers by a point or two on the qualifying tests have similar challenges in their regular classes. Seems to me that is possible in elementary and middle schools. We still have reading groups, don't we? There could be one for kids with adventuresome tastes. I can think of all kinds of dumb middle school rules that could be subverted. Any ideas?

For shhhh's very interesting question about how QVHS compares to schools here, keep in mind that test score averages and college going rates are almost always (except for some exceptional inner city schools) tied closely to average family income. QVHS (and most suburban high schools in the country who usually do not share Fx's and Moco's exceptionally high average incomes) resemble closely, according to my data on test scores and challenge index ratings, the most distant Moco schools, like Damascus, or good outer county schools like La Plata High in Charles County or Colonial Forge in Stafford County. QVHS has a 15 percent percentage of low income kids, about five times the rate of the best Moco and Fairfax schools, and an average SAT of 1621 on the 2400 scale, about 250 points below the averages of our best suburban schools here. Its challenge index rating is about 1.333, which puts it in the top 5 percent of schools nationally measured by AP and IB test participation.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 7, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

i was in gifted programs from third grade on and went to some pretty good universities, but i really wonder what good it did preparing me for the real world - you can test out of classes and convince teachers to give you grades in spite of missed homework, but try doing that at your job - it simply wont fly no matter where you work. i think society, and certainly gifted kids, would benefit from a tiered education system, where we can be sent to more challenging schools and forced to actually have to do work in a disciplined way.

Posted by: homer32 | January 7, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to share my own experiences with Gifted programs. Though my schooling took place in Colorado starting in the early '80s, I think the major points remain the same.

I was identified as a "Gifted" student very early on, starting kindergarten at age 4 (at a time when most children didn't start until they were age 5 or 6). I excelled in both the arts and science/math. In grades 2 and 3 I left school half-way through the day 2 times each week in order to attend an art program at a local museum. Any school work that I missed during that time was completed via self-study at home that evening.

In 4th grade, my family moved to a different part of the city which put me into a different school district. I was selected, along with about 10 other students in the school, to attend the school's internal Gifted and Talented program, once again making up for any missed school work during my own time. During these classes I learned some of the most valuable skills a person can learn: logical, problem solving skills and, for lack of a better term, "how to learn". (Funding for the district’s program ran out while I was in 6th grade.)

In 5th grade I was selected, along with 2 other students, to work as a self-study group in math. In this particular district middle school was grades 6-8, meaning we couldn't just attend the next grade's math classes. Instead, we were given a set of 6th grade math books, to include the teacher's guide, and allowed to study at our own pace. The teacher made herself available to us for any questions, but for the most part we just taught each other, giving weekly updates to the teacher and taking exams at the end of each unit to keep track of our progress. We made it through the entire book with 2 months of school left before summer break.

By the time I reached high school, I was able to take every math, science and fine arts class the school offered before starting my senior year. I used several of my class periods to act as a teacher's aide for the science dept. and spent much of that time assisting other students with their studies.

I consider myself fortunate to have had as my opportunities as I did to challenge myself academically. Attending gifted and advanced classes certainly never meant that I got to "slack off" or not do any real work. Just the opposite, actually, since I was generally expected to do all of the usual class work in addition to the more advanced work. It kept me busy, it kept me engaged and it taught me how to think and work independently. Without the chance to challenge myself at such an early age, I don't think I would have done nearly as well in life as I have. My own experiences have shown me that giving gifted students a chance to test their own limits can take many forms and that they don't require any great disruption to the rest of the class. It just takes some teachers who are willing to be creative and a school system that allows them to do so.

Posted by: Merianya | January 7, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Jay - first "flaunt" instead of "flout" and now "a 15 percent percentage."

If an educator had done this, your colleague Bill Turque might call it "riddled with grammatical errors."

Posted by: efavorite | January 7, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

It gets worse. While giving the PSAT to all ninth and tenth graders (another wild move), Quaker Valley counselors found one student with mediocre grades but high scores. His math teacher said he did well on class exams but never did his homework. I know some students like this in our best suburban high schools. They and their parents are lectured on the need to accept responsibility and do their assignments. No room for lazy geniuses in their school. At Quaker Valley, they just gave in. The teacher told the kid homework was his choice. There would be no penalty if he didn’t do it. His grades and his attitude toward school improved remarkably.

Jay, this describes my son Toby who was featured in your story about our family's issues with the Mont. Co. high school choice process. I wouldn't necessarily describe Toby as a genius, but his grades would certainly improve if he weren't being penalized for failure to turn the wretched stuff in.

Tracey Henley

Posted by: bravegirl01 | January 7, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Great article! The idea of providing choices vs. adding hurdles is wonderful! I hope FCPS administrators such as Peter Noonan read your article carefully.

And as to how to take the Quaker Valley High School approach and move it down to elementary and middle schools -- you need a large enough number of students. Elementary and middle schools do not have 2,000 students as a high school does, where students/families have choices of "more challenging" math or music. Aggregate the "we need to be challenged more" elementary/middle school students together under one roof to get the quantity high enough to have a peer group. Of course this could result in a transportation problem, where there is less of a transportation problem at high school where students are already under the same roof.

Posted by: VAOrangeFish | January 7, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Maintain Existing Formal Programs as a baseline. However, the examples of creative "out of the box" solutions highlighted in Matthew’s blog sheds little light and are nothing new. Savvy influential parents, and flexible school administrators and staff put together ingenious "under the radar", “buck the system” educational opportunities all the time – in decades past and present, granted few and far between. Within this next decade, formal system wide individualized curriculum and tailor made instructional opportunities become the norm for all “gifted” students, (it’s happening out in the open all the time now) and shortly followed for all students. The days of brick and mortar behemoth high schools warehousing students from am – MP3 Monday through Friday are fading fast; and the 21st century of “real world” “cyberspace” (what a contradiction) individualized decentralized outcome career based learning provides the necessary innovation, research and development in the information / biotech / energy economy that keeps America’s global economic edge.

Posted by: motherseton | January 7, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Right on the money, Jay. Schools must serve the needs of ALL children. And since different children have different needs, the only way to do that is to create schools that are flexible from the get-go. The old "everyone does the same thing, at the same time, the same way, on the same day" approach just doesn't work anymore -- and it never really did. Gifted or not, every kid has a right to the schooling they need. And our society has an obligation -- out of its own self-interest -- to provide this.

Posted by: StevePeha | January 7, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

To efavorite---You got me. Sadly, there doesn't appear to be a way for me to fix my messes when I make them in comments, so I have to live with them. I love the fact that I can fix the columns themselves, but all joy has its limits.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 7, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

In fact, we should all read Ted Sizer's argument in Horace's Compromise and the two books that follow. He reaches a similar conclusion as Jay does, although in a somewhat different manner. If we're interested in "achievement" not "seat time", we'd focus on thinking about how we might define that (including in how many ways!), and what kind of demonstration/evidence would satisfy us. I had two sons who were at both extremes--one got so challenged by what the real right and best answer of four should be on tests that he got terrible scores, and the other was so good at psyching out right answers that he sailed through school without doing much work for his classes.

Ted Sizer's death leaves a vacuum, but his written work offers us a powerful dose of both high intellectual achievement--plus good sense.




Posted by: willen31 | January 7, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I've been saying for years that the principal obstacle to gifted education is not a political consensus that limited resources should go instead to low-achievers. The main obstacle is a political consensus that gifted students should not be given the opportunity to learn very much, even if it costs nothing.

That's the message of this column. You have to be a moron to believe that this school is somehow doing something wrong – but that is indeed the political consensus opinion.

John Hoven

Posted by: jhoven | January 7, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

And as to how to take the Quaker Valley High School approach and move it down to elementary and middle schools -- you need a large enough number of students. Elementary and middle schools do not have 2,000 students as a high school does, where students/families have choices of "more challenging" math or music.

Posted by: VAOrangeFish | January 7, 2010 1:49 PM

As a Quaker Valley alum, I just wanted to let you know that Quaker Valley is actually a small school district. There are probably 2,000 students in the entire district - the high school regularly graduates classes of around 150 students (roughly a total of 600 in grades 9 - 12). In fact, I believe that one of the reasons such innovations were developed in the first place(such as online AP classes and taking advantage of local community colleges) was because of our small size.

Posted by: mep36 | January 7, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I've basically given up of the public schools being able to provide adequate education for kids who can learn significantly faster than others. I was in special programs since I entered kindergarten, but many were really inadequate and tacked on. The best ones were the ones where we were just given a structure and left to teach ourselves with occasional support from a teacher. Even letting us go to the math class two grades ahead wasn't that useful, because the rate it was moving forward was just too slow. Finally, for two years we had independent study and several of us were able to complete 3 grade levels of elementary and middle school math per year, setting us up for a course that included Algebra in sixth grade. Of course, once we got back on a regular curriculum even though it was advanced, progress slowed and became boring again.

Let's drop this ridiculous GIFTED label, because kids that do 4 hours of studying (not boring "glue stuff to a poster board" projects) per night can learn faster (in calendar terms) than kids that aren't that dedicated- and in many cases that isn't really considered a gift. I think the very contextual meaning of the word "gifted" makes people that aren't in the category think these kids are getting gifts that other kids aren't. They aren't getting gifts, they are just learning faster.

It makes absolutely no sense to hold anyone back in learning, but we need some good frameworks to measure progress. If a student can get an A on the final exam in a class before the school year starts, there is no reason to put the kid in that class. It's called testing out.

Posted by: staticvars | January 7, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I do have to wonder if Quaker Valley High School has a number of advantages for adopting a strategy of giving more freedom to its students than the schools near where I live in Silver Spring. First, the school has an enrollment of about 600, making it less than half size of the smallest of my local public high schools. In fact, the enrollment of its entire school district, at 2,000 students, is smaller than the largest of my local high schools. Next, while as Jay notes, its poverty level at 15 percent is substantially greater than at some of our best performing high schools, it is substantially less those in my area of Montgomery County. Also, only a handful of Hispanic children go there, so the school does not have to have a large English as a second language program.

So, while it may very well be quite beneficial to give local students more freedom, I may be a far more challenging proposition to do it here that in Quaker Valley. Also, as with his December 10 article, Jay has yet to convince me that we should eliminate gifted and talented programs.

Posted by: Wmcfam | January 7, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

For more than twenty years, I’ve been researching when learning is fun (satisfying, engaging, interesting, meaningful, and more) for people. Thematic analysis of that research reveals six themes that emerge again and again (Zinn 2004, 2008): choice, relevance (personal resonance and relevance—not systemically determined nor economically motivated relevance), engagement, active learning, teacher attitude (watch out for those rebels out there who listen to kids!), and camaraderie.

From these themes, I’ve developed six skills of interest that I believe need to be deliberately addressed in schools. We know from large scale studies conducted around the world that students are bored in school. Educators like those described are helping students develop skills of interest instead of helping them hone skills of disinterest, demotivation, and disconnection from learning that will not serve them well in any personal or professional or educational pursuit in their adult lives. I am inspired by reading this.

Posted by: wilkinsorileyzinnwordpresscom | January 7, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

I echo comments of Pogoagain. For the ones who can handle the multitasking of simultaneous classes, go for it. This would allow them to move through whatever they choose at their own speed and still be in charge of their learning. Until they run up against whatever they can't. But that's excellent learning there too.

By the way pogoagain is a GREAT "handle".

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 7, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Jay - I frequently make silly mistakes in comments. It's painful to see them just sitting there, but some of the pain dissipates when I see journalists making mistakes too.

Posted by: efavorite | January 7, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

This is what I'm talking about....allowing schools and teachers to structure their classes in a way that best fits the needs of THEIR students. Not the 19th Century assembly-line approach to education that we currently follow. But my guess is... this would only work in a small school setting.

While I'm not opposed to labeling, per se, (if it is the best interest of the student) special programs, at either end of the spectrum, do leave the "average" kids out. These are probably the kids that would show the biggest increases in learning and participation if schools addressed their specific learning styles and did not use them to equal out the inclusion classes. (If that offends, I'm sorry...but just this week I saw how this affects average/low students.)

Is there any research that shows after 20 or 30 years these children are any more successful than the so-called average group?

I guess my point is this...there are limited funds for education. I want all children to be challenged and to feel special. The per pupil spending for gifted coupled with the spending for special education is diverting funds away from the rest. This is the tragedy of labeling. It's not the programs, it is the way the adults administer them.

When my son was in elementary school, his friend's sister went to the elementary school for the gifted. She was making a camera...maybe just a pin-hole camera, but nontheless, my son would have loved to have such an interesting project instead of cutting out magazine pictures and making busy-work posters.

Posted by: ilcn | January 7, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

The problem lies deeper than not providing classes or special schools for gifted kids. Their is no child that is more special than any other.

The problem at the root of all these discusions is about our need to put everyone on the same track. I cringe every time I hear "every child needs to go to college."

Not every child should go to college or be forced to follow a college track, when they have obvious gifts in other areas of learning, i.e. trades and tech.

I propose that society should bring back the importance of tech and trades skills. Because right now society looks down upon those admirable professions and skill sets.

Bring back the tech school and give it prominence in society. If kids want to go to college, they can go to a school that focuses on college preparation.

Once this happens, all students will have better environments to learn, from special ed to gifted and every one in between.

Posted by: tazmodious | January 7, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Quaker Valley sounds a lot like homeschooling.

Posted by: princessmom | January 7, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

I'll bet you a million dollar that kid who doesn't want to do his homework is an @sshole and his parents are d1ckheads.

Posted by: bendan2000 | January 7, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

What Jay ignores is that schooling is about more than fostering learning; it is also about conditioning young people to play by the rules, handle the boredom of life in our society, and obey authority.

If schools followed the example offered, they would lose the support of powerful groups who now shape and control them.

Schooling is more about contracting and fitting in than about growing.

Posted by: ljwaks | January 7, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

"What kind of high school would let kids behave like that? One possible answer: the kind of high school many of the Washington area parents who wrote me would like their children to attend. "

Another possible answer: a high school from a community with less than 10% minorities and a poverty rate under 15%. Which, it so happens, describes Leetsdale to a T.

You say: "Her school is like many in the Washington area, mostly middle class kids. "

Jay, this is either disingenuous or some incomplete reporting on your part. just like the schools in Washington DC.

Leetsdale and its school are over 85% white, with a poverty rate below 10%. Do DC schools have those sort of statistics? Are you going to argue that this information is irrelevant?

You also neglect to mention that QVC has just 650 students, which makes it a lot easier to manage the "one-offs" you celebrate.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 8, 2010 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Even the website for Quaker Valley says it's small size allows for individualized instruction. With 640 kids in the entire high school and a 6% minority rate, how is this school like schools in the D.C. area?
But note, Quaker Valley ranked high on Jay Mathews' Newsweek ranking.

Posted by: jzsartucci | January 8, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

About 45 years ago, my brother had a chance to skip 6th grade as per the recommendation of his teacher. His grades suffered since he hated homework, but his test scores in class as well as on national tests were quite high. He declined skipping 6th grade because he wanted to remain with his longtime close friends and move up with the group. He never had fantastic grades throughout school or college, but everyone knew he was very, very smart. He is now the VP of a Fortune 500 company and doing quite well.

Another story..... my son found himself in an elective art class in high school several years ago that he dreaded more and more each day. However, it was soon too late to change his schedule, so the counselor had a chat with him about some options. Although he wouldn't get credit for advanced biology due to the late entry into the class, he chose to attend because that was a subject of great importance to him. He already had a full load in other areas, so this was a wonderful chance for him to learn the material, participate in class and labs, and enjoy himself without the "hassel" of the day to day homework. Funny thing is, he opted to take the tests along with the class and the teacher graded his tests (and labs); he had among the highest, if not the highest, test grades in class. His classmates were amused and thought it was great that he wanted to learn advanced biology so much (and did so well) though have no final grade to show for it. He spurred them on. He is in PA school now and plans to practice family medicine. He will be a diligent and caring practitioner!

Posted by: shadwell1 | January 8, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Jay, why do you think this doesn't go on in Fairfax County? My son's public high school let him test out of a year of math, take AP exams without taking the course at the high school (8 of them, actually) take online courses with the county and do the work at double the pace, or faster, and leave school mid-day to take classes at George Mason University. When his friends asked him why he got to do this and they didn't, he told them, "Ask, you could do it, too." Some of them did. My son is now happily a student at MIT.

It's not some incredible favor, though; you still have to learn the material.

Posted by: nancy22 | January 8, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

When my mother taught elementary school many years ago, the classes were divided so each sixth-grade teacher had a class for a study hall once a day. One of her colleagues' section had their study hall last period. By sheer coincidence, most of the students in that section were very advanced and hard workers and she discovered that by Friday they had finished all their homework and had little to do. Since she was taking a Spanish class at the time, she began teaching some basic Spanish to those who had their work done.

When the principal found out, he ordered her to quit. School policy said that no students were to be taught anything that was not taught to all students, even for non-credit.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | January 8, 2010 8:59 PM | Report abuse

I am currently a sophomore at QVHS. First I would like to say that the link to this article is posted on our school's Facebook account and I wonder why the school administrators would ever want people to read this article. But anyways, I have some information that someone might find interesting. Okay, the school is located in Leetsdale but the district is composed of many boroughs that form the "Sewickley Area." I'm not sure if those statistics are from the whole area or just from Leetsdale but Leetsdale does not represent our school very accurately at all. If anyone wants to do the research on the other boroughs, the names of them are:
* Aleppo Township
* Bell Acres Borough
* Edgeworth Borough
* Glenfield Borough
* Glen Osborne Borough
* Haysville Borough
* Leetsdale Borough
* Leet Township
* Sewickley Borough
* Sewickley Heights Borough
* Sewickley Hills Borough
But I would also like to say that Quaker Valley is an interesting school. Our grading system is a weighted system that favors testing over homework. In most normal classes (with a few exceptions), tests, quizzes, essays, and projects are worth 70% of your grade while homework and minor assignments are worth 30%. In honors classes it is 80% and 20% and in AP classes it is 90% and 10% respectively.

I have some opinions about Quaker Valley that aren't exactly positive. I am a person that is very interested in how my educational experience (not any of the material or content) will affect me in "the real world." After some thought, I have come to the conclusion that it might not exactly be beneficial. Quaker Valley disguises itself and pretends to be a school with very challenging courses that will prepare students for college and whatnot. Although some of it is challenging, it did not take me long to figure out a way to do exceptional in classes when I don't give much effort at all. I do extremely well on tests and quizzes only by studying the night before for about 30 minutes. The system is so predictable and it is so easy to do well on these heavily weighted assignments and turn in the homework (which is rarely graded for accuracy) and get all A's. In fact, I was very lazy this term and felt disgusted that I received a 4.39 GPA when I did so little. Sure it looks really nice but I am not a fool. If I continue these habits, (which is what the QV system prompts) I will surely fail miserably at college and in my future career. I am considering going to a different school now because I know that these habits need to be kicked.

I hope this helps people realize what the school is like. Sure they give us many amazing opportunities and courses and it will look fabulous in the college application process but the truth is that it's not about the application process. It is about preparing us for actual college. What good is it getting into a good college if you aren't prepared and taught the values needed to do well.

Posted by: QuakerValleyStudent | January 8, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

Can I just point out to crimsonwife that it's not a question of educators being fine providing special needs students wtih services, that it's a federally protected right? Previous to 1975, children with special needs were NOT guaranteed a public education. And while most educators are on board with providing students what they need, plenty of school districts would be happy to limit those services: they are very expensive, and the federal government has not funded schools to the extent mandated under IDEA.

I'll also just point out, as the parent of one child who has gotten special education services for many years, that not all kids wtih special needs are "at the low end." There is a range of ability among the special needs population as well, some of whom are also gifted (and are often inadequately served in both arenas, b/c the giftedness can be masking the disability and vice versa).

And I'm sick unto death of the zero sum game that goes on, with special needs children, so the thinking goes, siphoning money away from the best and the brightest. Kids' needs should not be pitted against one another. I'm saying this as someone who also has a gifted child, and who thinks there are plenty of not-so-expensive alternatives to the lockstep most children are forced to walk in--acceleration, same-ability grouping (provided this isn't used as a cover for institutional racism), compacting.

The issue is institutional inertia, lack of flexibility, lack of creativity. There are clearly solutions.

Posted by: emilyschulman | January 9, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I agree with postsucks99 and tweinberg that the biggest challenges for gifted kids are the pre-high school years. They mention middle school, but elementary school & particularly the primary grades are where GATE is most lacking. Most school districts don't even begin GATE until 3rd or 4th grade. So where does that leave those kids during the primary years?

When my oldest was kindergarten age, she was reading long chapter books like those by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of the other incoming kindergartners could not read Bob books, and a substantial number did not even know all their letter sounds. So what do you do with a kid like that if you do not offer GATE in the primary grades?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 12, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

to emilyschulman- I'm actually very aware that kids can both be gifted and learning disabled. My DS is "twice exceptional", gifted in math but with speech & language delay.

I don't have a problem with special ed, I just think that the qualifications ought to be broadened to include ALL children who are far out of the mainstream at BOTH ends of the spectrum. The gifted child who is 3+ standard deviations above the mean IQ needs accommodations just as much as the retarded child who is 3+ std. dev. below the mean.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 12, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

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