Many Montgomery County parents have waited all year for the chance to talk to new superintendent Joshua Starr, voice concerns and learn more about his vision for gifted education in the public schools.
They had their chance Thursday night, when more than 350 parents crowded into the Magruder High School cafeteria for a forum on gifted and talented education with the schools chief.
Approaches to gifted education have shifted dramatically across the country as growing research documents the capacity of all students to learn or excel and as schools increasingly move away from a tradition of
tracking that often put white or Asian and/or rich students in advanced or ”gifted” classes and black or Hispanic students in remedial classes.
But some parents in Montgomery are concerned that in the county’s intense effort to erase academic achievement gaps, the needs of advanced learners are going unmet.
In the quest to provide a more equitable education, “We can’t go to the opposite extreme and try to fit everyone’s needs with one-size-fits-all programming,” said Michelle Gluck, the chair of the gifted child subcommittee for Montgomery County’s Council of PTA’s.
On a more basic level, Gluck said, she believes the school system is “hostile to the idea that giftedness exists.”
The school system does screen all second graders, and 37 percent were identified as gifted in 2011.
Some gifted advocates called on Starr ahead of time to weigh in on some of the most polarizing issues in education circles today, such as how early children should be screened for giftedness and how or whether they should be accelerated beyond grade-level work.
The forum, instead, was designed as more of a conversation between educators and parents. It was one of a series of Spring Forums that Starr is hosting on various issues.
Starr has dedicated most of his first year on the new job to getting to know the 146,000-student system. He and school board members have said he did not come in with a mandate — or a desire — to make radical changes, and he did not organize Thursday’s forum to announce any new initiatives. Instead, he said, the purpose was for people “to learn together about a really complex issue and to learn from each other.”
Starr highlighted a sampling of the different perspectives represented in the room that he suggested underscore the complexity of any potential path forward.
Some people believe there is a large number of kids who are truly gifted and others believe there are just “a lot of smart kids” out there, he said. There are those who have seen “great differentiated instruction,”which helps children of widely different ability levels, and others who have never seen it succeed. There are people who believe that “heterogeneous grouping is essential” to undo a legacy of tracking and others who believe that separating children by ability is essential to teaching them effectively.
He reported that he gets a lot of e-mails from parents who believe they know what the solution is: “ ‘If we just...’ ” he said. But the answers are not easy, and educators have to continue learning, he said.
After a panel discussion representing administrators and teachers, as well as a parent and the executive director for the National Association for Gifted Children, parents broke into small round-table discussions. Later, they shared some of the concerns they discussed, including too-late identification, inconsistent resources for advanced learners, teachers spending more time with struggling students than succeeding ones and a less-than-transparent process for identifying children.
Afterward, some parents said they were disappointed that Starr was not more forthcoming about his own perspective.
“I already know my opinions and my trials and tribulations,” said Lisa deBastos, a mother of three. “I needed to hear more about his views.”
Still, she said, she appreciated that he had organized the event.
“I’m glad he said it was a beginning of the conversation,” she said.