'Gifted Label' Isn't the Problem

By Julie Lees
Thursday, September 7, 2006

Last year, the Equity in Education Coalition formed in Montgomery County to promote the elimination of the gifted and talented designation for students, arguing that the label gives some students an unfair advantage. Many do not agree.

The Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County Inc. supports gifted and talented programs. Julie Lees of Silver Spring, president of the association, responds below to an Aug. 24 guest column by coalition members Evie Frankl and Denise Young.

In their column, Evie Frankl and Denise Young state that the achievement gap is caused by second-grade global screening and the gifted and talented "label." They offer no other explanation for variations in test scores before screening occurs or why the gap exists. However, African American scholar Donna Y. Ford, in her book "Reversing Underachievement Among Gifted Black Students," says that early identification is an important factor in boosting the achievement of gifted black students.

Maryland state law requires screening and identification of academically gifted students. In an October 2001 report, the governor's Commission on Funding and Services for Gifted and Talented Student Education in Maryland noted that "identification of and needs-based, high-quality programming for gifted and talented students are integral to a school system's responsibility to help each student reach his or her full potential."

Montgomery County public schools continually reviews the screening process to support fair identification of gifted and talented students from all parts of the population. Nonetheless, white and Asian students have been identified as gifted at a higher percentage than African American and Hispanic students, as is found nationally. No one has been able to isolate and prove the root cause or causes, despite considerable research.

Moreover, Frankl and Young seemingly believe that second-grade global screening of children's academic ability constitutes the fork in the road between Harvard and prison. They present the options as gifted or remedial classes, ignoring the reality that most instruction is grade-level and most classes are heterogeneous. In elementary school, only reading and math are differentiated at all (and inconsistently by school). And many students labeled gifted and talented never see any services in their home school.

They claim that "labeling determines resources, methodologies and expectations provided to each student." Aside from the tiny number of students served in magnet programs, there is no exclusive gifted curriculum, materials or teaching methodology for students identified as gifted. The vast majority of those students are in their home schools, where students' reading and math skills are assessed before differentiated instruction occurs. During the year, as each new unit begins, all students take a pretest to determine math group placement. Students need not be "labeled" GT to access higher-level classes. Students are not "tracked," because there are no tracks.

Each individual student needs instruction that is challenging based on his or her level of achievement. Kindergartners who read fluently should not be held back while their peers learn the alphabet. Some students may need remedial instruction before they can advance. We ensure their failure by neglecting their needs in our own misguided enthusiasm for a facade of equal achievement.

The real issue is raising minority achievement. As achievement grows, so will the numbers of minority students identified as gifted or admitted to magnet programs. The gifted and talented association strongly supports efforts to raise minority achievement and offer challenging instruction. The gap is unacceptable, but we should not hide the problem by not measuring it. Instead, the school system must focus resources on raising achievement.

What should Montgomery County public schools do?

· Continue developing a culture of high expectations for all.

· Let high-achieving students work at their own pace and level. Allow maximum flexibility and individualized paths of instruction.

· Require consistent academic standards. Students in low-income schools should not get simplified assignments, less homework or easier books.

· Revise the curriculum so students can learn and achieve regardless of availability of home support. Teach grammar on a systematic basis, so that students from non-English-speaking homes are not disadvantaged. Teach writing, giving teachers time to grade papers thoroughly. Refocus the math curriculum so that students strengthen basic skills such as computation and word problem skills.

· Expand availability of high-quality preschools to low-income families.

· Expand English classes for adults and after-school tutoring for students.

· Support parents helping their children at home.

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