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The Book on Gifted and Talented Programs Is Wide Open

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

For all of us parents of bright students, can you fill us in on gifted and talented education in the area?

Our daughter is a bright rising first-grader. She's not what I would call Doogie Howser material but she reads above grade level, she does math above grade level, etc. She's hardly ready for "War and Peace" or a course in differential calculus.

There seem to be stereotypical "GT parents" in this area who demand GT classes for their second-graders and who go ballistic if they don't get them or if a child has a bad test-taking day. Then there is another type of GT parent who has a child who is (supposedly) ready for algebra classes in sixth grade, and anyone else who is in that student's GT class and not ready for algebra should be kicked out because "they are not in the top 2 percent of kids."

So what's the answer? What's the right way to implement GT programs? Does Arlington County have it right? Fairfax County? Montgomery? Does the District even have a GT program in its public schools?

Is the answer to take all GT kids out of public schools and send them to Nysmith School in Herndon or Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth?

Karen Metivier-Carreiro

Annandale

This is a provocative topic for which there are few good answers at the moment, except from readers who have experienced our various gifted and talented programs. Please send in your experiences and conclusions for future publication. I will sum up what I know so far.

Our two largest counties, Fairfax and Montgomery, have the most energetic GT programs. Whether that produces better teaching and more accomplished students is not clear. Both have gifted centers with classes, beginning in elementary school, for children who have tested very well, and also have special programs for high-achieving students in regular classes.

The other local districts designate some children as gifted and talented but do not put them in the same classes in elementary school or middle school. They are often pulled out some periods for special programs and may be given accelerated assignments in their classrooms. All of the districts accelerate some children in certain subjects, particularly math, if they seem ready. All offer high school courses for the most advanced and ambitious students, who often spend nearly all of their class time with other students who are at the same level.

Many parents around the country complain of difficulties in getting accelerated courses and enriched lessons for their gifted children. The limited capacity of the gifted centers in Fairfax and Montgomery is often an issue. But I have yet to find any adults who were designated gifted as children and did not think they were able to find at least some of the intellectual stimulation they craved at school or on their own. I also don't find much correlation, either in the research or in my interviews, between success in life and gifted education during childhood.

Dear Extra Credit:

I'm a junior at a four-year college. In June, you asked to hear from people with AP experience in ninth and 10th grades. In high school, I took two AP classes in 10th grade, two in my junior year and four in my senior year.

I'd like to reinforce the impression that there is no middle ground between regular and AP-level courses. I was enrolled in advanced and honors classes at the start of high school. There was a group of us students taking these classes, and my high school interactions for the most part were among these students.

There were about 50 of us. We all were on the same track and shared a common schedule most of high school. There was very little interaction outside the advanced track. I thought it also might be interesting to point out the isolation that a gifted and talented program can bring: Electing to take the honors track puts you in direct interaction only with other students who make the same choice.

I did not enjoy English, so I elected to leave the group junior year and take regular English instead of AP. I regretted this choice the whole year. The regular track was dull and very boring and a flat-out waste of my time. I'd rather not get an A in English and feel somewhat challenged than get an A for nothing. I returned to AP English for my senior year.

If one is an advanced or gifted and talented student, I would recommend the advanced track. If grades are really important, then write in the college application essays about the greater challenge and effort that were required to get that B instead of an A. But the difference between the advanced and regular tracks can be quite horrendous to a gifted and talented individual.

J.M. McKinney

Woodbridge High School '05

Prince William County

Yours is a good example of how education for advanced students works in many of our districts. The problem, it seems to me, is to find ways to energize those regular courses and make them more useful for those students who, unlike you, do not have an alternative.

Extra Credit is back for the school year and wants your comments and questions. Please send them, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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