Labels Aren't What Kids Need

By Patrick Welsh
Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's that anxious time again, the start of a new school year. But when Alexandria elementary schools resume classes after Labor Day, a lot of parents will be even more anxious than usual. Like Nancy Williams, the mother of a fifth-grader at George Mason Elementary, who has been fighting the good fight to get her son the best education she can.

"It's an ongoing comedy trying to get the school to challenge him," she says. "The school keeps saying, 'Don't worry. Your child's needs will be met.' Then his teacher says she can't give him challenging work because 'We were told not to assign above-grade-level work to anyone who isn't labeled TAG.' "

That's TAG as in Talented and Gifted. And who is and who isn't -- or at least who's designated such and who isn't -- has been one of the most contentious issues in Alexandria since the school system raised the bar for the TAG program two years ago. The new rules have cut out about two-thirds of the students who once qualified: At George Mason, the size of the fourth-grade program went from 17 to six last year.

Which means that a substantial number of students will now be relegated to the "regular" curriculum, where the emphasis is on ensuring that lower-income children who lag far behind in basic skills will pass the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. In Alexandria, the first group is mostly white, the second mostly black and Hispanic. Some white parents at George Mason are now demanding a special class, between regular and gifted, for the "nearly gifted" -- as they call the children who missed the TAG cut.

Nancy Williams does not want a special class, but she does believe that the education her fourth-grader, who didn't make TAG, is getting at George Mason can't compare to what his older brother received there four years ago, when he got into TAG under the old rules.

"It's become too restrictive," agreed Priscilla Zanone Goodwin, whose three children are in the TAG program. "You have bright kids who don't make the cut wondering what's wrong with them, why they aren't getting to leave the room and do the same work as their friends in TAG."

The debate over designating students "gifted and talented" has been bedeviling school districts in the Washington area and throughout the country for years. Middle-class parents have come to see the label not just as a guarantee that their children will be challenged, but also as a status symbol, and they complain when their kids aren't included in the programs.

But of all the labels that we so-called educators give students, none seems more absurd -- and few more destructive. When we apply this tag to a tiny group of children in third, fourth or fifth grade, we are in effect saying that the rest are ungifted and untalented. We're denigrating hard work and perseverance, telling children that no matter how much effort they put forth, they just can't measure up to their special peers.

Just as bad, we're telling those on whom we deign to bestow the coveted label that they have it made; we're giving them an overblown sense of their intellectual abilities and setting them up to fall short when they face real challenges later. What schools need to do is not to single out a small group as special, but push all kids to work to their fullest potential.

The TAG philosophy heightens the racial and class tensions that have long been at the heart of the Alexandria school system. This is a city where 52 percent of the school children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. White students, most from fairly affluent families, make up 24 percent of the school district.

It's easy to write off the white parents now seeking a special class for their kids as snobs who want to create an exclusive club within the public schools for their darlings. But the parents at George Mason and elsewhere have reason to be concerned. For a fairly bright child, the SOL exams aren't much more than a minimum-competency test. To allay parental anxieties, Superintendent Rebecca Perry has said that the students at the top of the regular classes -- i.e., the white kids who didn't get into TAG -- will help to "challenge, mentor and coach" the students struggling with the SOL material.

George Mason parent David Rainey charitably calls Perry's statement "an interesting perspective." But "the unanswered question remains," he says. "What else could these students be doing instead of reviewing material they already understand as they challenge, coach and mentor their classmates?"

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