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?"

Alexandria's school administrators are caught in a political and moral trap. They have to assure mostly white middle-class parents, who provide most of the tax dollars for the schools, that their children can progress academically without being held back by lower-income kids. At the same time, the school system cannot create exclusive schools-within-schools for upper-income students.

Then there's the question that's usually too delicate to address: Can low-income minority students get the attention they need when they're in classes with middle-class whites? Research shows that KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools are the most successful in the country at closing the gap between low-income black students and middle-class white students. But the philosophy of these schools is geared to the needs of poor children. The schools operate on the belief that to close the learning gap, children from poor homes need an education that's not just equal, but superior, to that of middle-class whites. KIPP students, virtually all of whom are minority and poor, spend 60 percent more time in school than most other children in public schools.

Over the past 30 years, I've seen Alexandria swing back and forth between the concerns of the white and the black communities. Until the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on keeping white families in the system by running schools with large TAG programs, as well as honors and advanced-placement (AP) courses, that were virtually all white. In the late '80s and early '90s, Superintendent Paul Masem began to whittle away at that system. Every year during his seven-year tenure, the school system declared "minority achievement" to be its main goal; this angered white parents, many of whom left the system.

In 1995, Virginia instituted the SOLs, which are now complicating the racial dynamics even further and causing new concerns among white parents. Even the TAG students are being slowed down by the emphasis on the tests. When Priscilla Goodwin complained that her third-grader was bored, the principal of George Mason told her that the mandate from the central office was to get all students to pass the SOL exams. "Principals are running scared," Goodwin says. "Their reputations and promotions depend on the SOLs; they think that as long as bright kids pass these simple tests, they're doing fine. They're giving kids worksheets on facts that most children already know because they go at the pace of the slowest kid in the room. TAG or regular classes, kids aren't being challenged."

This is a problem not only in Alexandria, but in school systems throughout Northern Virginia and elsewhere in the state. Says University of Virginia education professor Carol Tomlinson: "Many bright kids encounter year after year of waiting for other kids to finish work so they can move ahead. Parents get weary of advocating for challenges in 'general' classroom settings and understandably come to believe that the only folks in the building who have their kids on the radar are the folks in the gifted program."

What most parents don't realize is that the gifted label can harm not only those who don't receive it, but also those who do. Labeling can create what Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a "fixed" mindset of intelligence -- the belief that your intelligence is set in stone -- as opposed to a "growth" mindset, which views intelligence as a muscle, something that can be developed throughout your life. In 1998, Dweck conducted an experiment in which she gave two evenly matched groups of elementary school kids the same nonverbal IQ test. When one group of children did well, they were told that they must have worked very hard to get their results. The students in the other group, meanwhile, were told that they must be very smart to have done so well.

Dweck found that as time went on, the kids who were told that they were smart "fell apart when they hit a challenge. They lost confidence in their abilities. Their motivation dwindled and their performance on the next IQ test dropped." By contrast, the children in the group praised for working hard tended to seek out challenges and persist at difficult tasks and ultimately learned more.

I've seen Dweck's theory proved time and again in my AP English classes. When an Asian student who has spoken English for only four or five years gets an A on a test and an American kid labeled gifted gets a D, the American will often do one of two things: denigrate the Asian's grade because it was achieved through hard work, or bring in his mother to argue that the test was unfair and that I should change his grade because I "know how smart he is."

In truth, many bright students feel uncomfortable as they go through the gifted-and-talented program. "I was always uneasy about being pulled out of class for TAG, set apart from other kids and shuttled through to college," says Sarah Shaffer, a sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Shep Walker, a T.C. graduate about to enter the College of William and Mary, says the problem is that "gifted-and-talented programs get filled with white kids who have pushy parents, leaving a lot of black and Hispanic kids out in the cold and creating de facto segregation in the classes."

In its defense, Alexandria's school administration was probably trying to fix that situation. But the solution isn't to mark fewer students as gifted and talented. It's to challenge all our kids, all the time.

may6dog@aol.com

Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

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