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Gifted Education: Plenty to Discuss, Plenty to Debate

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 13, 2007

I asked readers for accounts of their experiences with gifted education. The e-mails flooded in. I am hoping to do a longer online column project, based on some of their stories. Here are some of the many views on this issue from people who have dealt with it firsthand.

Dear Extra Credit:

Two types of gifted programs have demonstrated an ability to insulate themselves against public education's understandably single-minded focus on low -- achievers. The two types are magnet programs and Advanced Placement courses.

In contrast, the forces against academic elitism have generally been too great for two other types of gifted programs: acceleration and enrichment in grades K-8, and honors classes in grades 9-12.

Magnet programs succeed because they provide good press, and because they permit magnet teachers and students to operate independent of the regular program. Even ill-defined and unsupervised magnet programs generally succeed because the teachers create something that works. These programs are especially useful when they bring together very high achievers who could not be served effectively in their home schools.

AP courses succeed because the College Board has a private incentive to keep the courses and exams credible. That makes it possible to open up these courses to any student and still maintain high standards.

I think something like the AP strategy is the best approach for gifted education in the regular K-8 classroom. By that, I mean open admissions with an explicit curriculum of accelerated and enriched objectives, designed to work efficiently with the regular school curriculum. We won a policy mandate for that in Montgomery County in 1995, but the policy mandate was ignored by central office administrators. That policy is being revised, so we have an opportunity to create a stronger mandate.

John Hoven

past co-president,

Gifted and Talented

Association of

Montgomery County,

Silver Spring

The idea of an AP-like, open-enrollment, enriched program for younger students is intriguing. I know few parents in the area who have thought about these policy issues as much as you have. I would be delighted to publish comments from other readers on your proposal.

Dear Extra Credit:

As the parent of an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old, I am seriously amused at the number of people who think their kids are gifted. I guess we all live in a super-special Lake Wobegon, where everyone is not only above average but in the top second percentile. I am often amused at how agitated parents get over whether the school is providing enough intellectual stimulation for their children.

Honestly, for every child I've met who was designated as gifted, I think I've met only two or three who truly were.

And the one thing I truly fear are parents and programs that believe that if a child is gifted in one area, then the child must be accelerated in all areas. This happened to me, and while I was arguably gifted in some areas, I was just your regular sort of student in math.

Put in a class with folks who truly should have had accelerated experiences in math, I ended up a fearful math flunky who didn't recover until graduate school, when a professor helped me rebuild my confidence in my abilities.

I remember when a certain psychology was in vogue -- past-life regressions -- through which people would be in some sort of hypnotized state and then come out believing that their ancestor was Cleopatra or George Washington or someone else famous. No one seemed to come out of it with ancestors who were just regular people building the pyramids or fighting in the Revolutionary War. Thus it is, I think, with children around here and gifted programs. Somehow, every child who is bright is suddenly dubbed gifted.

And, if you pardon my grammar, it just ain't so.

Sheryl Stein

Arlington

Gifted is a loaded word, and trouble for everybody. It is too popular to get rid of, but I wish we could be more specific when we talk about individual children this way and more willing to see their gifts as the result of their labors rather than just dumb luck.

My habit is to tell a child: "What a fine piece of work. You must have given it a lot of thought." I have known too many gifted people who just sat and waited for the world to hand them the prizes so many people had told them they were entitled to.

Dear Extra Credit:

I have a son and daughter, both identified as gifted. We are fortunate that our experience in the elementary school gifted program, at C. Hunter Ritchie here in Fauquier County, was excellent. The GT teacher there was so accommodating. She made sure every student was being challenged, ensuring all the children grew a year academically. Our middle school is also doing a good job.

The only problem I have had is with the county's refusal to even test my son for his readiness to take algebra in sixth grade. I had to weigh whether it was worth the fight to get him into algebra and decided it is not.

Middle school requires such a social adjustment, I'm still not sure if it would be wise for him to be in with older children for math. I am now hoping that his year in sixth-grade math will challenge him sufficiently.

We are also fortunate to have Mountain Vista Governor's School serving our county among others for 11th- and 12th-graders. We are hoping it will serve ninth- and 10th-graders in the future.

Joanne Hoelscher

Warrenton

Not a fight, but at least a conversation would have been worthwhile. Kim Raines, Fauquier's instructional coordinator for math, says she first discouraged a request that might have been yours because of various complications, but upon reflection realized she could make it work and sent out word.

She is sorry you didn't get that message and says it is not too late. I e-mailed you her number. Parents can't change ill-considered decisions if they don't at least ask polite questions about them.

Please send your questions, 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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