Inclusion Doesn't Inhibit the Best Students

(By Julie Zhu -- Montgomery Blair High School)
By Jay Mathews
Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

I have read with great interest your articles on AP courses as well as gifted children ["With Gifted Education, Access Is Everything," Extra Credit, Nov. 8] because of my background and my current situation. I was a member of Fairfax County's pilot gifted program in the 1960s. It was an unusual situation in that the children took electives but were grouped together and kept as a class for core subjects (math, language, science, etc).

It was a life-changing experience for me. Up until that time, I had variable success with school. Usually I was bored witless, so it wasn't worth putting in too much effort.

Once I got into the program, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The courses were designed to proceed as fast as we were able to cope. The students set the pace, and it was at lightning speed. I do not recall feeling any pressure to succeed, only a liberating freedom from boredom and a tremendous joy at being able to actually learn.

Here I am almost 30 years later. I have been teaching at the college level for 19 years. My daughter has attended Loudoun County schools all her life, and I have been less than thrilled.

The gifted program in Loudoun County is an attempt at appeasement. The system officials do not want the parents of the bulk of the students pointing at the gifted program and screaming elitist nor do they want to try to justify large expenditures for a segment of the community. Instead they have instituted a pullout system that is the worst of both worlds.

At the elementary-grade level, they provide "enrichment activities." These are activities that children with a modicum of initiative would have completed on their own sometime before kindergarten. In fourth and fifth grades, they begin "pullout activities," in which the child is removed from her regular classroom, transported by bus to a centralized location and participates in activities tied to a theme. Some of these activities are fun but not particularly challenging.

The kicker is that the child misses a regular day of classes and is expected to make up the work.

The teachers are supposed to give the children two days to catch up, but this was often not the case. I had to have repeated conversations with the principal to get the teachers to back off. One teacher said that if the children really were gifted, they shouldn't need an additional day to complete homework.

The fact that the program was a pullout one clearly marked the gifted children. This increased the level of unfavorable interactions with their regular classmates. All in all, it was an unfortunate experience, such that my daughter refused to continue to participate at the middle school level because she felt she was penalized for participating in the gifted program.

High school is a little better, although, as you well know, the buzzword at this level is AP. The counselors encourage these students to take six-plus AP courses a year. It verges on madness. In addition, as you have acknowledged, there is a huge push to get as many children as possible to take AP courses. Teachers that I have spoken with said they have had to slow down and add repetitive learning to their AP courses to help ensure that an adequate number of students receive credible scores. This in turn cuts down on the time available to explore additional areas of interest, "dumbing down" the course and forcing the teachers to teach to the test.

In my daughter's case, once she reached high school, she accelerated in several areas to the point that the school system didn't have the upper-level courses that she is capable of completing. Again, gifted education is definitely not a priority. I would vehemently argue against your statement that inclusion benefits all students. Inclusion can be helpful to the regular student, especially in specific learning situations. I am unconvinced that inclusion provides any benefit to the gifted and would be interested in reading any research that indicates otherwise.

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