Montgomery Erasing Gifted Label

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The label of gifted, as prized to some parents as a "My Child Is an Honor Student" bumper sticker, is about to be dropped by the Montgomery County school system.

Officials plan to abandon a decades-old policy that sorts second-grade students, like Dr. Seuss's Sneetches, into those who are gifted (the Star-Belly sort) and those who are not. Several other school systems in the region identify children in the same manner. But Montgomery education leaders have decided that the practice is arbitrary and unfair.

Two-fifths of Montgomery students are considered gifted on the basis of aptitude tests, schoolwork, expert opinion and parents' wishes. Officials say the approach slights the rest of the students who are not so labeled. White and Asian American students are twice as likely as blacks and Hispanics to be identified as gifted.

School system leaders say losing the label won't change gifted instruction, because it is open to all students. But this is Montgomery, where schools are known more for SAT composites than football records and where most, if not all, children are thought by parents to be above average. To some parents, any whiff of retreat from a tangible commitment to gifted education is cause for concern.

If Montgomery school officials don't "give these kids a name, they can ignore the real fact they exist," Lori White Wasserman, a parent, wrote on an e-mail list for advocates of gifted instruction in the county.

School systems in Alexandria and Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and Prince George's counties also label students as gifted, in much the same way children might be designated as having special needs or limited English proficiency.

Other school systems, including those in the District and Fairfax, Frederick, Howard, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, have gifted programs but not, strictly speaking, gifted students.

It's partly a matter of semantics. Montgomery and Fairfax take a similar approach to gifted education, and both have well-regarded programs, one of which happens to label children as gifted. Parents in each county raise the same grievances, chiefly about the inconsistency of gifted instruction from school to school.

"What matters is what the kids are going to get, not what they're labeled," said Louise Epstein, a Fairfax parent.

In Fairfax, about 15 percent of children are offered admission to centers for the highly gifted based on a second-grade screening, but the children are not labeled gifted. Montgomery also screens children at the second grade, and 40 percent are identified as gifted, but the label guarantees no specific service. Montgomery operates its own gifted centers, but admission to those is based on a separate screening process.

The gifted label is a hot potato in public education. A school that tells some students they have gifts risks dashing the academic dreams of everyone else. Any formula for identifying gifted children, no matter how sophisticated, can be condemned for those it leaves out.

Montgomery officials say their formula for giftedness is flawed. Nearly three-quarters of students at Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda are labeled gifted, but only 13 percent at Watkins Mill Elementary in less-affluent Montgomery Village are, a curious disparity given that cognitive gifts are supposed to be evenly distributed.

School officials worked for decades to fix the inequities. Later this school year, the school board will take up a recommendation to abandon the label.

The aim is "to get away from this idea of putting kids in boxes and saying, 'You're gifted, and you're not,' " said Marty Creel, who directs the school system's Department of Enriched and Innovative Programs.

Local school systems generally screen all children for giftedness in third grade. In Prince George's, 10,000 of 130,000 students are labeled gifted; in Prince William, 8,700 of 75,000 students. Elsewhere, students with demonstrated gifts are generally steered into accelerated instruction but not formally labeled.

The debate about gifted education is loudest in elementary and middle schools, where the kind and amount of accelerated instruction varies widely. It matters less in high schools, which consistently track accelerated students into honors and college-level study.

On the e-mail list of the county's Gifted and Talented Association, Montgomery parents have debated the implications of losing the label. Some parents see the designation as leverage to get services they believe their children deserve. Others say the label has been misused or ignored by school officials and are glad to see it go.

Montgomery schools began identifying gifted students in the 1970s to target them for enrichment. Since then, aided by a proliferation of tests, educators have become more nimble in deciding who needs accelerated instruction. Teachers codify children's math and reading levels with frequency and precision unknown in previous decades.

Teachers and principals say the gifted label has become obsolete.

"It can set up a kind of have and have-not atmosphere at your school, and we don't have that here," said Aara Davis, principal of Georgian Forest Elementary School in Silver Spring.

Georgian Forest is one of two Montgomery schools that have quietly ditched gifted identification as an experiment. No one at that school or at Burning Tree Elementary in Bethesda is labeled gifted. Principals and teachers say they don't miss it.

In a classroom at Georgian Forest one morning this month, a group of fourth-graders attempted sixth-grade math: If one-quarter cup of sugar makes one glass of iced tea, how many glasses would 3 1/2 make?

"Are you supposed to multiply?" a girl asked three classmates. "I think you divide, actually," a boy replied. "Okay, what's the strategy, guys?" another girl interjected. Moments later, they had the answer: 14.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company