When the Label Is 'Gifted,' The Debate Is Heated

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Dec. 16 article in The Washington Post reported that the Montgomery County school system might end the longtime practice of labeling students as gifted or not in the second grade.

The article ignited a fire within the local gifted-and-talented community. More than 300 people posted comments on http://www.washingtonpost.com, and 9,957 voted in an informal online poll on the merits of scrapping the gifted label. The latest tally was 54 percent in favor of keeping it, 41 percent saying dumping it would be a good idea.

The school system went to the unusual length of responding publicly to the article, clarifying that although the idea was under study, no decision had been made. Gifted policy is ultimately decided by the school board, whose members expect to take up the future of the label sometime this year.

The reaction illustrated the level of community interest in accelerated instruction and underscored the friction between advocates for the gifted and school system officials on a more basic question: Are the needs of advanced students being met?

Montgomery school officials have been talking about eliminating the gifted label for years. The current practice, which dates to the 1970s, is to screen each student for potential giftedness in the second grade by administering cognitive tests and weighing several other factors, including schoolwork and the recommendations of teachers and parents. Roughly two-fifths of students are formally labeled gifted, a designation that goes on their permanent record.

Within the school system, the gifted label is increasingly viewed as a liability, chiefly because it is seen as inequitable. White and Asian American students are twice as likely to be labeled gifted as Hispanic and black students. The share of students identified as gifted varies -- widely and largely inexplicably -- among schools with similar demographics and test scores. In 2005, an alliance of groups called the Equity in Education Coalition began lobbying school officials to abolish the label, saying it bestowed unfair advantages upon designated students.

Two schools, Burning Tree Elementary in Bethesda and Georgian Forest Elementary in Silver Spring, quietly launched a pilot program mid-decade to see what would happen if a school did not label students as gifted. Both schools continue to screen all students for giftedness and to assign children to accelerated study based partly on the results, but no one is formally designated as gifted.

Neither school's students seem to have been harmed, said Marty Creel, who directs gifted education in the school system. Both schools offer as much gifted education as any of the county's elementary schools. Both have strong test scores; Georgian Forest, in particular, scores "significantly higher" than similar schools, Creel said.

The notion of eliminating the gifted label predates Creel's tenure as director, which began in 2005. Talk has accelerated over the past year, however, with a school system advisory committee working toward a revision of the school board's policy for gifted education.

Creel stresses that schools would continue to screen students for giftedness as before. He proposes moving toward a "services-based" model of gifted education, similar to the policy of neighboring Fairfax County. Students would be assigned to gifted education based on available data -- test results, achievement levels, parent and teacher recommendations and the like -- and not because of a formal designation of giftedness.

School system officials say they hope to screen students more often for giftedness than they do now and to use an ever-thicker dossier of data to assign students to programs that match their abilities. The screening process would be repeated in grades 5 and 8, yielding more timely information about capabilities as a student moves to middle and high school.

Gifted-education advocates remain wary of the school system's motives. The community generally favors a separate curriculum for the gifted, formal identification of giftedness -- opinions vary on whether students should be explicitly labeled -- and classes grouped by ability. The school system, by contrast, prefers to integrate gifted instruction into the general curriculum.

Many parents believed, erroneously, that the school system was proposing to eliminate both the gifted label and the screening process that precedes it. Others continue to suspect the proposed elimination of the label is part of a broader retreat from gifted education.

In a Dec. 25 online posting titled "Labelgate," leaders of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County came down on the side of keeping the label, which suggests the school system may be in for a fight.

"The label is a recognition of needs and abilities (as required by State law)," their statement says, "through which a student may try to secure . . . real services, really needed."

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