Dear Readers:

I have received several letters from people asking about Montgomery County's gifted-and-talented programs.

One letter writer asked, "As a former slightly-above-average student with (so far) slightly above-average elementary children I am concerned that they are not receiving the same services as these so-called 'gifted' students. Isn't it time for Montgomery County Public Schools to start recognizing the needs of all students?"

This is a hot topic, and one that people in this county have knockdown, drag-out fights over. Because it's so complex, I'm devoting the whole column to my opinion about it. And if I get the letters I think I'll get, I'll be devoting more columns to it in the future.

Montgomery County, like many other school systems in the country, reserves its richest educational experiences for children it considers gifted, based on the idea that different children need to learn different things.

To identify children as gifted, the county relies on two notions: 1) intelligence is fairly easy to measure, and 2) intelligence is fixed--that is, it doesn't change depending on experience.

For that reason, Montgomery County schools administer tests to second-graders that, along with teacher observations, then largely determine the kind of curriculum those children have access to. So children who do really well on those tests--which are essentially intelligence tests--are identified as gifted.

From there, what happens depends partly upon which school a child attends. Some elementary and middle schools offer few programs specifically for children identified as gifted and talented. Other principals offer higher-level educational experiences for those students who do well.

Similar tests are administered to some fifth- and eighth-graders to sort through applicants to the academic magnet programs and to honors classes, particularly in mathematics. Some children are tested as early as kindergarten for entry into an elementary magnet program for gifted and talented children.

Let me start with the intelligence issue first.

It is more or less agreed that the general intelligence that people have is a combination of what they inherit and the experiences that either develop or inhibit their cognitive abilities. But the idea that intelligence is easy to quantify with tests of cognition and the idea that intelligence is fixed by about first or second grade are both hotly contested--and for good reason.

Children who are exposed to rich educational experiences, especially those who are taught things traditionally asked on intelligence tests, such as vocabulary and symbolic logic, score higher. That means that intelligence--at least the kind measured even by the best of the tests--is not fixed and that all children benefit from a rich educational experience.

This question of whether intelligence is easily measurable and fixed is an old one, with a lot of people arrayed on either side and a long history of argumentation that goes back to the beginning of the century. I won't go into it, but if you are interested, I recommend a book by Thomas Toch, "In the Name of Excellence."

And, although I have described the dominant mode of thinking in Montgomery County, there are disagreements within the school system. So there are many little avenues and byways that undermine that fixed-intelligence, test-based selection system. One that parents should know about is that parents and teachers can ask that the intelligence tests be administered to children later in elementary school and that the later scores, not the earlier ones, are used by the schools.

But the most important thing parents should know is that they can ask that their children have access to any programs offered to children identified as gifted. I am not talking about the magnet programs and the Centers for the Highly Gifted, which have a limited number of seats, but about any enrichment that is available in their neighborhood schools. Parents are sometimes discouraged by teachers and principals from asking for such a thing, but they have the right to ask their principals that their children be taught the same stuff as children who have been identified as gifted.

And parents need to understand that the implications of not being offered that higher-level curriculum can be long-lasting. If their children leave elementary school with lower-level knowledge and skills, they probably will be tagged as lower-level in middle school and probably again in high school. They likely will be denied access to Montgomery County's richest educational experiences. To see how this issue plays out in several very prestigious school systems similar to Montgomery County's, I recommend a book by Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews, "Class Struggle."

Montgomery County's sorting of students is the latest variant of an argument that goes back to the last century. In 1893, the president of Harvard, Charles Elliot, and others collectively known as the Committee of Ten said that all students should be liberally educated, regardless of whether they were bound for college. By this, the committee meant that they should all study English, history, foreign language, science and mathematics. Such a course of study, the committee declared, was the best preparation for the duties of life. That's the way they talked back then.

The Committee of Ten helped shape curriculum all over the country. But in 1918, facing a huge wave of working class immigrants who were considered by many in the elite to be dull and nearly uneducable, a contrary vision of secondary education was proposed by something called the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. It argued that public schools should basically teach students health and hygiene and get them ready them for jobs.

I go through the history because we in the United States--and thus, we in Montgomery County--have been fighting this battle ever since, leading to a division of education offerings. Roughly speaking, people in position to do so have demanded an education along the lines of the recommendations of the Committee of Ten, and the rest have been saddled with the directives of the 1918 group.

As such, poor and lower-middle-class students, immigrant students and students of color often have been given a lower-level curriculum that has as its purpose preparing students for jobs requiring little or no education or training. Even if that had been a good plan in 1918--which is a big "if"--it is clearly no longer a good plan in 1999.

Donald Langenberg, who is chancellor of the University of Maryland, likes to tell people about a booklet put out by General Motors for prospective employees. It lists on separate pages the high school courses that future automotive engineers and executives should take and the courses that future factory line workers should take.

The two lists are identical, and both call for high-level math, science, English and so forth. "We have to get rid of the obsolete idea that only some of our children will go to college," Langenberg says. "We are approaching a time of near universal college attendance. We have got to make sure all of our students are prepared."

So let's set up a syllogism. All children need to learn at a high level. Rich educational experiences best prepare children to learn at high levels. Therefore, all children need access to rich educational experiences that will prepare them to learn at high levels in college and in the rest of their lives.

This is why, when Montgomery County rations its richest educational experiences by tests that supposedly assess students' intelligence, parents should object. All children need those experiences. In fact, there is a powerful argument to be made that children who are considered harder to teach need more enrichment, not less. That is, in order to catch up to their peers, they need to learn at a faster pace and thus need the richest curriculum and the best teachers with the deepest knowledge of the subjects they teach.

Let us be clear about this. Many white, middle-class students are harmed by having lower expectations and a lower-level curriculum, but many more poor students, immigrant students and students of color are harmed, mostly because many of their parents don't know how to manipulate the system to their advantage or are unsuccessful in doing so.

The good news in all this, as far as I'm concerned, is that the state of Maryland has come to the same conclusion. It is moving toward requiring that all students who graduate from high school demonstrate their ability to learn at a college level by passing high school achievement tests. The devil is in the details, so we'll see if the state can produce achievement tests that really deliver on their promises. But by requiring the same high standard for all children, the state should help simplify some of these Montgomery County debates and make sure that all children have access to the same high-quality curriculum.

I know there are opinions to the contrary, and I want to let you have your say. So if you think I've got the issue wrong, let me know.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinion and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St. Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.