Two weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that Montgomery County reserves its richest curriculum and educational experiences for children it has identified as gifted. I received some very thoughtful replies, and I want to share some of them with you. Most were in broad agreement with my point that all children should have access to the same rich curriculum. I even got two letters from across our borders, thanks to the wonders of the Internet. This issue seems to have touched a chord.

Dear Homeroom:

I came to the United States when I was 12 years old and began 7th grade at Kensington Jr. High School in January 1966. I figured out that if I stayed in the math class I was assigned I would not be taking geometry in 9th grade and therefore would not be able to take calculus in 12th grade. I had decided when I was young that I was going to be an astronomer and needed the math to do that. After my mother went to the school, I was grudgingly allowed to take a test. If I passed it, which was clear my math teacher did not think I would, I would be allowed to move to the higher class. I believe that my Hispanic last name and the fact that I came from Guatemala led my teachers and the school administration to assume certain things about me and my abilities.

I passed the test and I moved to the advanced math class. I took calculus in 12th grade at Einstein High School, went on to Swarthmore College in physics, and was the first woman to get a Ph.D. in seismology from Columbia University. I suppose Montgomery County will take credit for that, as Columbia University does. The truth is that I did it in spite of the majority of teachers and administrators. There were a few wonderful teachers along the way, particularly Mr. Welsh who taught mathematics at Einstein, and my parents, who nurtured my intelligence and abilities.

Now I live in Takoma Park. My son is finishing fourth grade and my daughter will start kindergarten next year. I see and am troubled by a lot of what happens in schools. At my child's school, Caucasian students do very well; the Hispanic and African American children do poorly. The result is segregation, with mostly Caucasian middle- to upper-middle-class students in the advanced classes and poor Hispanic and African American students in the other classes. A group of parents at the school is working to understand the causes and come up with strategies to change it.

Ines Lucia Cifuentes


Carnegie Academy for Science Education at the Carnegie Institution of Washington

Your education story holds real lessons for anyone concerned with education and democracy. I applaud you for working with other parents on this issue, but I hope you will be working in partnership with the school's teachers. Good teachers are as dismayed by the disparities you talk about as are parents, and they are anxious to find ways to change them. If you can approach this as a common struggle rather than a confrontation, you'll save a lot of time and energy and get a lot more done.

Dear Homeroom:

My first son was bright and creative, but the school system did not identify him as gifted; he barely made it through high school and refused to go to college. My second son was bright and creative, and this was recognized early and encouraged. He transferred to Piney Branch Elementary School in 4th grade and did well in the program for gifted children there. However, he began having problems in middle school, when the curriculum became more difficult and affordable tutoring was not available. In 7th grade, he tested out of the gifted program, and faced the humiliation of having to explain that he was a gifted and talented reject. It was a difficult time for all of us, but he is now doing well as a junior in college.

By the time my daughter was in elementary school and was selected to test for the gifted program, I had had time to consider what that meant and was really torn as to whether I should go ahead with it. What if she took the test and didn't qualify: how would that make her feel? And what if she got in, only to be told, sometime down the road, "Sorry, you're not gifted and talented any more." And what about all the other kids who don't get in? What is that saying to them? So I wrote a note to her teacher, saying that I knew my daughter was gifted and I didn't need a special test to prove it. I did worry that I would be depriving her of opportunity but decided that if more parents protested this system, maybe it would change.

Cynthia Nystrom

Silver Spring

When we spend our time and resources sorting children, rather than making sure everyone masters a rigorous curriculum, we put some children into the position of feeling as if they are not good enough to learn what other children are learning. To me that is contrary to the whole point of a public school system.

Dear Homeroom:

I retired as a teacher and principal from Montgomery County Public Schools in 1984. What the Committee of Ten [an influential group of academics headed by Harvard president Charles Elliott] said in 1893 is still viable today, not only for Montgomery County but for the entire U.S. public school system: All children should receive the best in a liberal education.

The jury, I believe, is still out in deciding what a "gifted and talented" student should look like. Tests administered in the early grades cannot provide the best measurement of giftedness. I admit, I do not know what best approaches are.

Stanley T. Kaplan


Dear Homeroom:

School boards and school administrators need remedial course work about the basic values of a democratic society. The cardinal principles of education and the contributions of the Committee of Ten were on target in 1893 and continue to be valid in 1999. All children must be valued and no aristocracy of children should be established within a public school system.

Richard and Jean Rowe


Dear Homeroom:

I've always had great difficulty with the term "gifted and talented." Each and every child has a God-given talent or gift, but the title implies that some children do, and others do not. I think it is a matter of whether you are lucky enough to have a teacher or a parent to help you discover your talent. For instance, my two girls (ages 12 and 16) are gifted in music and art. Scholastically, they are gifted in different areas of study. However, both girls are intelligent and able to take advantage of enriched programs. Children who are called to a higher standard will excel, regardless of whether they are "gifted." As a black woman, I know that somehow my children are branded as "less" because they are black. However, I intend to take a more active stand in making sure that my girls take advantage of the enriched classes that are offered. For instance, the 16-year-old is looking forward to taking Advanced Placement classes. She's fully capable of taking them, and it will help her prepare for college.

Stephanie Williams


Dear Homeroom:

All children want to learn. Those who don't have had their quest for knowledge snuffed out by circumstance, including bad teachers or overworked teachers or teachers who are prevented from teaching by the bureaucrats at the central office who tell them how to teach and fill their days with worthless mandates and busy work. And, by building larger and larger schools, teachers have to become policemen, schools turn into day-prisons and the students are turned off from learning.

Jose J. Prats

Springfield, Va.

Dear Homeroom:

Don't you think we've got to be honest with the students to whom we're going to try to give access to rich educational experiences? Most will need to work harder. You portray the problem as simply one of exposure to the right teachers and curriculum, with all students then effortlessly being prepared for college. It would help a lot if we all, parents, teachers, administrators, columnists, politicians, etc., made student effort the postscript to every discussion of secondary education.

Julie Greenberg

Chevy Chase

Absolutely. We need to be very clear with some students that they need to work harder in order to achieve at the same high levels as those who start ahead of them. I also think we need to provide them with the opportunity to work harder--late afternoons, weekends, summer study--whatever it takes. But that doesn't mean we should label them as too slow to learn the same things as students who start out with more academic advantages.

I want to thank everyone who wrote in. I will be revisiting this issue later this summer, so I welcome further correspondence on this topic. I am particularly interested in hearing from students who either have or have not participated in gifted programs and about how their learning has been affected either way.

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