Dear Homeroom:

Several years ago Montgomery County public schools adopted a "gifted and talented" policy aimed at providing appropriate teaching for children who are at the highest end of academic achievement. It seems to me that this program has gotten way out of hand when some schools identify 30 percent or more of their students as GT. Isn't this just a reflection of the preparation with which these students come to school?

Are we perpetuating the terrible education gap by spending extra money to push those advantaged students even faster? How much is spent on this policy at the administrative and local school levels?

Dan Parr

Silver Spring

This is a huge issue with many facets. First, let's break it out into a few constituent parts: Who gets identified as gifted and talented; what resources are spent on them; and what consequences does this have for children who are not identified as gifted and talented.

To start at the beginning, a few Montgomery County children--those whose parents apply for them to attend a gifted-and-talented magnet elementary school--are given what amounts to IQ tests in kindergarten.

In second grade, all Montgomery County children are given those tests. Children who test well are identified as gifted and talented. The rest are sent home with letters to their parents saying they are not, which comes as something of a blow to some parents. But they should keep in mind that those IQ tests are tests of a very narrow range of skills. IQ tests are not measures of "potential," and hardly anyone still claims they are.

In third, fourth and fifth grade, children whose parents or teachers recommend them are tested again and, if they test well, are added to the gifted-and-talented roster. Then in middle and high school, the criterion changes to those students who take significant numbers of honors or Advanced Placement courses. All in all, about 38,000 of Montgomery County's students are identified as gifted and talented, which is about 29 percent of the county's 131,000 students.

Depending on where they go to school, many of the children who are identified as gifted and talented are, as a consequence of the identification, offered a richer and more demanding curriculum, either in separate classrooms or schools (the elementary "centers for the highly gifted" and the middle and high school magnets) or in the same classrooms as children not so identified. Often, though certainly not always, they are taught by more skilled and knowledgeable teachers. They then do better in school and, later, on the SATs--which are another form of IQ tests.

The children who are left with the less rich curriculum and the less expert teachers, on average, do worse in school and then on the SATs. Although one conclusion to draw is that the later results prove that the original predictions were correct, another conclusion to draw is that the differences in educational experiences create, or at least exacerbate, many of the disparate results in achievement.

Consciously or not, many parents agree with the second analysis. They believe that rich educational experiences help their children's intellectual development. Parents who are savvy and know how to work the system--and have the time and money necessary--work hard at making sure their kids are identified as gifted and talented so they have access to those richer educational experiences. There is, for example, a booming business in private psychological testing in this county to prove that children who were not identified as GT by the school system are, in fact, gifted.

Parents who are pressed for time and money, or who don't know about all this, tend to be less able to manipulate the system in those ways, meaning that their children are at a real disadvantage in this sorting game.

And this is where the gifted-and-talented issue intersects with the issue of the "achievement gap," because poor students and students of color--with the exception of Asian kids--tend to be frozen out of the county's richest and most demanding curricula, which then has the effect of widening gaps between them and their predominantly white, well-off peers.

One piece of evidence for this view is to look at the gaps between African American and white students throughout their schooling. I don't know of good county-specific data, but Montgomery County probably tracks the national data, which I discussed with Michael Nettles. He is a professor of education at the University of Michigan and as much of an expert on this as anyone is. He is on the National Assessment Governing Board and several other national blue-ribbon boards and will soon head his own education research institute at Vanderbilt University.

Nettles says that when a random sampling of children entering kindergarten across the country was given a series of assessments by the U.S. Department of Education, African American and white children functioned at the same levels in the categories of motor development and verbal recall (memory) but there was a fairly large gap in vocabulary. If the overall score for white children was set at 100, then the African American kids scored at 75. As I say, that is significant but hardly overwhelming.

The next time we have a snapshot of academic achievement is in fourth grade, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. By then, Nettles says, "the gaps are pretty broad and significant." By the time, these students reach high school, the gaps are daunting.

In other words, African American and white children begin school with a significant, but small, gap and end school with gaping holes.

Given that, any policy that provides a less rich educational experience to children who need exactly the opposite has to be part of the problem.

The question of money is a little hard to sort out. But the current Montgomery County budget request asks for the gifted-and-talented program to receive about $2.8 million, which pays for administrative support, identification of kids, curriculum development and training of teachers. In addition, the county's middle school and high school magnets--which are designated as being for gifted-and-talented students--have budgets of $1.8 million, plus transportation. Some of the elementary school magnets are also designated as being for the gifted and talented, but their budgets aren't broken out separately so it is hard to know exactly how much is involved there.

None of that sounds like much in a billion-dollar budget, but most of that billion dollars is in fixed costs, and so a few million dollars represents a significant investment by the county.

The idea that children should be sorted by what is considered to be their potential is a fairly new idea, but it has certainly taken hold in this county and, indeed, in most of the country. It may be time, however, to question whether all the time, money and expertise that goes into sorting wouldn't be better spent ensuring that all children have well-trained teachers who have the time to develop their expertise and to teach all children a rich, high-quality curriculum.

Teachers Need Help

Dear Homeroom:

I have been a teacher in Montgomery County for 32 years. I do not know where to begin describing what I think is wrong with education today. I do know that no one has a clue what it is like to be an elementary school teacher, except teachers themselves.

Imagine being in charge of 25 children, every one of them having unique and varying needs. Imagine teaching children who are below grade level in every subject and teaching children who are above grade level in every subject. Imagine having to plan what each child will be doing for six hours a day, five days a week, four weeks every month. Add to this the fact that each classroom teacher is asked to do reports, evaluations, Title I testing, CRT (Criterion Referenced Test), MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program), etc.

Do you think the planning for all this can be done 30 minutes before school and 30 minutes after school? Of course not! Most teachers I know spend hours after school preparing for their lessons and hours at home correcting papers, doing report cards, etc.

The latest statistics tell us that there will be a shortage of experienced and qualified teachers in the very near future. I have no reason to doubt this. My generation of teachers will be retiring very soon, not only because they can but because the workload is ridiculous. New teachers coming into the system will be so overwhelmed they will be leaving for other professions more quickly. I know there is no easy solution to this problem, but one suggestion that I have is to make smaller class sizes in all elementary grades. Right now, because of the Reading Initiative, there are 15 students in reading classes for 90 minutes a day in first and second grade. That is not enough. We need these types of classes all day, for every class.

The pressures are on the classroom teachers to close the gaps between minority students and white and Asian students. Help us. We cannot do this alone. Lower class size, train us, reach the community and respect us.

Zena Rollins

Germantown

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.