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Gifted Privilege

Posted by on May 31, 2014
scene from Pink Floyd: The Wall

We don’t need no Prussian model education system.

priv·i·lege

noun \ˈpriv-lij, ˈpri-və-\

: a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid…And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write…I’m so glad I’m a Beta.” – Brave New World, chapter 2

I visited our school district’s gifted center recently, because Alex will be in the program next year. On the one hand, I was thrilled by all the personalized attention, innovative teaching, and additional resources he’ll be getting. On the other hand, I was a little depressed.

First, I was depressed that he’ll only be getting access to those benefits one day a week. Second, I was depressed that very few have access to them. There was an air of favoritism and privilege there that bothered me a lot. For instance, the cafeteria has foosball tables, and reading area, and kids are allowed to use electronic devices there – perks absent from ordinary schools in the district. Sure, it’s nice to see nerds getting perks instead of just jocks, but the rewarding of unearned cognitive abilities felt wrong.

Some of the advantages of the Pittsburgh Gifted Center, according to a somewhat dated Wikipedia article:

  • small classes of about 12 students
  • interest and technological courses, including JavaScript, business planning, and Web Design
  • integrated technology into classes, with all rooms containing a sizeable amount of computers for student research and projects
  • classes may further expand on a subject for traditional school (e.g., genetics)
  • classes may deal with a radically different subject (e.g., trigonometry)
  • participation in National History Day, English Festival, Math Counts

The PGC official description says:

“The elementary gifted support program provides opportunities for students to enhance their individual strengths and interests with specifically designed activities and enrichment experiences. Students meet weekly at the Pittsburgh Gifted Center at Greenway where they participate in accelerated, hand-on courses. When not attending the Center, the needs of gifted students are met at their home schools. Students who attend the Gifted Center enroll in a variety of courses in the humanities, math, and/or science content areas. All courses focus on process skills which include problem solving, self-directed learning, interaction, creative thinking, higher-level thinking, and decision making. Technology instruction is a major focus at the Center and is infused in all curricula. The Gifted Center curriculum allows students the opportunity to complete hands-on, independent projects that match their interests. Students at the K-6 level are enrolled in one course that lasts all year and two additional semester-long courses. Students attending the middle school enroll in 3 classes each semester for a total of six different courses each year. Course offerings typically change each year and focus on the project based, real world applications of each subject area.” [emphases mine]

Why don’t “normal”, “ordinary”, or “average” kids get small class sizes, “opportunities for students to enhance their individual strengths and interests with specifically designed activities and enrichment experiences”? Shouldn’t every students courses “focus on process skills which include problem solving, self-directed learning, interaction, creative thinking, higher-level thinking, and decision making”? Wouldn’t all students benefit from ” the opportunity to complete hands-on, independent projects that match their interests”? If mainstream education doesn’t provide those opportunities, what the heck is it doing? It’s no wonder so many kids hate school! Worse yet, kids who are struggling, but not eligible for special education at the other end of the spectrum, don’t have access to nontraditional education opportunities that could reverse their fortunes and make brighter futures possible.

A gifted high school junior expressed similar sentiments in a 2009 interview about gifted education saying, “I think education should be an individual thing. If you treat everyone the same, you wind up frustrating the kids who are behind and stifling the kids who are ahead.”

Commenting on a 2008 article about gifted programs in PA, blogger Laura Vanderkam at Gifted Exchange wrote:

“You do not have to be gifted to go on a scavenger hunt. I’m guessing that all kids would enjoy a lesson about literary techniques using sports books, just as most kids would enjoy a field trip to the John Heinz History Center. If the basic way of serving gifted kids is bringing them on field trips that other kids don’t get to do, who can blame people for wanting to expand the definition to encompass any kid who does well in school? It’s like giving a kid an ice cream cone. We naturally want to give the treat to anyone who works hard.”

That’s sort of my point. It’s not just about rewarding, and we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Why not find ways to bring exciting, innovative, and fun education to every kid?

Later she says:

“Gifted education should not look like a reward. In smaller districts, it should look like one thing: acceleration. You take a lot of politics and mystique out of the gifted label if kids who get it don’t suddenly get to go on fun field trips. Instead, they go (for example) three grade levels up for math, do an independent study in English, sit in on a community college history course, and take an online science course in the library.”

And:

“Larger districts may have enough highly gifted students that it becomes more economical to create self-contained gifted classes or schools. That’s a fine idea — but don’t just bus the kids there once a week. Don’t just do two afternoons a week of pull-out. Self-contain them the whole time. And combine these programs across grades. Gifted fourth graders have no more in common with each other than they do with gifted third or fifth graders. Let the kids work at their own pace while interacting with their intellectual peers.”

US DoE Grade A Student

US DoE Grade A Student

Well, those are some interesting suggestions, but I’d still like to see kids of all cognitive abilities and talents being allowed to “work at their own pace while interacting with their intellectual peers”. Normal/ordinary/average kids, as well as those at the low-performing end of the spectrum, aren’t any more monolithic than gifted kids. Everyone has areas of strength and weakness, and everyone learns at their own pace. Some kids might be doing math work geared toward kids 3 years older. Some kids need remedial reading help. Sometimes one kid is in both situations. Why do we insist on rigid adherence to age-based class groupings that treat schools like industrial assembly lines?

More money is thrown at education every year, but we have very little to show for it. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Isn’t it time we stopped the insanity and tried something new?

In the meantime, while I won’t regret sending Alex to the gifted center, I’ll be feeling guilty that our public education system fails to give every kid the same opportunities, regardless of IQ.