I was gifted when gifted wasn’t cool, or at least before it became de rigueur for every middle class kid with a parent on the PTA. My mom was a committed advocate of special programs for kids identified as “gifted and talented” when I was in elementary school in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, to the point where she moved my twin brother and I to three different schools over the course of our primary career in order to follow Fairfax County’s local full day program.
We developed the social skills of army brats, and got what I recall as a good education along the way. I remember doing a budget in Mrs. Canny’s class, looking up ads for cars and apartments and pricing groceries to meet salaries according to professions picked from a hat. (Little did I suspect that later in life I’d draw “teacher” and struggle to do as an adult what we had done with enthusiastic ease as sixth graders.)
I reminisce upon noting a recent story in the Washington Post’s Metro section, “Montgomery Erasing Gifted Label” (Tuesday, December 16, 2008). Two fifths of the students in the affluent and perennially high achieving school system are classified as gifted under the current sorting system, the article reports, including a Bethesda school with three quarters so labeled versus another school from a lower-income area at 13%.
Montgomery’s move begs the question: Has the label lost its meaning? Statistics seem to support the practical reality that sharp-elbowed middle class parents can game special services for their kids at the expense of less savvy, lower income public education consumers.
Maybe the real question is: Can all kids be taught with “gifted” methods? If one defines this as a student-centered pedagogy based on differentiation, project-based learning, and cooperative problem-solving, I would say yes. (If that’s too jargony, think of Mrs. Canny’s budget unit).
My own third-grader is in a “regular” class in an Alexandria public school this year, which happens to be anything but regular because he finally got The Great Teacher and absolutely loves it. After a couple years of not loving it, this is really all I could ask for as a parent.
Which brings me to the truth that it isn’t the label that matters so much as the teacher in the room. Chemistry can change from group to group, but what parents know through the grapevine and what statistics demonstrably confirm is that year after year, certain teachers do better than their peers.
What makes some teachers really good? Rather than focusing on whether or not children are gifted, maybe this is the question we need to ask. Because regardless of what kids get or don’t get under the tree this time of year, every one of them should go back to class after winter break with the same sense of anticipation.
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