Opinion
Education Opinion

Riding on their Coattails

By Tamara Fisher — March 11, 2008 5 min read
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Do you realize what you’re saying‽‽‽

I have a pet peeve. Well, my sister would tell you that I have more than one pet peeve … but when it comes to the education of gifted children, there’s something that really irritates me. I have a few examples that will help me to explain and illustrate…

A month or two ago, a tiny article appeared deep in an area newspaper with the headline, “Chancellor wants math, science program for elite high schoolers.” The article stated that the chancellor at Montana Tech (an excellent engineering, math, science, and mining school) is considering creating a residential program for about 40 of Montana’s top math and science students. They would be dual enrolled in high school and college for the two year program. The students would be selected based on test scores, interviews, and recommendations, and would have to be Montana residents at least 15 years old. An anonymous donor is willing to help significantly with the program’s costs.

While many, if not most, of you live in states where Governor’s Schools and other such similar options are available for some of your gifted students, nothing of the sort exists here in Montana. To my knowledge, this would be the first option of its kind in my state.

I excitedly read the little article until I came upon the last paragraph. And that’s when my ears started steaming: “Concerns include the effect on local school districts if their top students transferred to the program at Tech. Districts’ financial support is based partly on the size of enrollment, and outstanding students often help to boost schools’ composite scores on standardized tests.”

MmHmm…!

It’s been over a month since I first saw the article and cut it out, and my heart still races in anger when I read that!!!

Never mind their education. Never mind their RIGHT TO LEARN. Never mind what’s best for the child. Just make sure the school looks good. Yeah – that’s what’s most important…

Sadly, even in my own amazing district, similar comments have been made. About nine years ago, one of my 4th graders moved rather suddenly to another Montana town part-way through the school year. This was pre-NCLB and back when Montana only tested kids in the 4th, 8th, and 10th grades. When I expressed my dismay and sadness that she had left without being able to say good-bye, another teacher said, “You’re tellin’ me! We were really counting on her to help raise our test scores this year.”

Is that really all that she was valued for? These children do not exist to make us look good!

Not long ago, another one of my 4th grade students chose to attend a private school for a short time, but she soon returned to our school after one semester. When I expressed how happy I was that she was back (and she was thrilled to be back), a certain someone grumbled, “Yes, but since she wasn’t here for the first half of the year, her test scores won’t count for us.”

It makes me want to cry. Can’t we be thrilled that she chose to return, no matter when that return occurred? Can’t we value these kids for who they are, not for what impression their test scores say about us?

I have nine 5th graders this year whom we have subject-accelerated in math. Every day they spend one class period in a 6th grade classroom taking 6th grade math. A couple weeks ago, these kids asked me which CRT math test they would be taking this spring… the 5th grade test or the 6th grade test. They all wanted to take the 6th grade Math CRT because, after all, that’s what they’ve been learning this year. But no – since they are technically 5th graders, they have to take the 5th grade test. When I told a teacher about how bummed out they were by this, she said, “No! We need their scores in the 5th grade!”

Ladies and gentlemen - Do you realize what you’re saying‽‽‽

When any of us as school officials make these kinds of comments, especially when it is a “first reaction” statement, the strong impression given is that our biggest value of these students is their good test scores and the benefits said scores bring to the image of our schools. If that is why we want to keep these kids in our schools, then frankly, we are using these kids for our own gain.

Ask any gifted kid and you’ll find out that that’s not the only time and way they feel used in our schools.

Time and time and time again, teachers pair up gifted, high achieving, and advanced students with struggling students. The going philosophy is “Group work? Make the groups heterogeneous so the top kids can help the struggling learners.” If a gifted student finishes early with an assignment, what do we tell him to do? “You may help the other kids.” Excuse me, but who is the teacher in the room? Whose JOB is it to do the teaching? Is it the responsibility of a quick little eight-year-old? NO. That quick little eight-year-old’s job is to LEARN, not to teach.

About a month ago, I was at a training session where the presenter gave us an activity to do that involved each group randomly selecting a hypothetical classroom scenario from a packet of scenarios. My group (all three of us from the field of gifted education) never completed the activity because we were totally derailed by the inappropriateness of the classroom scenario we happened to select. It read, in part, “The teacher has previously grouped the students into pairs. In each case, a higher-performing student is paired with a lower-performing student. The higher-performing student reads the passage to model correct form for the lower-performing student. The lower-performing student then reads the passage.”

Which student is learning in this scenario? Which student is not learning something new, but, rather, is being used as a surrogate of the teacher?

This presenter travels all over the country training teachers for a particular program. How many thousands of teachers have been trained with that example and given the impression that it is therefore best practice? *sigh* And sadly, how many gifted students, day in and day out, find themselves used in such a manner? It frightens me to contemplate. (Anyone wanting to read the vast literature available on appropriate grouping practices with gifted children can get a great start here.)

A long time ago, I advocated for the offering of advanced or honors classes in a particular subject area in one of our schools. The response from one of the teachers was, “But if you take all of those kids out and put them together, then who’s going to be the ‘spark’ that gets the class discussions going in the remaining classes?”

(ARGH!!!!!!!!)

Um… how about the teacher?

These children have a right to learn! If we don’t stretch them, they aren’t learning anywhere near what they are capable of learning. If we rely on them for shiny, golden test scores, if we rely on them to help us teach the other kids, if we rely on them to get a class discussion going … then for whose benefit do they sit in our classrooms every day‽‽‽

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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