Turning On The Bright Lights

By Jeff Meade — February 01, 1991 15 min read

“I always associated the term ‘gifted’ with kids who were 5 years old and could play classical music,’' says Anne Marie Griffin. But nothing in that stereotypical definition prepared her for life with her son, Larry. At age 3, he could read and pronounce the polysyllabic names of preservatives on cookie boxes, and he could page through electrical manuals and learn enough to help his grandfather figure out why a new ceiling fan wouldn’t turn.

By age 8, the Springfield, Mass., boy had been recognized for what he was: gifted. On standardized tests, he scored in the highly gifted range, with an IQ of 144.

Yet, in the fall of 1989, as Larry began 2nd grade, his parents found themselves locking horns with the Springfield public schools over Larry’s right to an appropriate education, a quarrel that has spilled over into this school year. On one level, the Griffins are challenging established school policy. They want Larry transferred to a nearby private school for the gifted, at an expense to the district of $6,500 a year. As Anne Marie Griffin explains, “They’ll never be able to give him what he needs at his present school.’'

But on another level, Larry’s education is symbolic of something far more fundamental. It is the question of fairness, pitting the needs of one little boy against the needs of all children in the Springfield schools. Is it fair to give special treatment to one child and not to others? No, says Springfield Superintendent Peter Negorni. “All children deserve something special and something different,’' he says.

The conflict over gifted education goes right to the heart of a larger conflict in American public education, a conflict as old as the republic itself: equity vs. excellence. On the one hand, we want every child to have the same opportunities to achieve and succeed. On the other hand, we want to nurture the gifted--students who rank in the top 1 percent to 3 percent of their classes--because these students possess the potential talent of future Rhodes scholars, Guggenheim fellows, and Nobel Prize winners.

We worry about writing off an entire generation of the urban poor through benign neglect, and, at the same time, we worry that America is losing its technological edge through inattention to the needs of our brightest. The debate is often passionate. And the future of gifted education hangs in the balance. Teachers, like it or not, are often caught in the middle of school systems’ conflicting desires concerning gifted students. Most want to do right by the Larry Griffins of the world, but they have classrooms full of children who have equal, if not greater, needs. In some cities, teachers must devote enormous amounts of time and energy to keep half their students from falling behind and dropping out. They know that the bright students in their classrooms may not be challenged--but they assume they’ll make it.

The issue runs deep among teachers.

Sally Reis, former coordinator of gifted programs in the Torrington, Conn., public schools, tells of the day she asked other teachers to fill out a questionnaire at the end of an after-school inservice session. One of the questions read: How should we deal with bright students? “Ten out of 40 answered, ‘Wear sunglasses,’ '' recalls Reis, who is now an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut.

In fairness, 10 out of 40 is far from a majority. Yet, the snippy response reflects a sense of hostility and mistrust many teachers feel toward gifted programs. Many don’t like the notion that there should be an educational elite of students or teachers.

“In my district, teachers didn’t always love us,’' Reis says. “We’d take some of their best and brightest kids, and we’d do things with them that the teachers would have liked to have been able to do.’'

What’s more, Reis says, many teachers see in gifted programs a challenge to their competence, an unspoken criticism that what they’ve been doing hasn’t been good enough. And some of that hostility may be directed at gifted students themselves, who are, by definition, precocious.

Take, for example, J.C. Stewart of Jericho, Vt. In the beginning of 5th grade, J.C. was given a standardized test much like the one taken by Larry Griffin. J.C.'s IQ also topped out in the highly gifted range. And like Larry, J.C.'s talents were obvious from an early age: He spoke in complete sentences before he blew out his first birthday candle. And yet, J.C. spent much of 5th grade in the detention room. In addition to his gift, J.C. had a liability: an attention deficit, which affected the way he learned. Unless he was learning one on one, it was difficult for him to pay attention for very long.

“J.C. can give you the right answer to a math problem, but he can’t always put it down on paper,’' says Maureen Stewart, his mother. “It’s a conceptual problem. Once he’s got it, he isn’t going to lose it. But you have to lay it all out for him and go slowly.’'

Because of his attention deficit, J.C. found himself falling further and further behind on his math homework. He requested extra help from his teachers, but, his mother claims, “They ignored him.’'

Finally, as punishment for his failure to complete homework assignments, J.C.'s teachers sent him down the hall for detention. One of his worst punishments, he says, was being singled out to stand up and eat his lunch alone at a shelf near the lunchroom. “It was humiliating,’' he says.

Maureen Stewart says she was unable to get the school to comply with her frequent requests for additional help for her son. So, at the end of 5th grade, a time J.C. now recalls as a “total waste,’' he was placed in a private Roman Catholic school, where his grades improved and he received individual tutoring.

After spending 6th through 8th grade in private school and part of 9th grade being tutored at home, J.C. is now back in the public schools. He’s hoping to zip through most of his curriculum in six months, a practice called curriculum compacting. And he hopes to do it on his own terms, one on one, the way he believes he learns best.

Making such exceptions for a single student doesn’t always sit well with teachers, says Linda Tammi, who, until last year, was supervisor for the gifted and talented programs in the Springfield schools--the district where Larry Griffin found himself fitting in like a square peg.

“Often, if a child in a regular classroom was not performing well, and we saw that the student had a high IQ or test score, we’d want to pull the student out into another class,’' says Tammi, now an English teacher at the district’s Bridge Academy, an alternative junior and senior high school for pregnant girls and other students teetering on the edge of academic disaster. “Sometimes the regular classroom teacher would buck this and say that until this child performs within the basic curriculum at a high level, she’s not going to earn the privilege of being in a special classroom.’' Many teachers harbor deep concerns about the exclusionary nature of many gifted programs.

Historically, gifted children have been set apart from other children in two ways. In elementary school, they are often enrolled in enrichment programs, “pullout’’ classes, or resource rooms. In secondary schools, the preferred practice is acceleration--allowing a mathematically precocious 7th grader, for example, to take 9th grade algebra.

But one thing these approaches have in common is ability grouping, the practice of lumping children together according to their talents. On the elementary level, the divisions sound harmless enough: Kids are divided into the Bluebirds and Redbirds. But in the secondary schools, the stratification often becomes more obvious--some say, insidious--as students assume their places in the tracking system.

Of all the practices common to gifted education, enrichment and ability grouping most frequently draw the brickbats.

That’s because the children so enriched and most favorably grouped are typically white and comparatively well-off. Poor children traditionally have been placed in low-ability groups, often because they enter school already academically disadvantaged. This process becomes a self-fulfilling disaster. Once placed in a “slow’’ group, according to a recent report by the National Governors’ Association, most children stay there, never rising above their labels.

“It’s a vicious cycle,’' charges Stephanie Robinson, director of education and career development for the National Urban League. “Some students are labeled early, given watered-down content, and therefore, their skills are never developed. Students constantly exposed to the ‘dumbed-down’ curricula do not have the opportunity for full academic growth and development.’'

Studies show that what separates gifted from non-gifted students is not race, but economic class. According to a 1986 study by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, 80.6 percent of all gifted students are white, 8.4 percent black, 5.5 percent Asian, 5.1 percent Hispanic, and 0.4 percent American Indian. A more recent, as yet unreleased, study conducted by the new federal Office of Gifted and Talented Education shows that poor children of all races are “severely underrepresented in gifted programs.’'

The newest numbers are still under wraps, but Patricia O’Connell Ross, director of the OGTE, says she has seen enough to know that these historical inequities cut across the color lines. “It’s not just racial minorities,’' she says. In a quest to redress the longstanding racial and economic inequities, many school systems are eliminating ability grouping in favor of cooperative learning. No one knows exactly how many schools are making the switch, but one recent survey conducted for the National Educational Association found that 35 of 61 elementary schools polled were moving away from ability grouping and toward alternatives such as cooperative learning. Researchers who are studying gifted education see the practice as the most serious threat to the education of high-ability children. Few doubt the benefits of cooperative learning for low- and average-ability students, but they believe the practice holds high-ability children back.

In a nutshell, cooperative learning means taking children of mixed abilities and having them work together in small learning teams, each at his or her own pace. Students handle all of the so-called management functions, like scoring tests and recording grades. A central feature of cooperative learning is peer assistance, in which students counsel each other, trying to resolve problems before calling in the teacher. (Cooperative learning also has been shown to improve race relations among students. See “Teaching Tolerance,’' page 26.)

One of cooperative learning’s foremost advocates is Robert Slavin, director of the elementary school program at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools. Not coincidentally, Slavin questions the effectiveness of enrichment programs. Despite all the studies that claim they benefit high-ability students, Slavin frankly suggests that the available evidence fails to support such conclusions. “Effectiveness comes first,’' says Slavin. “If there were evidence of the effectiveness of separate programs for the gifted, that would be a different discussion. But when you don’t have evidence, it comes down to a question of fairness.’'

A number of studies, conducted by Slavin and others, suggest that children in cooperative learning programs earn significantly higher test scores in math and reading than do children in traditional classes. In one form of cooperative learning used by Slavin, called team-assisted individualization, classes progressed twice as fast as would be expected--kids in a 3rd grade reading group learned to read at a 5th grade level. Further, one Slavin study notes, the effects are “equally positive for high, average, and low achievers.’'

What’s more, many researchers--Slavin included--claim that high-ability students in cooperative learning classes learn and remember better. As Slavin has written: “High achievers gain in particular because of the routine opportunity to explain to group mates what they have just learned, which as any teacher knows builds deeper understanding in the explainer.’'

Moreover, some cooperative learning models do offer teachers the flexibility to allow some ability grouping. Two of Slavin’s models, for example, permit some grouping within mixed-ability classes, accommodating differences within the class.

“We don’t want to get cooperative learning associated with one side or the other,’' says researcher Roger Johnson, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Minnesota. “Cooperative learning is not an alternative to tracking. The only alternative to tracking is not tracking.’'

Cooperative learning, Johnson notes, could work just as well in a homogeneously grouped gifted class because its real strength lies in diversity. Shy kids, athletic kids, minority kids, and disabled kids, regardless of the range of their abilities, all bring different perspectives to a classroom. “It’s the things that we do differently that make us powerful,’' Johnson says. Regardless of the dramatic claims made for cooperative learning, researchers who study gifted programs remain equally adamant in their defense of separate programs for the gifted.

Backing up that point of view is a comprehensive review of statistical studies going back 50 years conducted by University of Michigan researchers James and Chen-Lin Kulik. In 19 of 25 studies, they found that talented students “achieved more when they were taught in homogeneous classrooms.’' About 63 percent of gifted students in these special classes outperformed their counterparts in mixed-ability classes, according to the Kuliks.

And although learning may improve for low- and average-ability students in cooperative learning classrooms, the benefits to gifted students are subject to debate. Researchers who study the gifted say cooperative learning has a kind of “Robin Hood’’ effect: It takes from the rich and gives to the poor.

But advocates of gifted education don’t necessarily see this long-simmering debate as a choice between the haves and the have-nots. “It’s not a black or white, yes or no, privileged or underprivileged proposition,’' explains Valerie Seaberg, president of the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted, herself a former classroom teacher. “There are high-ability kids in all groups. Where we need to start is in learning to deal with high ability.’' Some school districts--no one really knows how many--are making an effort to redefine giftedness to embrace many children who have traditionally been excluded: girls, minorities, and non-English-speaking immigrants, for example.

One of the more popular ways of identifying giftedness in the new system is a three-ringed model devised by Joseph Renzulli of the University of Connecticut. While most gifted students have been identified by IQ or standardized-test scores, Renzulli’s method involves a combination of attributes: above-average ability, task commitment, and creativity.

Renzulli, working with Sally Reis, also developed what is called the schoolwide enrichment model, which opens up many enrichment activities to the entire school, including guest speakers, concerts, and field trips.

Most researchers, however, still insist that some separate programs will always be necessary to meet the needs of pupils who are, by definition, exceptional. On this, Reis speaks with particular expertise.

“I got into gifted education because of classroom experiences I had [as a student] in elementary school,’' says Reis. “I used to get into trouble because I had a lot of books tucked away with my basal reader. I used to stay home pretending to be sick just so I could read. We’re getting right back into a situation like that.’'

In the absence of separate programs, she says, bright students will be content to coast. They will surrender to boredom.

“For many of the kids I’ve worked with, the gifted program is a lifesaver, literally the only time of the week when they feel challenged, working alongside kids who share their interests,’' Reis says. “Without these programs, we will wind up with kids who learn only to put out minimal effort. They’ll never learn to work in school because they’ll never have to.’'

Sixteen-year-old Michael Nimchek, ranked third in his class of 250 at Torrington (Conn.) High School, attests to that: “If I hadn’t been in the TAG [talented and gifted] program in elementary school, I would have been bored. I would have had nothing to do. I would have had to sit through six hours of school for no reason.’'

Michael’s exceptional ability was already evident in kindergarten.

“I was so excited about going to school,’' he says. “My parents had already taught me the alphabet, and I could read. And my dad had given me a calculator. I learned a lot of math on that. I already knew my multiplication tables up to 12. By the end of my first week, I could see that there was going to be a problem. The only thing we learned was what the color red looked like. Well, my parents were pretty good. They had already taught me that.’'

For Michael and other gifted students, the regular classroom literally might be a waste of time. As early as 1937, researcher Leta Hollingworth suggested that “bright children need only one-half of their time for school work.’'

Some argue that the same thing might be said for average students, given the amount of review and redundancy built into the curriculum. As evidence, Reis often points to a 1980 study by the Educational Products Information Exchange. In the study, beginning 4th grade students were given math tests based on the text that would guide them through the coming school year. Not one of them had even seen the book at that point, and yet 60 percent of the 4th graders scored 80 or higher.

If the regular classroom is no challenge for average students, for gifted children it may be the academic equivalent of slow death.

“We should be asking, ‘What happens to gifted students in a regular classroom?’ '' Reis says. “What are the ramifications of that?’'

For teacher Valerie Seaberg, the answer is obvious. She remembers, in particular, a student at the Maine high school where she taught who, by age 14, was already a gifted musician. “It’s one of those classic stories,’' she says. “A neighbor had an old upright piano in a barn, and the kid had taught himself to play. We had him audition with some professional musicians at the Bowdoin College School of Music. Their assessment of him was that he was remarkable.’'

But the young musician had one serious handicap that effectively barred him from the big time. Since he was a small child, he had worked on his family’s farm, pitching hay. As a result, the muscles of his hands and arms were horribly outsized for an aspiring artist.

“You can’t do that to your hands for so long and still hit an octave,’' says Seaberg. “For him, it was already too late. They should have known about him when he was 6.’'

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Turning On The Bright Lights