Clara, Clara, Clara.
I was resisting wading into the recent story from New York City, that officials are seeking a new exam for admissions of gifted students that may involve testing children as young as 3, because hey, that’s in New York, while the demoralizing reality here in MoCo is that MCPS officials are moving inexorably in the opposite direction, doing their darnedest to obliterate the definition of giftedness while serving up a meager gruel and calling it gifted curriculum. Also, I am no testing expert. The tests they have been using in New York, the OLSAT and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, are not ones they use here in MoCo.
But thanks to Clara (that would be Clara Hemphill, founder of Insideschools.org), I can no longer resist. Yesterday, as a followup to those stories, the NYTimes Room for Debate blog invited several “experts” to weigh in with their perspectives, in a blog post titled The Pitfalls in Identifying a Gifted Child. Ms. Hemphill was one of them. (The others are Susan K. Johnsen, Butler University; Joseph S. Renzulli, University of Connecticut; Tonya R. Moon University of Virginia; and Bige Doruk, founder, Bright Kids NYC)
Let’s look at some of Ms. Hemphill’s whoppers. One of the biggest comes in her second sentence, and frankly it leaves me scratching my head, wondering How can this woman possibly know anything about gifted education?
She says, “Children need to learn that hard work is more important than being born with a high IQ. Putting them in a “gifted” class sends the opposite message.” Clara, (and yes, I noted your use of quotes around the word “gifted”) the very point of grouping children in a gifted class with their intellectual peers is so, for maybe the first time in their lives, they WILL work hard. That they will be stretched, challenged and pushed. That they will learn that they in fact AREN’T the smartest kid in the room. In my humble opinion, there is more risk of high IQ kids developing that dreaded attitude of superiority if they remain in a regular on-grade level class, severely unchallenged.
Ms. Hemphill thinks it “important for academically successful children be exposed to and to learn from children who are talented in ways that are not measured by early gifted and talented tests.” Newsflash, Clara: a) Academically successful kids don’t live in a box. Our culture celebrates those other kinds of giftedness at every turn; b) Chances are many of those academically gifted kids are also “musical or athletic or good at resolving playground squabbles.” Just sayin'; c) Why in music and sports do we not have a problem acknowledging that kids thrive when grouped with others at their ability level and don’t pretend that they improve by playing with/competing with less gifted/talented kids–and yet “academically successful” kids don’t deserve the same?
And let’s take a look at that on-grade level class, according to Ms. Hemphill.
The things you need to learn in kindergarten are pretty much the same whether you have Downs Syndrome or an IQ of 170: how to tie your shoes, sit in a circle, play nicely, take turns and share your toys. Sure, academics are important, but a good teacher should be flexible enough to challenge children with a range of abilities in one class, giving Frog and Toad to a beginning reader and Harry Potter to a more advanced reader, or finding a 200-piece puzzle for a child who has finished the 100-piece puzzle.
The operative phrase is “but a good teacher should be flexible enough to challenge children with a range of abilities in one class.” Sadly, many teachers simply aren’t flexible enough, or more importantly, able to be flexible. Kindergarten teachers are looking at a classroom of 20 or so kids, who most likely range from don’t-know-which-way-to-hold-a-book-don’t-know-their-shapes to, well, reading Harry Potter. Meanwhile, at least in MCPS, there is an increasingly scripted, gotta move ’em along curriculum. A kid reading Harry Potter, quite frankly, will be seen as a pain in the neck, a distraction, extra work. There is no kindergarten assessment rubric for Harry Potter, just Frog and Toad. After a while, in addition to going crazy with the focus on “how to tie your shoes, sit in a circle, play nicely, take turns and share your toys,” that child is going to internalize the teacher’s resentment, is going to stop raising his/her hand–because they never get called on anyway, so why bother?
Towards the end of her remarks Ms Hemphill states,
Gifted programs are appropriate in the older grades, beginning at middle school or in certain circumstances upper elementary school. But giving tests to a child who hasn’t even started kindergarten is ridiculous.
Ridiculous. Ridiculous? Really? What’s ridiculous is Ms. Hemphill’s apparent belief that it’s okay for some children to have to wait SIX YEARS before being given an appropriate education. Six years. Just think of the damage that can be done in that span of time. I can. Social isolation. Alienation. Being bullied. Anxiety. Anger. Disdain for classmates, adults and school. Underachievement and disengagement. Not exactly the kinds of outcomes we’re looking for, no? Personally, I envy the parents of five year olds who learn through testing that their child is EG/PG and can get the advice and information that I didn’t have access to.
Clara, doing away with gifted identification is not the answer. Those kids exist–yes the spark of giftedness can be seen in three year olds. They have needs. We need to identify them and provide the supports and academics they need and deserve. But gifted identification is not enough. What is needed is a sea change in attitude towards our nation’s brightest kids from the highest education circles on down to the classroom, where it’s needed most. Resources need to be devoted to gifted education programs, curriculum, teacher training. At minimum there needs to be a real commitment to flexibility in meeting the academic needs of gifted learners–with concurrent commitment to social and emotional support for these kids.
In reading the news reports of what’s happening in New York, the thing that give me hope is that the school system says it is committed to its gifted programs that start in Kindergarten and is committed to figuring out this identification conundrum, rather than obfuscating the existence of giftedness and/or finding a watered down, politically easy solution.
“We are not looking for a test that identifies qualities other than giftedness in young children,” said David Cantor, press secretary for the city’s Department of Education. “Our responsibility remains ensuring that gifted students are properly identified and placed in programs they need to learn best.”
Ms. Hemphill ends her piece by quoting gifted expert (note, I use no quotes) Dona Mathews on when to test. I happen to agree with Mathews’ advice, as it pertains to seeking out expensive private educational testing in addition to group testing already carried out by the schools, realizing full well that this is a luxury few can afford. But then Ms. Hemphill throws in her $.02: “Do test your child if your regular neighborhood school is inadequate. Don’t test your child if you have a solid neighborhood school.” Say wha’? She just spent the previous three paragraphs decrying testing. She ostensibly is concerned about equitable access to gifted services for all kids–then suggests that those who most likely don’t have the resources to begin with, or else their school wouldn’t be “inadequate,” get testing. Sorry, but Clara makes my head hurt.
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