Back from our Thanksgiving holiday and catching up with e-mail, I was excited to read the following headline on Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews‘ weekly “Extra Credit” column: “There’s Gifted, and Then There’s Profoundly Gifted.” The title alone was gratifying as it encapsulates the message that many parents struggle to communicate with schools, teachers, family, friends–the idea that there are levels/degrees of giftedness. (Ruf’s book here.)
The exchange is reprinted here…
Dear Extra Credit:
Recently, you said in The Post that you thought the needs of the gifted were being adequately addressed. I know there are many parents who disagree with you, but I am not one of them. I think that the big local public school districts are doing a good job meeting the needs of the vast majority of gifted kids. Those kids are like my son, who attends a Fairfax County public schools Gifted and Talented Center. The center is a great model for the moderately to highly gifted child.
However, I do think there is a small segment of gifted children for which the GT centers are not a good model. These are the exceptionally and profoundly gifted, who have the very highest IQs. And I think it is the parents of these children whom you continue to hear from. I believe that these kids are the ones who need to skip a grade (or two) to be with their intellectual peers, although they do not fit in socially with older kids. When they are placed with their age peers in a GT Center, the exceptionally and profoundly gifted kids tend to have problems in general with socializing and fitting in, which sets them up for bullying, teasing, social isolation, etc.
Public schools require 20 to 30 kids in a classroom, and that may not be the best learning model for the exceptionally and profoundly gifted. (And I’m not sure the parents would want them going to “resource rooms” for their lessons, like special education). I guess the real problem comes in the total number of the exceptionally and profoundly gifted. They are such a small percentage of the school population that their parents just don’t have a big enough voice to get them any special services. I know that many end up home-schooling.
Falls Church area
I think you are quite right. It is unrealistic and indeed harmful to try to develop services for such kids in the public schools. Nearly everyone acknowledges that our public schools cannot find, train or afford to pay staff members who can teach anything useful to children with the compositional talents of Mozart or the putting stroke of Tiger Woods, to name just two child prodigies. Such children need specialists, as do the exceptionally and profoundly gifted students you cite. If we try to teach them in public schools, we are likely to waste their time. I am similarly not convinced that our GT centers, although wonderful places for many of those students, add much value in the long term. I still await data that prove me wrong. I think it is much better to accelerate gifted students to the upper grades — or bring upper-grade lessons down to them — so they can learn something new.
Some of Ms. Hoskins’ observations about Fairfax County Center programs mirror our experience (C. attended one of the MCPS Centers for the Highly Gifted for fourth grade and a middle school magnet program) : instances of mean spiritedness toward C., of hostility from staff who couldn’t understand why C. couldn’t get with the program, the difficulty in advocating on C.’s behalf.
As for Mr. Mathews’ response, I find it perplexing. On the one hand he seems to acknowledge that exceptionally and profoundly gifted students need special instruction and are often best taught by receiving accelerated instruction. On the other hand he seems to be saying that these students shouldn’t be/can’t be/don’t deserve to be educated in a public school setting (“harmful?”). Does he feel the same way about children at the other end of the spectrum? How should these children be educated? Not every family can homeschool. And if private schools are even an educational option (often they’re not), not all can afford them.
My big question is how are children to be identified as profoundly gifted in the first place and receive the acceleration and special educational planning they need when the school system for the most part doesn’t acknowledge that there are *levels* of giftedness? When there is no legal provision or otherwise for gifted IEPs. When the system has the data that might indicate profound giftedness but doesn’t act on it, doesn’t share this testing with parents so they can effectively advocate (it’s only in the past few years that parents have actually been told their child’s scores on the 2nd grade GT screening…before you just got a letter saying your child is gifted…or not), and basically doesn’t see the profoundly gifted child in their midst–or is hostile to the very “symptoms” of the child’s giftedness?
Yes some children, like Mozart and Tiger Woods to use Mathews’ examples, demonstrate their talent in a visible way at very early ages, such that it comes to the attention to adults and teachers. But what of the profoundly gifted math student or — and this is my particular passion — what of the profoundly verbally gifted student?
These exceptionally and profoundly gifted students may not be doing anything particularly “prodigious” when they enter Kindergarten. They may simply present as curious, active, kids with lots to say about subjects one wouldn’t expect a 6 year old to talk about. But even when a child is reading at an advanced level in the early grades there is a) the assumption that other children will “catch up” and the child will “even out” and b) the doubt as to whether the child is actually comprehending what he/she is reading. (Just an aside, but would an adult persevere reading a book that he/she didn’t comprehend? No, they’d put it aside. So if a child is “reading” I’ll go out on a limb and say that yes, that child is also comprehending.)
Meanwhile, the first official screening for giftedness takes place at the end of second grade. By that time, a child will have spent three years in a mixed ability classroom without any special programming. With luck the profoundly gifted child hasn’t begun to rebel or encounter social difficulties. Further screening in the fall of 3rd grade will determine if a child is eligible for a Center program, which starts 4th grade. So it is possible that an exceptionally/profoundly gifted child might not get his or her first meaningful intervention until 4th grade. This even though the most successful, least disruptive acceleration is done in the early grades. (By the later elementary grades school officials are resistant to accelerate students into middle school for social reasons, and the same holds for acceleration into high school).
Because entry into a Center program is considered *the* answer to meeting the needs of a highly gifted elementary student in MCPS (again, no mention or indication of awareness about exceptionally and profoundly gifted), there is tremendous institutional resistance if not outright hostility to “skipping” a child in K-2, which perversely can work against the best interests of the exceptionally or profoundly gifted child. And there is no explicit GT or accelerated curriculum by subject from which teachers can draw. Parents are just urged to “hang in there”…with the carrot of future admission to a Center program dangled before them.
I know all this firsthand. C. did not become “profoundly gifted” at age 12 when her SAT scores arrived in our mailbox—she was the same child she was from the first day she entered MCPS, tests or no tests. And although she was in every gifted program offered for her age we were told repeatedly that she needed to learn to fit in, be less arrogant, that “there are other kids just as smart as her,” “it’s a challenging curriculum,” “the teachers differentiate,” “just wait until high school, that’s when she’ll really soar” (this was in 4th grade–what should she do for the next four years?), “you can learn something in every class.” I had to go to Rockville to see her Center screening results and I had to press the principal at her home school to request those scores. (Silly me, I thought it might be helpful for her teachers to know more about her.) It was we, after a disastrous–in retrospect very misguided on our part–year back in “normal” school, who finally decided to have her tested at CTY. And when things started going badly in middle school (“We have many other students with her profile” sniffed the coordinator) it was again we who shared the data, who pressed the school to look at her in a different light, who argued that she needed more, different. All to no avail. There was no additional way to accelerate in the humanities. C. was made to be the problem and we were just unreasonable parents. In my opinion, the system failed her, failed us.
If we, who were well-educated, knew how to advocate and most importantly had the resources to get outside testing done, were so unsuccessful, what chance would a less-advantaged child have of being identified as exceptionally or profoundly gifted? That’s what I wonder. And that’s a question that Jay Mathews needs to address more fully.