Real dumb about smarts

Anna Quindlen

November 09, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

MIRIAN Acosta-Sing has a problem. She's the principal of a New York City public school, a school whose students are almost entirely black and Latino, with income levels low enough to qualify for free lunches, in a neighborhood in which fifth and sixth graders are importuned by dealers to take lucrative work as drug runners.

But Dr. Acosta-Sing's problem is not what you might imagine. She runs the Mott Hall School in Washington Heights, whose 450 students, grades four through eight, are all gifted and talented. And all she has to do is mention those two words to be written off for state funds, grant programs, most kinds of additional aid.

"We tell the children they should be proud of their abilities," she says. "But I have to camouflage the fact that these are academically accelerated kids when I write proposals. Because all the focus now is on remediation."

There's no news for the administrators and teachers at Mott Hall, or for many others who work with smart kids, in the report issued last week by the Department of Education that says the United States gives its brightest children short shrift.

The report notes that smart kids are not being challenged in public school classrooms, that little money is spent on curriculums designed for their special needs and that stereotypes of nerds, geeks, and dweebs make many kids shy away from being identified as gifted and talented.

With the emphasis on poor performance, on kids who aren't learning, on low reading scores, there has developed a policy of ignoring the ablest students, what Dr. Acosta-Sing calls the "they can take care of themselves" approach. The result is that bright American children learn less than their peers around the world, particularly in math and science.

And the systemic failure is a reflection of an old established societal one that is horribly confusing to kids of all stripes. They move through the hallways of America's public schools, learning every day the lesson that to be cool is all there is in life. No wonder they feel scammed when, at 30, the requisites for success are so much greater, and so much different than that.

Mott Hall has the largest number of children reading at or above grade level of any middle school in New York City. Yet when the eighth grade started a T-shirt business, the kids demurred at putting the school name on the product. "They said if they wore it in the community, they would be ridiculed," Dr. Acosta-Sing said.

That's so unfair. But it's ultimately more unfair to the other kids, who learn to value dross over gold. When they think of making it, getting rich, hitting the big time, the venue is pro sports or record contracts. The ability to pass a ball through a hoop generates reams of prose and publicity, and millions in commercial endorsements.

But we still haven't discovered a way to tinsel up the ability to pass a theory through a set of complicated proofs, to make a Nobel as seductive as a Grammy. The future is built on brains, not prom court, as most people can tell you after attending their high school reunion. But you'd never know it by talking to kids or listening to the messages they get from the culture and even from their schools.

American education has been so preoccupied with remedial courses and so opposed to tracking in recent years that it has participated in the charade. In one survey, only 2 cents out of every $100 spent on public school education was spent on programs for talented students.

The Department of Education report concludes that the problem is particularly acute in poor neighborhoods, where the educational focus is so often on failure.

Mott Hall kids go on to some of the nation's best high schools, and the Ivy League. In a neighborhood in which long division can mean cutting up a kilo of coke and subtraction is sometimes time off for good behavior, this is an everyday miracle.

Yet these are the kids who don't want their school name on their shirts. This is the school whose principal says "I'm looking for a millionaire" because she despairs of getting more money from a system obsessed with its potential failures to the detriment of its potential successes.

And this is a system the Department of Education concludes is neglecting the best as a matter of course. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Just dumb.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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