Gifted, talented and misunderstood

February 03, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

"DUMB AND DUMBER'' was a box-office hit. ''Gifted and talented'' has been under siege. Only in America, as they say.

Public-school programs for so-called gifted and talented students are trying to recover after years of taking a beating.

Part of the problem is, understandably, money. Schools face greater pressure to stretch a dollar so hard choices must be made about how to serve all students.

The other, more frustrating part is philosophical: Combining kids with like mental abilities, called ''homogeneous grouping,'' over the years got a bad name. Taken to extremes, similarly skilled children were always segregated. Smart ones never mixed with other kids (except perhaps in the schoolyard where the smart ones got beat up). It didn't show kids the real world. It was wrong.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, when a slight course adjustment is warranted, we get a 180-degree about-face instead. In the '90s, the trend has swung to ''heterogeneous grouping.'' The premise: Teach a smart kid beside a less-smart kid and smarts will rub off on the latter. The argument has some validity, which is why it belongs some of the time. But the biggest fallacy among its backers is the notion that so-called ''gifted'' learners don't need help.

Gifted students may be endowed with abstract-thinking skills, but that does not guarantee success. In fact, they can be considered ''at risk.'' A national report called ''Prisoners of Time'' said many of them enter a grade knowing 70 percent of the course work when the year starts. That can lead to a dislike of school and bad study habits. Because they can be bored and distracted by regular classwork, these children aren't necessarily teacher pleasers. In fact, an innate perfectionism can make them seem, well, dense: Gifted youngsters have been known to draw hundreds of circles to the point of exhaustion because they refused to begin a stick-figure without a precisely round head.

A labeling injustice

Undeniably, these are children with special needs. Perhaps the greatest injustice ever done them was labeling them ''gifted.'' It conjures up images that they're just the spoiled brats of braggart parents. It invites an argument of smart vs. dumb.

Fortunately, the Maryland State Department of Education is trying to impart that message to local school systems. Some, such as Allegany County, already provide invaluable flexibility so that children may jump a subject level or be paired with a mentor to further a keen interest.

Unfortunately, others, such as Harford County, offer across-the-board ''enrichment'' -- a faint substitute for challenging gifted students. Typically, education-savvy Montgomery and Howard counties are cited among the cream. Baltimore County, meanwhile, is still scouring the wreckage left by former superintendent Stuart Berger. His anti-gifted-education bent puzzled his former colleagues in Frederick County, where years before he had espoused the opposite stance.

Maryland is gifted with its own unique resource in the Johns Hopkins Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth. The Baltimore-based program tutors thousands of high-achieving students worldwide, including some seventh-graders who ace the college boards. ''We don't even use the word 'gifted,' '' says William G. Durden, the institute's director. ''It assumes you have something you haven't earned.''

Another person who assuredly qualified as gifted and talented, Thomas Jefferson, probably said it best: ''There is nothing so unequal as the equal education of unequal persons.'' From a man who framed the nation on the tenet that all men are created equal comes a message educators should heed.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

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