Accelerated programs don't need custom label


October 25, 1998|By Brian Sullam

KEITH SMITH'S efforts to have Montel Williams, Rosie O'Donnell and Oprah Winfrey write letters on behalf of Anne Arundel County's gifted and talented program is pretty easy to dismiss.

Why would County Executive John G. Gary or the school board pay any more attention to these afternoon television personalities than they would to parents who live and vote in the county?

Mr. Smith, a former teacher of gifted and talented students, obviously is willing to try anything to revive this program, which was eliminated during this year's education budget slashing. He deserves plenty of credit for persisting and developing an imaginative gimmick that brought attention to his cause.

Even if a couple of these Hollywood types do bother to write on behalf of the gifted and talented program, there is little likelihood that it will be restored.

G&T value is overstated

Perhaps that is for the best. The value of these programs is overstated.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had a daughter -- now a senior in high school -- who participated in gifted and talented programs in two different school systems.

In retrospect, one was worthless, and the other could have accomplished the same ends without being labeled "gifted and talented."

In fourth grade, she had attended a gifted and talented class on current events that met twice a week. As far as I could tell, the instruction and materials were not all that special. The pupils read newspapers and magazines and discussed current events. I remember correctly, they also did projects and took a field trip or two.

Although she liked the teacher, she detested the class. Not only was she responsible for the assignments in the current events class, she had to make up work she missed in her math class, which continued to meet while she was discussing current events twice a week.

At one point that year, my daughter begged my wife and me to take her out of the class.

The next year, she attended a different school and was in a "gifted and talented" math and language arts classes. About 25 of the brightest and most able fifth-graders were placed in these classes.

From my perspective, it appeared that the school, which had heterogenous grouping of students in all other classes, decided to track its top students in math and language arts and label those classes "gifted and talented."

My daughter, who seems to thrive on academic challenges, enjoyed those classes. She did well and learned a great deal.

The next year, the school system did away with all gifted and talented programs. Many neighborhood parents were upset. In the next two years, a number of them pulled their children out of the school and placed them in private schools.

Once our daughter moved on to middle school, we did not keep up with all the daily comings and goings at her former elementary school but friends with children at the school said the principal and teachers made efforts to cater to the bright kids without a formal "gifted and talented" program.

Lake Wobegon theory

Much of the emphasis on gifted and talent is directed at parents who want to believe that they live in Garrison Keillor's community of Lake Wobegon, where the kids are above average.

If your golf or tennis game isn't anything to brag about or you didn't vacation in Umbria last summer, at least you can keep up your social status by saying that your kid is "gifted and talented."

In all seriousness, though, schools do have a problem catering to a wide variety of pupils of different abilities, aptitudes and achievements.

Bright, capable kids do suffer if all their classes are taught to the lowest common denominator.

It is also unfair to stratify kids early in their school experiences. Many of them who are struggling with reading or math in second and third grades decode those subjects by the time they hit fifth or sixth grade and are ready for challenging classes.

My daughter's experience made me wonder whether school systems are better off returning to tracking in subjects such as math, where inherent ability allows some kids to excel.

Those who can move through the material quickly should be able to. But the schools should move kids into the accelerated classes if they begin to perform exceptionally well.

The bad, old days

My own experience -- back in the bad old days of tracking -- was that once you were in the "smart" class, you remained there regardless of your performance. My slacker "underachiever" friends never worried about being bumped down. Conversely, overachieving kids in the lower tracks rarely got to move up.

If the schools were able to develop a flexible system that allowed kids to move in and out of accelerated classes, Mr. Smith might not have to solicit letters from celebrities.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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