September 22, 2021

I sat on this for over a year

Note: I wrote this article in January 2020, prior to the pandemic. I never posted it because I didn't wish to be called a big meanie poopoo head. However, the news story that inspired my response truly hurt my soul. I may have been content to never share these thoughts, but David Frum, a conservative I respect, published this ridiculous article in The Atlantic whining about efforts to make public schools more public and equitable by confronting a caste system built upon superstition and deeply flawed standardized testing. I've been thinking about benefits and consequences of "gifted education" for four decades. It is at best a political response to bad teaching and at worst a way of normalizing deprivation for other people's children while conflating privilege with giftedness.

(January 2020) Through the peculiarities of the World Wide Web I stumbled upon a recent article, Three Teachers are Raising the Bar of Elementary Education in Wayne, that left me sad and disappointed. Although I now live in California, I was a K-12 student in Wayne, volunteered in the Wayne Public Schools for a decade, substitute taught in Wayne, student taught in Wayne, attended a few hundred school board meetings, started the music education advocacy non-profit The Friends of Music of Wayne, and led teacher professional development in the district. Since the early 80s, I have helped educators all over the world amplify the potential of each student. My criticisms of the practices described in the article are no reflection on the educators being honored. It would be lovely if all teachers felt as if they were cherished members of their community, but don’t dismantle superior programs and shout innovation!. My issues are with the merits of the educational practices being breathlessly celebrated by the school district. At the very least, you are free to dismiss the following critique as an evaluation of the journalism demonstrated by the article.

This is an awfully bold claim
“Three teachers who serve all nine of the Wayne Elementary Schools have taken their GATES program to a whole new level and have created a platform that challenges all of Wayne’s elementary students in order to push students to reach beyond the standards of public education.”

Nothing new
GATE or GATES programs have been widespread attempts to create the illusion of providing gifted and talented services to children for decades. Although there are countless and justifiable objections to pull-out programs, the practices described in this article are even less impressive.

The fact that students in the district use Google Classroom is hardly cause for celebration. It’s a simple online space for writing, presenting, and sharing information. Nothing exceptional or unique there.

Posting links to project ideas or activities for children hardly justifies the employment of specialized personnel. The Web is filled with such resources and every teacher should curate materials for their students.

“Pushing students” seems an inappropriate term for the mission of public education. Inspiring students seems less coercive and it is not the mission of students to reach beyond the standards of public education. I believe that to be the responsibility of educators.

Gifted or talented
Gifted and talented education as a basis for intervention has always been problematic. First of all, it is based on a narrow definition of giftedness, typically I.Q. or standardized test scores, and is focused on what schools truly care about – language arts and at the elementary level, arithmetic. G&T programs rarely offer anything for children great at kicking a ball, playing the cello, or drawing. If they do, such programs address that particular skill. I cannot think of a program that serves children who are gifted and talented.

Enrichment is derived from Latin for “children of rich parents who complain.”

– Gary Stager

If everyone is gifted, then no one is
Even a narrow definition of gifted and talented seems better than what the Wayne Public Schools have now determined programmatically. The current model serves all children. Despite any misgivings I might hold towards gifted and talented education, this approach borders on parody. 

A school district assumes such a stance for political and statutory reasons. 

Political
You never have to answer questions such as, “Why isn’t my daughter classified as gifted?” or “Why should those kids get to do fun stuff?”

Statutory
State and federal laws require schools to serve gifted and talented students. Wayne’s approach affords the district an opportunity to use a bunch of word salad to mask a real investment in providing high quality opportunities for exceptional children. The fact that the district includes AP courses and tracking in its secondary schools as examples of G&T services supports this contention.

Historical revisionism
It is perfectly reasonable and healthy for school districts to evolve, grow, reconsider and modify programs over time. The article’s casual implication that the Windows program was replaced by something better is simply not supported by the evidence presented in the piece. I was there at the birth of Windows. I knew the protagonists and have maintained contact with one of the students the program was created to serve. That gentleman finished high school early, went to Harvard, has a Ph.D., MD, and post-doc in infectious diseases, and speaks fluent Russian. While in elementary school he published papers at MIT, spoke at computer science conferences, conducted cancer research, and would write five-act plays in Elizabethan English for fun. That was the sort of kid Windows was created to support.

Windows was created by the Wayne Public Schools as a way of avoiding costly litigation that would have cost the district hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. Prior to creating the Windows program, Wayne’s provision of a “thorough and efficient education” for gifted students (the legal standard in NJ) was shameful. Without allowing parents to help the district create a model program, not just for their kid, but for dozens of others, Wayne would have lost a long and protracted case in court. The creation of Windows was a win-win compromise that benefited countless kids for two decades.

It is also important to note that the Windows program was a political pinata since its inception. The program was under siege from the first instant a board member’s child was not selected. In the late eighties, a court stenographer was hired to attend a Wayne Board of Education meeting to collect evidence of bad faith by board members in case litigation was necessary.

GATEs versus Windows – metaphors matter
The shift in branding Wayne’s gifted and talented programs is too delicious to ignore. Windows open to an infinite horizon and unlimited potential. Gates are obstacles used to impeded progress or maintain the status quo.

Fix the system, not the child
The fact that the educators responsible for gifted and talented education are “starting to focus more on social/emotional learning” reinforces a prejudice that exceptionally intelligent or creative children must also be damaged. This is dangerous nonsense, perhaps rooted in adult insecurity or an aversion to dealing with clever kids. Again, this presents a dim view of classroom teacher competence and may be harmful to children. 

In my experience, when a school invests in “social/emotional learning” or mindfulness, the damage has already been done. The emphasis becomes teaching children to be compliant in a system ill-suited to their needs. “Social/emotional learning” does nothing to remediate student boredom, lack of opportunity, or an irrelevant curriculum.

Contests and competitions
Schools and districts love to win competitions. The article lists contests kids have won as supporting evidence for the district’s G&T programs. Never mind the vast literature demonstrating competition in academic settings gets motivation wrong, is detrimental to learning, needlessly creates winners and losers, and has a prophylactic impact on female participation.

Less efficient and likely less beneficial to the children who really need gifted and talented services
At least initially, Wayne’s Windows program served 30-40 children who were exceptionally gifted, if not also talented, well by assembling fourth and fifth graders in one classroom so they could work on complex and sustained projects suited to their ability and interests. Now those kids are a needle in the haystack, spread out across nine schools and sprinkled among nearly 3,100 students. The current program employs at least one additional teacher as well.

Condescending view of teacher capacity
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the article is the not too subtle implication that classroom teachers are incapable or unwilling to meet the needs of each student.

“One way that we support all students is by supporting all teachers,” said Gallipoli. “Teachers are well-trained in meeting the needs of students who are performing at or below grade level, but they aren’t always provided with detailed information on how to address their high-achievers.”   

I resent and reject such cynicism towards their colleagues. First of all, animals are trained, not teachers. The myth that teachers only care about or are capable of teaching average students is obnoxious, especially since others argue that teachers don’t know how to teach struggling learners. Viewing any form of education, let alone gifted or talented children, through a lens of “grade level” or “achievement” is equally troublesome. Education is not a race and grade level is a highly subjective metric indicating very little of actual merit.

Of course, teachers should collaborate. Of course, they should be encouraged and supported in participating in professional activities outside of a district. Of course, there is a role for employing educators with specialized expertise, for example in the role of the pedagogista as found in the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. However, the provision of specialists not doing anything particularly special only serves to undermine standards for teaching quality and teacher expertise. Outsourcing the critical role of nurturing some students produces a level of dependency on external intervention that ultimately harms all students.


Want more? Here’s a magazine column I wrote in 2008, Enrichment Programs.

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