Saturday, June 5, 2010

Do gifted programs gate off the truly gifted?

An article in this past Tuesday's New York Times discusses the gender gap in gifted programs in New York City and around the country, where, in general, one finds significantly more girls than boys. The New York City schools, the article points out, base 25% of a child's "gifted score" on a giftedness admissions test that has been field-tested for gender bias. 

While cautious about drawing firm conclusions about what's causing the gender gap, the article nonetheless repeats the theories seen in such books as The Trouble With Boys:  the emphasis on early reading and writing, where boys tend to lag behind girls, and the similar lag of boys in social and emotional development.  

This raises the question of why social, emotional, and other non-academic criteria should play any role in determining giftedness, as they often do (particularly where teacher recommendations are part of the process). After all, research has shown many gifted children (male and female) to be developmentally skewed or "asynchronous" (see, e.g., here and here), and, in particular, often socially, emotionally, and/or organizationally immature.  

As I discuss in my book, the reasons for considering global maturity may have more to do with current fashions in education than with what academically challenging programming intrinsically requires. Today's classrooms, and gifted classrooms in particular, increasingly emphasize collaborative work, reflections about personal feelings, and organizationally demanding projects. At the same time math--an area of relative strength for boys--has become less and less mathematically challenging (and increasingly infused with language arts). Were teachers to shift back towards more structured, academically challenging solo assignments, many more gifted boys, as well as many overlooked gifted girls, would thrive academically--and gain admissions to gifted programs.

Indeed, one has to wonder just how many truly gifted children, especially the more unsocial left-brainers out there, are no longer identified as such.

The whole giftedness system, of course, is fraught with prejudice and controversy. My preference is to eliminate the gated community of giftedness entirely--along with all limitations on access to challenging work.  Why not simply let children learn at their own rates, and, in later grades, offer math, literature, and other classes at a variety of different levels. For example, make sure to offer truly challenging math classes, and give any child who wants to the freedom to sign up for them--along with the freedom to switch over to something less challenging if he or she finds himself languishing.


Beth said...

Ugh, gifted programs. Schools don't know the difference between "gifted" and "high achieving" and always prefer the latter. What they really mean by "gifted" is "somewhere above average, obedient, compliant, eager to please, straight-A student."

As I remarked on another forum, it's an idiot's conception of genius.

As a culture, we seem to accept that highly intelligent adults are often quirky, dreamy, follow-their-own-drummer kinds of people. But we have no room for those qualities in our children.

I can see how the system will tend to shut out boys, but as the mother of two girls, I assure you it doesn't really work for the girls either.

In our public school district, the brightest kids get the same old curriculum with the same old delivery, but they are pushed through it at a much faster clip, they are loaded down with homework, and they are subjected to extreme pressure. None of this was appropriate for my dreamy, sensitive, bright older daughter. She became severely anxious and depressed in the 5th grade, while the school told me there was no problem because her performance was still adequate.

That's why we're paying the big bucks to send the kids to private schools.

Velma Beale said...

When my youngest son was in high school, he was having trouble with his grades, so they gave him an IQ test. They said he tested gifted in almost every area and the counselor recommended him for a gifted program, if they ever started one! The next year they started one, but wouldn't put him in it because his grades weren't high enough!
He died a few years ago and I am raising his son, who is obviously gifted in some areas, although he has never had an IQ test. He has been diagnosed with Aspberger's Syndrome and is definitely an asynchronous learner. I pulled him from public school after preschool because they were planning to send him down the same road by pulling his IEP and putting him in Kindergarten although their own tests showed him reading 3 years ahead of grade level and with advanced interest and knowledge about science. His math and handwriting, however were somewhat below grade level. I saw trouble brewing from the beginning, so I pulled him out to homeschool him. He learns at his own level and readiness. Although, at age 10, he still lags in handwriting and math, he still reads 3 years above age/grade level and knows more about electronics than many high school kids. His emotional immaturity and sensory issues do interfere with some learning, but we keep plugging along.

Kumar Singam said...

I have been long advocating the paradigm of letting children learn at their own rates (please see my February columns and .

It is important to understand that "gifted" does not always necessarily mean what was statutorily contemplated. Furthermore, research has shown that gifted today may not be so tomorrow. Hence the assignment of children into coursework according to ability--inclusive of grade or subject skipping, is, I believe, a far more equitable process.

LexAequitas said...

Just as teachers seem to have a different idea of what "gifted" means, I think they have a similar idea about the word "maturity".

Somehow, both of them seem to boil down to brain power that's average or a bit above combined with obedience.

If a third grader tells a teacher they're wrong the way a high school student might, the elementary child is "immature" and "disruptive".

1crosbycat said...

A mother of twin high school seniors told me earlier this year about how both boys were tested for the gifted (GATE) program in elementary school. Only one boy was accepted and out of curiosity, she asked to see the other's test scores. She and the Guidance Counselor were surprised to find that the one declined had higher scores, but he was more socially shy and awkward.

Elissa said...

This is interesting to me. I participated in gifted programs in two different schools in the late 70's and in both cases the boys far outnumbered the girls. I distinctly remember my last gifted class in Jr. High, we had 10 boys and only 2 girls. The previous one at another Jr. High was very similar. I could never understand at the time why it was so unbalanced. Perhaps they used different testing procedures in those days or I just had an anomalous experience.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I went to a Math Science High School-- when I got in it was based on straight test scores-- they had us take the Math portion of the SATs and the Raven test.

A few years later they changed to a fuzzier rubric-- grades and activities and reccomendations in addition to scores. Several of us who thrived in the program would never have been accepted under the new rubric (we were the ADHD contingent)

So why the switch? Because test scores alone produced racial and gender imbalances. The 'gifted' didn't look like the administration wanted us to look....