I sat squirming uncomfortably in my chair, eyes glancing around at other parents, wondering if I was alone in my reaction. The Head of School at my sons’ school was unveiling a new by-invitation “gifted” program that would begin the next year. The parent comments were cringe-inducing. One woman shared her academic résumé, noting her 4.0 GPA in college, but expressing dismay that she was repeatedly passed over for the gifted program during her early school years. Another parent shared that she was, in fact, gifted, and had always been quite disruptive in class because she was bored. Removing the kids like her from the classroom was actually a boon to the other kids, she assured everyone.
As the parameters for receiving an invitation were outlined, I wondered whether my kids would make the cut. I have a second-grader who tests extremely well, joins the next grade up for math instruction, and is purportedly reading at a sixth-grade level. I have a fourth-grader whose test performance is inconsistent, doesn’t seem to feel a burning desire to give his best effort on every assignment, and often brings home middling grades. In the unbiased view I take of my children, as every parent does, I believe they’re both quite bright.
But I don’t believe either is “gifted.”
My kids attend a small private school where kids’ academic needs are generally able to be met, wherever they are. I believe in and support public schools, but we chose our school for the small class sizes and have been (blissfully) spared the high-pressure standardized testing many public school students contend with. We’ve avoided the anxiety surrounding gifted programs until now, but I’ve seen the anxiety writ large for friends and acquaintances in the public school system.
The neighborhood public school selects Kindergarteners for gifted testing. Just being identified for testing, one parents says, is an honor. Some kids get in while many do not. Some parents blast social media with the good news when the acceptance letter arrives. I found the whole process a little appalling. Whether or not you subscribe to the analysis in books like Freakonomics and elsewhere, the evidence seems strong that attempting to identify gifted kids at an early age is fraught with problems. I counted myself lucky, quite frankly, that our school didn’t engage in this silliness.
Following national trends, our public school district also created several vanguard academies, including a Talented & Gifted school for students in grades four through eight. Thanks to a tight-knit community, the acceptance process for these programs was also laid bare. Some parents engaged tutors to help their child prepare for the entrance test. The younger siblings of kids already in the program were bumped up the acceptance list. News reports trickled out about the program being increasingly populated by white, upper-middle class kids, whose parents, it would seem, are quite gifted at gaming the admission system.
I’ve seen a lot of kids in the decade I’ve been rearing children, plenty of them quite clever. Gifted, to me, would be a three-year-old who taught herself to read Shakespeare, or a five-year-old doing calculus. Is reading a few years beyond grade level truly “gifted”? Especially when studies show these gains are often erased a few years down the road, when other children have caught up with the early readers? When did “gifted” become the label we apply to smart kids for whom school work comes easily?
And perhaps more importantly – why are we so desperate to apply this label to our kids? What does this label even mean? The gifted program at my children’s school was designed to be broadly inclusive, with as much as half of some classes receiving an invitation to participate. Are there that many gifted students at any one school? Who are we kidding?
The thing I’m guessing we all knew at that parent meeting is that grown-ups, and kids, will talk. One of my sons received the vaunted invitation; the other didn’t. Is it relevant that my son scored high enough on the test the previous school year to be invited? He was gifted last year; this year, not so much. His performance on one test on one day this school year may result in him watching half the class leave for the special program while he’s left behind.
My gut tells me that continuing to make frequent use of the public library card will do more to nurture both my sons’ burgeoning intellect than any “gifted” program.
I can’t be the only parent wondering… What, exactly, are we doing?
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Joanna McFarland Owusu is a freelance writer and researcher based in Dallas, Texas. A federal government analyst in a former life, Joanna now spends her time wrangling two not-so-little boys and a toddler daughter. Her work has appeared on The Huffington Post, scarymommy.com, www.bust.com, and www.bluntmoms.com.