Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Neglected Middle?

USA Today ran a column from Patrick Welsh, a D.C.-area teacher earlier this week, called Students Aren't Interchangeable. A true statement, of course. He makes the perfectly reasonable point that average children need to be challenged and that the curriculum should fit the child, not the other way around. He also points out that many educators are more interested in social engineering than in challenging kids. But I found the column unfortunate as a whole. He wants to be contrarian, so he decides to characterize gifted kids and their parents as poorly as possible so the much-neglected middle seems more deserving by contrast.

He starts by referring to parents of gifted kids as "fanatical" -- and "usually white, in my experience -- who think their kids are geniuses, who must be protected from less talented kids and who are entitled to every advantage and resource the school system has to offer." There you go. If you speak up about your kid needing educational accommodations, not only are you pushy, you're "fanatical." And while we're at it, let's get some racial overtones in there, too. Why not? No wonder Nicholas Colangelo, professor of gifted education at the Belin-Blank Center of the University of Iowa, and an expert on acceleration, recently told me that many parents of gifted kids perceive that any such requests will be viewed negatively -- so they don't ask. They don't want to be seen as pushy. With teachers like Welsh roaming the halls, that's not an unrealistic fear.

Welsh then goes on to say he has "heard teachers in neighboring Fairfax County, VA, joke that every middle class white kid is labeled either gifted and talented or learning disabled. The LD label goes over with parents because it implies that the kid is brighter than his or her work shows."

This is complete hyperbole. Fairfax County, VA's own reports show that about 8% of 3rd through 8th grade kids participate in its gifted programs (see the report here (and let me know if the direct PDF link doesn't work. It's the Fairfax County Gifted and Talented Advisory Committee Report from 2004). This is a wealthy district -- more than 8% of the kids are middle-class and white. Furthermore, the district is home to Thomas Jefferson high school, a magnet high school for gifted kids that's ranked among the top in the country. If you do have a highly gifed kid, and live in the greater D.C. area, you're quite likely to move to Fairfax for precisely this reason. So it would stand to reason that Fairfax would have a high percentage of gifted kids, particularly among the high school set. But even so, it's not a de facto segregation system. TJ is nearly 40% minority (Asian children are the largest minority group; interestingly, Asian parents are somehow exempt from Welsh's fanatical label). I'm surprised USA Today let Welsh get away with this stereotyping statement with absolutely no evidence to back it up.

But we're in a mode these days where complaining about pushy parents is hip. Columns like this are the result.


Tony Plank said...

As always, extremist views such as these are counter productive even if they do contain an element of truth.

As far as pushy parents go, I’d say that while the parents I’ve met from my Son’s GT program are generally a really nice and reasonable bunch, there are a few that fit that model perfectly. To the point that they disgust me even. But then, that is probably a statistical thing and I’m betting I can find plenty of pushy parents of minority and lower achieving students as well were I to bother to look or care.

That sad thing is that extremists usually cause legitimate causes to get overlooked and the bulge of the normal curve absolutely deserves custom treatment as well. As a said a few posts ago, it is time to realize that kids ARE our future and to act accordingly.

The truth is that if you customize, the kids outside the first standard deviation are going to consume more resources per child than those on the inside whether they be on the “high” or “low” ends of the academic distribution. It is inherent in the capabilities and challenges of these children.

Though I am raising a gifted child, I am a ferocious advocate for the middle. In my view, they do tend to get the shortest shrift in our educational “system”. I got this way because my income production in High School consisted primarily of tutoring and I learned a lot about these kids in the middle even though I was still young myself. It amazed me how capable the kids I tutored were. Even at age 16 or 17, I was stunned by what the school system had not managed to teach many of my classmates. It was clear to me then that they we not stupid: they were simply not taught in a way that worked for them.

As a tutor I had the luxury of the time to figure out how the individual’s brain worked and help them come up with techniques for problem solving that worked for them. I have wondered ever since what some of them would have been capable of had the system been set up where there was some individualization along the way. With early intervention, it probably would not have taken a lot to transform some of these low achievers into relatively successful students.

What a tragic waste we have in our schools. And adding to that tragedy, we have fools such as the author of the linked story that uses hyperbole in place of reason.

Catana said...

Sounds as if the columnist read Hothouse Kids but skipped the chapter on gifted kids who are completely neglected by the system. Bandwagons tend to be very selective.

Anonymous said...

To All;

There is an article in the Oct issue of The Atlantic that you may also find interesting entitled The Drama of the Gifted Parent by Sandra Tsing Loh. It is a very long ranting of middle class and affluent parents quest to land their children slots at the most expensive and prestigious preschools through ivy league colleges in order to have bragging rights at the next cocktail party. It also highlights a few very extreme examples and leads the reader to the inference that all parents of “gifted” children do the homework for their kids and threaten to sue teachers and school districts if their children do not receive the A+ or other recognition the parents believes they are entitled to.

Our children attend a private Catholic school that has high academic standards but isn’t expensive or exclusive enough to evoke bragging rights. The teachers often use class time to lecture on a topic so between all the subjects, some homework each night is a guarantee. Our kids do their own homework, have it corrected by the teacher, learn where they need to review and then do well on the tests (which generally are not multiple choice). They also are assigned project-based assignments throughout the school year, which helps them learn time management and multi-tasking skills. We know that if we completed their homework or projects, the point of sending them to this school would be lost.

Although I have heard of and witnessed some parents completing their children’s homework and arguing with teachers over test scores, their children are not the ones who are recognized as the school leaders. The parents of gifted children are not the ones trying to manipulate the system. They are the ones advocating for meaningful challenge and the opportunity for growth, which includes learning from mistakes and failures. I guess it just makes for a more interesting article or book to lump us all together and label us fanatics.

Margaret DeLacy said...

Between 1994 and 1998, William Sanders and his team analyzed Tennessee test scores using a new "value-added" formula that he had devised. In essence, this method looks at student learning gains from year to year instead of absolute test scores.
see my summary at

Sanders found a "reverse shed" pattern in students' test score gains. The lowest-achieving students made the highest gains; the average students made average gains, and the highest-achieving students made much lower gains than any other group.

Since then, the same pattern has been found nationwide.

It is simply untrue that students at the top are given opportunities to learn at the expense of other students. They learn less than any other group.

Equally disturbing, when I looked at gains in my district by both ability and ethnicity, I found that the high-achieving students who are receiving free and reduced lunch, are Hispanic or African-American make the lowest gains of all.

Reverse snobbery--assuming that gifted students are "white" or "elite" and so don't "deserve" services hurts everyone but it hurts minority gifted students most of all.

The true elite left public schools long ago, partly because they are so hostile to such students. As a group, TAG students still in public schools are far from privileged, even when they are white.

Margaret DeLacy