The Value of Exclusive Gifted Programs

I’ve spent much of this summer reading parenting books. I’ve been trying to figure out how we got to our current state of over-the-top parental involvement in children’s lives at the same time our general education system is failing. Why isn’t parental concern translating into increased investments in our children, our schools, and our future?

One of the realizations I’m coming to is that unlike the American educational reforms inspired by Sputnik, this time around the emphasis is not on how to improve the education of all *our* kids, the parental pressure is on how to make sure *my* kids have every possible advantage. Instead of working to improve all public schools, we pass laws that give parents the freedom to dump their local school for magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools, and even private schools, paid for with public tax dollar vouchers. When each family can customize their child’s education, they have less of a need to work within the system to fix problems. They also work to cherry pick programs they feel are prestigious and desirable, making sure their own children get coveted spaces in AP classes, honors classes, and even gifted programs.

Gifted programs are now viewed (and taught) not as classes for students that are truly gifted but instead as enriched curriculum with superior instruction that is beneficial to all students. Wendy S. Grolnick, PhD and Kathy Seal in their 2008 book, Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids, state:

Often created to keep middle-class students in public schools, gifted and talented programs offer a high-quality curriculum enriched by field trips, art and drama offerings, and special projects. They frequently provide superior pedagogy, emphasizing hands-on and creative learning experiences.

Dr. Grolnick and Ms. Seal then go on to discuss groups that are working to make sure gifted and talented programs are open to all students and urge parents find out about the gifted programs in their local school district. They tell parents to work to change the admissions requirements if their children do not qualify because learning about these programs is “crucial for helping your child navigate the increasingly complex journey from preschool to college graduation.” Nice scare tactic there. Just for the record there is also a section titled, “The False Danger of “Overinvolvement”: You Can’t Be Too Involved.” A statement they support with evidence from child development studies done primarily in the 1990s before the advent of helicopter parenting.

We see how much parent involvement has changed when we compare the above to the 1964 classic on parenting, Children: the Challenge, by Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D. with Vicki Soltz, R. N. (recommended to us by Dr. Ruf of Educational Options). Throughout Children: the Challenge, Dr. Dreikurs urges parents to refrain from overprotection and let their kids work out their own battles. He says that parents should not involve themselves in making sure homework or practicing gets done, and instead should mind their own business because, “We cannot protect our children from life.” My favorite story is about a mother who does the right thing in letting her 7-year-old bike to the store on the busy street, alone, because she needs to stop being so overprotective.

Back when Dr. Dreikurs wrote Children: the Challenge, there was an assumption that the public schools did a decent job and students and teachers could work together to make sure students received a quality education. We no longer trust the public schools and there is a fear that if students stay in regular classrooms they may miss out on something critical to their future success. Gifted and talented programs are treated as one more notch in the college resume belt, similar to AP and honors classes. They should not be.

Well-designed programs for academically gifted students are not just regular classes taught in greater depth and at a faster pace. Yes, as in honors courses, critical and independent thinking is emphasized but a good gifted program also addresses the special needs of gifted students.

Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students may need a different teaching style that works with their high energy and overexcitabiliities. A gifted classroom may seem chaotic with kids intensely moving, arguing, and even crying. They may easily get frustrated because the ideas in their heads move so quickly or are so deep, they just can’t complete an assignment that would be easy for a more normal kid. They may have mini emotional breakdowns because they feel an intense need to contribute to the world and can’t figure out how to mesh that need with their day-to-day lives. Gifted students may suffer from existential depression at a very young age and may need an environment where they can feel understood and less alone. The fact that they are capable of reading, writing, doing math, or understanding complex concepts at younger than average ages is not the only difference between gifted children and regular children.

Truly gifted kids may be the ones disrupting the regular classroom. Having programs targeted to and reserved for gifted students allows teachers to focus on the different needs of the different student groups. Sharing a classroom with gifted students, especially ones on the extreme end of the bell curve, does not necessarily benefit the more regular kids. Gifted students do not just acquire knowledge faster than regular students, they process information differently. Exceptionally gifted kids may find it difficult to answer questions that average and moderately gifted kids find simple. The more gifted the child, the increased possibilities they see and while they may intuitively understand complex issues, their need for extreme precision may paralyze them. The best way to present material for gifted students may not be the best way for regular students. All students benefit when educational material is introduced in a way that best fits their own, personal learning style. Gifted students process information differently, not better or worse, just differently. Acknowledging this difference is not the same as saying one child is better than another. Assuming that every hardworking, smart student that does well in AP and honors classes also needs the special services of a gifted program does our entire educational system a disservice.