Yesterday the Washington Post put out an article about Montgomery County Public Schools (Maryland, suburban DC) dropping the “gifted” label for students in their schools, stating that the label is both “arbitrary” and “unfair.” I read the piece, and didn’t think much of it at first. Then I read the comments from the idiot parent fringe out there. Some had interpreted the dropping of the gifted label as the end of accelerated academic programs in the county school districts. Others thought that this would “dummy down” the curriculum and put really smart kids in an academic straitjacket as the “mush heads” took their time to catch up to them. Many of these wonderful examples of American education even argued that there has always been an academic pecking order of sorts, of the smart and the dumb, of those who finish “first” and those who are “last,” and that removing the label amounted to “political correctness gone awry.” This is why the average teacher burns out in about five years.
I commented on this on the Washington Post comment section for this article myself. As someone who was once labeled as “gifted,” as a parent, and as an educator. It’s appalling, to say the least, to read about parents who want every advantage for their child at the expense of other children merely because they somehow think that this helps their kid win the race for diplomas and dollars. It was shameful to see parents who eagerly labeled kids who hadn’t been labeled “gifted” as “mush heads.” It shows a deep and fundamental disconnect between the education reform movement of the past two decades and public discourse on education. Parents only care about their child, as if the thousands of other kids and their learning have no impact on their child. And anyone that voices concern for education beyond their child, especially if it doesn’t tilt K-12 education in their favor, is a socialist who wants to help disadvantaged kids at the expense of brainiacs. What bullshit!
What MCPS is doing is nothing more than attempting to dissipate some of the arrogance and inequity that comes with labeling someone as “gifted.” Yes, many of us are “gifted,” but in the case of schools, that only meant academically gifted. And academically gifted means what, really, in K-12 education? The ability to memorize facts and techniques faster and more accurately than others, right? Yes, that is a gift, and for those of us whose memories approach the photographic, a gift that can give us an advantage.
But last I checked, schools were about much more than memorization, especially once kids made it past elementary and middle school. Education is about discovering and developing the whole child, about kids finding their way to understand their abilities, their talents, beyond memorization while learning as much as they can in preparation for the real world. In our case, a 21st century world where a minimum of two years of education beyond high school is necessary for a job with a living wage. A high enough wage to pay bills, buy a car, move out from under your parents, get married, to actually have a career and not just a job, to have more educational opportunities later on in life. You can’t get there in a school district that sets the bar low for most of its students and high for those it labels “gifted.” We can’t be competitive as a county, state, region or nation if we continue to act as if most kids should be excluded from material that they can’t get instantly.
I get what MCPS is doing. Even though I was “gifted,” I learned early on that even among the gifted, many of us were rather ordinary kids with arrogant, affluent parents, doting teachers from first grade on, and blessed with access to books at home, access to travel abroad, and with parents with a high level of education to boot. I wasn’t one of those kids. And if I hadn’t had a sixth grade teacher with connections in my school district, I would’ve never been noticed as “gifted” in the first place. This despite three years of straight A’s. Even with all of that, I didn’t understand myself as a writer until I was thirty, learned how to interact with folks from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds the hard way, and felt like my gifted program was fundamentally flawed by the time I reached tenth grade.
The label is meaningless in a world where many of the gifted lack the psychological, social, and emotional intelligence necessary to work, network, and interact with the average “mush head.” For that matter, I can tell you after seventeen years of on-and-off teaching of college and grad courses that most of these gifted students lack the critical thinking, leadership and writing skills necessary to compete in the real world. Or, more accurately, have underdeveloped skills because schools spend more time shoveling facts in their heads rather than putting kids in positions where they have to think critically, act and react decisively, and write clearly.
No, I think that as someone who believes in reforming and realigning schools so that universal higher education of some sort is possible for all Americans — nerds, geeks, jocks, and clowns — that dropping the gifted label is only a minimal starting point. A single-track, college-prep, multiple pathway system of K-12 education that sets high academic standards for all of its students and caters to the allegedly gifted with even more rigor is the way to go. Should school districts like Montgomery County not move toward this, we can look forward to more articles about education reform in ten, twenty or thirty years where parents act as if their kid is the only one that matters and that everyone else’s child is lazy and stupid.