Campaign against Gifted and Talented' label revives long-standing debate
Some push for eliminating identification, while others call for school system to give it teeth
Nora Cartland is pleased with the instruction her two children have received as students labeled by Montgomery County Public Schools as "Gifted and Talented." Eric Marx, on the other hand, is unhappy with the education his two Gifted and Talented students are getting.
Now, the philosophical clash between Cartland and Marx is heating up.
Cartland and other critics say the Gifted and Talented, or GT, label is damaging students because it ends up dividing them along racial lines and makes those who don't get identified as Gifted and Talented typically about 60 percent of students feel inferior. They also argue that what constitutes Gifted and Talented curriculum in Montgomery County Public Schools, such as critical reading skills and research projects, should be taught to all students.
"Whether it is explicit or implicit, they get the message that in Montgomery County Public Schools, certain kids in certain ethnic groups are seen as more intelligent than others," Cartland said.
But those like Marx argue that by not offering appropriate programs specifically for academically gifted students in separate classes, school officials are hindering the students who would benefit. They say the GT label is unimportant by itself, but now is the only thing keeping truly Gifted and Talented students from being entirely disregarded.
"The label is such a tiny piece of this. There isn't challenging intellectual instruction going on," Marx said.
Pressure is mounting on the school system to remove the Gifted and Talented label entirely. At the end of a pilot program that so far has increased the share of students seen as ready for advanced courses, the school system might be ready to oblige.
Cartland is involved in the "No Labels, No Limits" campaign that began in earnest this school year. Supported by the Montgomery County Education Forum, the Montgomery County Education Association (the teachers union) and others, its ultimate goal is to eliminate the school system's practice of notifying parents about the Gifted and Talented status of their children.
Campaign members have testified at public events and meetings during the past several months and given presentations about the damage the GT label does to students.
At the Feb. 28 Board of Education meeting, Montgomery Blair High School student Kirstyn Ross-Roach testified, "It seems so often we make this debate too polarized the magnet kids vs. the on-level kids. But I urge you to think about kids like me kids who are in the middle. We often float under the radar and are not challenged. Challenges are reserved for the gifted' and talented.'"
In testimony before the school board in December, George Vlasits, a teacher at Montgomery Blair High School who also is chairman of the teachers union's Human and Civil Rights Committee, said the huge achievement gap in high school could be attributed to the GT label and lower expectations for those who don't receive it.
A pilot program now in its second year might aid this campaign's mission. It has recommended more black and Hispanic students for advanced reading and math courses, separate from the test that identifies students as GT and the accompanying label.
During the first year of the pilot program, called SIPPI, the percentage of second-graders recommended for advanced-level reading soared from 17.6 percent in 2009 to 38.5 percent in 2010. In math, the percentage increased from 32.3 to 40.2 percent.
The effect was particularly pronounced for minority students in reading in 2009, for example, 11.1 percent of black students were recommended for advanced reading, compared with 28.7 percent in 2010 using the SIPPI program.
The most recently available statistics from November 2009 show that of 9,609 students screened for the GT label, 38.7 percent were identified as such. Among the four major ethnic groups, 56 percent of Asian-American and 51 percent of white students got the label, while 23.9 percent of blacks and 19.7 percent of Hispanics received it.
Typically, students are tested to see if they qualify for the Gifted and Talented label in second grade. A teacher's recommendation also is used to determine if a student qualifies.
After that, however, the benefits of the program are in dispute. The school system says Gifted and Talented students can access higher-level reading programs. With an advanced reading program designed by The College of William & Mary for gifted students, for example, units are grouped by autobiographies, literature from the 1940s and 19th-century literature.
"I sometimes have heard some people claim that there isn't a GT program. And I'd say that's not true at all," said Martin Creel, the director of enriched and innovative programs at the school systems.
But people like Marx and Board of Education member Laura V. Berthiaume (Dist. 2) of Rockville argue the school system doesn't actually use programs such as William & Mary's in the classroom consistently, if at all.
"There's absolutely no monitoring of it," Berthiaume said, noting that momentum seemed to be more on the side of the "No Labels" campaign.
Creel noted that non-GT students also have access to higher-level programs like William & Mary.
Other accelerated and advanced programs, like middle school magnets, and Centers for the Highly Gifted in Elementary School, don't require students to be labeled GT to enter. Only 3 percent to 4 percent of students in any given class get into the highly gifted centers and magnets.
Michelle Gluck, chairwoman of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Association's Gifted Child Subcommittee, noted that nationally, only 10 percent to 15 percent of students are typically identified as Gifted and Talented those who are academically superior.
"The fact is, not everybody can be GT if GT means anything," she said.
Asked how he'd respond to advocates like Cartland who ask why the GT label is necessary, Creel responded, "I'd say that's a good question."