Friday, May 10, 2013

Learning vs. Education--Where Do We Go from Here?

Science fiction and fantasy love the gifted.  Heroes like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Benedict Society, and especially Ender Wiggin1 are social outsiders who discover their gifts and use them to save the world.  That must be why my boys love these books.  They can see themselves in their pages.

Fairy tales love the underdog who in the end discovers special gifts that triumph over evil. As a child, Beauty and the Beast was my favorite story.  Belle was a bookworm who discovered that it didn’t matter if you were like everyone else.  I could be Belle as I read her story.

Movies love the gifted.  Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets’ Society, Shine, and A Beautiful Mind address the joys of being gifted while presenting many of the challenges in realistic ways, while Batman and Iron Man use genius thinking and applied technology in order to save the world.

The music world, the sports world, the technology world—they all champion genius, and through buying their music, attending their games, and buying their products, we all consciously or unconsciously show our support for creative thinking and superior achievement.

So why is it that our public school system can’t seem to find a place for gifted kids?  Your comments this week gave me much to think about.

Many of you saw yourselves in my posts, for the first time in your lives recognizing the responsibility the school system shoulders in teaching our kids to learn.  Myke said, “I’m nearly convinced that public school did fail me,” and Karen added, “This was such a validation for me.”  Others of you, who had participated in gifted education, shared your experiences. Dawn described her son’s public school experience like this: “David has the brain of a rocket scientist but no ambition to build one. . . . [School] failed us both dismally.  He didn’t need more homework, he needed better CLASS work to stimulate his young mind.” And Robin said, “I learned in high school that I didn’t have to study or work hard to get As and Bs . .  . so I wondered why should I?” Pondside confirmed that this isn’t just an American school issue, when she wrote about Canada: “ I’ll never, ever forget walking into his classroom one day to find a teacher dealing with two special needs students and an aid dealing with another, while the rest of the class chattered and moved about.  There, in the middle of the room, with his head on his desk, was my son.”

Lauren, a young woman I have known most of her life, added insight from the perspective of the academically and intellectually gifted.  She wrote, “I feel like I spent most of my effort working to figure out what a teacher wanted rather than actually learning. . . . I never developed the skill of figuring things out myself. . . . I have spent much of my life working for something I don’t really agree with: grades. . . . Public schooling . . . often forces the creativity out of students in the process [of fostering an academic skill set].”

These experiences saddened me and made me see that this problem is even bigger than I thought.  Why has no one stood up before now in defense of gifted kids whose needs are being ignored?  I don’t know the complete answer to that question, but I do have one guess. 

Living in a democratic society, we believe that we all are guaranteed the same rights—rights to religion, rights to representation, rights to pursue happiness.  Tied up in all that is the belief that an educated people is a better people.  So far I agree.  I understand that lurking in our country’s history are the ugly heads of racism, segregation, sexism, bigotry, and prejudice. I know that inequality in education has been legislated in other periods, and I can accept the fear that any attempt to educate children differently could turn into elite classes and remedial classes. 

No Child Left Behind” was implemented with good intentions for a few students that resulted in negative consequences for most of the rest. Testing has become rampant in our schools.  Tests are administered at the beginning of the year to compare with tests at the end.  Tests are given to monitor how a child ranks against his peers, how a child improved this year, how a child can write a story.  Classroom tests for students serve a dual purpose in that they also exist to monitor teachers.  Teachers’ salaries are often based on classroom results.  These tests measure how effectively that teacher taught her class that year.

In theory, anyway.

In reality, these tests have swayed the momentum of education from learning something because it’s interesting (history) or exciting (chemistry) or necessary (writing) to learning something “because it’s going to be on the test.”  Education has been narrowed to tests, and in the process, it has almost completely eliminated learning just for the pure joy of learning. This frustration is felt not only by students, but by their teachers as well. G left this comment: “This year I ventured to [teaching at] a charter school. . . . It’s refreshing to finally be able to have the freedom to extend and enrich, rather than be a walking DIBELS or AMS score.” Teachers are so linked to their test scores that they routinely ignore the gifted (and the high achieving) in their classrooms to focus on the low students.  While it is important to help those who struggle, test results shouldn’t be their motivation.  Kerri said her achieving but not gifted son “gets to sit back and (do busy work), wait while many students are trying to catch up with the help of Title 1 tutors, aides, etc.”  Karen added that making most students wait for the slowest kid in the class “demeans those who were chomping at the bit to go further.”  I couldn’t have said that better myself—chomping to go further, but instead bored and more bored.

Besides the plethora of standardized tests that must be prepared for and administered (sucking up most of the classroom instruction time available for the last 4-6 weeks of school, depending on the school district and the tests used), there is the issue of funding.  I hate that this issue has to involve money, but money is important for gifted programs.  Unfortunately, there isn’t any.  Here are some facts about funding gifted education: "Funding for gifted education programs today is inadequate and upsetting. The National Association for Gifted Children (2009) notes that the federal government provides only two cents of every hundred dollars spent on education to gifted children. . . . Not only do gifted education programs suffer from a severe lack of funds, they also experience frequent cuts from their tight budgets. Ward (2005) discusses how the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is negatively affecting gifted students around the United States by cutting elective programs for gifted children in order to raise money to boost the test scores of the lower-performing students (Ward, 2005, p. 46). 2   Parents of lower-performing students would never stand back and let their students’ budgets be cut this way. It would be national news.

More from your own personal experience: Cindy said, “They recently cut all enrichment funding at our schools [in Illinois], and it took a parent lead group raising money and writing grants to get some mediocre programs put back in place.  Very discouraging.”  I know that our school district also cut all funding for gifted education—no field trips, no teacher conferences, no nothing. Why is this not in the forefront of educational funding discussions? 

Why are we sitting back and allowing this to happen in our schools all across the country?  I have held the hope that somehow this issue would be addressed satisfactorily, but it just keeps getting worse. “It is a crime,” Sue stated, “that, more and more, our public education aims for the lowest common denominator.”  And Gabe wrote, “It’s all about ‘cookie cuttering’ our kids, trying to make them all the same.” What schools and society refuse to admit as fact is that we are not all the same, the gifted will “always be ‘different,’”3, and that the gifted “are special ed kids too.”4

Using the rungs of the ladder as an analogy, picture each child you’ve ever known (or the child you once were).  Each one is born with intellectual abilities or disabilities that place them on a rung of that ladder.

This is my question for public education: Is it better to assemble all the kids onto one middle rung of the ladder, or to assist each child in climbing just one rung higher?  Would those on the higher rungs be satisfied moving down a few rungs, just because public education thinks that is the best solution?  I hope the answer is no.  I have to believe the answer is no.

Think where our gifted kids could be if the funding were there to push them higher and further—places we haven’t yet dreamed, but places they are fully capable of reaching?

The underlying issues with education are this: Teaching to help the lowest child in the class is losing most of the rest, not just the gifted.  Teaching to tests is not improving our international academic standing.  Teaching to the lowest denominator is not fostering creativity or extraordinary achievement.

Matt commented that “dealing with the gifted is frustrating.”  I agree.  It is.  It’s hard and it’s exhausting and it seems like it’s easier to shove them in a corner with a book than try to find a solution.  I get that.  I also agree with Laraine’s comment that it probably isn’t realistic to assume that a public institution, dedicated to serving all, can possibly reach the one.  If it were just one kid, then I would agree, but this is an entire demographic of kids whose needs have been ignored for far too long. 

So—kids are gifted and school is failing them.

So—kids aren’t gifted and school is failing them.

Sounds to me like something is wrong with our schools, and I think I’ve identified the problem.

School districts today are so focused on test results and teaching kids to perform well on tests that they are missing the biggest assignment they have.

Schools are failing to teach kids to love learning.

Meg said, “The educational community abhors making distinctions when it comes to individual performance . . . but if and ever our government sets up a standardized test that rewards teachers and students who display ‘standout’ performance then the whole culture would change.”

I don’t know if the solution to help gifted kids (and all kids) in an academic setting lies is grouping by ability, tracking systems, classrooms of all high- medium- or low-achieving kids, or what.  What I do know is that the system is broken for all of them, and if we somehow can get public education focused back on learning for learning’s sake, then all of them will benefit.  Wouldn’t you much rather catch your own caterpillar and watch in change into a butterfly than read about and define the term metamorphosis?  Wouldn’t you rather dream up your own fairy tale than write for a prompt?  Wouldn’t you rather figure out how long it would take you to save $100 for a skateboard if you earn $5/week, than do sheets and sheets of math facts?  I think we all would, and so probably do our kids.

I have had an underlying reason for this recent obsession with gifted education.  I do not believe that every child is born intellectually gifted.  I have kids that fall on different rungs of the intelligence ladder. As a parent, I have always mothered from this perspective, “In order to treat you all fairly, I have to treat you differently.”  That doesn’t mean that I love my gifted kids more or treat my not gifted kids any differently.

I’ve written this week about growing up as a gifted kid.  I wrote about my two oldest sons, who are also gifted.  Of my two younger boys, Micah is in the gifted program at our school, and Hyrum, who is completing kindergarten, is too young to have been assessed yet.  Hyrum is still in that stage where everything he learns is exciting and wonderful and new and he has to share it with me whenever he can.  He has had a fantastic teacher this year5 who recognizes his abilities and passion for learning and pushes him to learn new things.  Kindergarten has taught him to obey rules, to wait his turn, and that there is something new to learn every day, whether it’s germination, addition, subtraction, or story writing.  It has been a fabulous year for him, and I could have asked for nothing better.

Micah started out the year excited to be attending the gifted program after a slight complication delayed his attendance for a few weeks.  He has one of the best teachers I have ever had the pleasure of working with, and she tries to challenge him as often as possible.  She took one whole afternoon of school to teach the kids about a cicada, just because they found one on the sidewalk.  She has implemented graphing systems for Micah to track his grades and has recommended books to challenge his reading ability.  She asked the class to write a poem for the district writing competition, and when Micah asked what the most difficult kind of poem was, she challenged him to write a doublet, which won the district writing contest. Of the over 500 third graders in MPS, two of Mrs. S’s students placed in that writing competition.  She is that good.

Even though she is doing her best with Micah, in a classroom full of kids on different rungs of the ladder, Micah’s interest in school is waning.  I see it in his grades—slipping from perfect to not so perfect, to why does it matter, I know the answer?  I see it in his effort—penmanship that is less than stellar, problems missed out of carelessness.  I see it in his excitement to attend school; even his ELP class hasn’t captured his attention.

I took the three little kids to the zoo and I was amazed as I watched their minds process details and information about the animals.  Micah’s mind leaped from the fact that stingrays and sharks are cousins to ask a question to which the guide didn’t even know the answer.5

I’m scared.  I see Micah walking that same road that his older brothers walked, and I am powerless to stop him.  I see the light of learning slowly being extinguished, and no matter how hard I fan the flame, it's going out. 

Resolve with me to fight for our kids and the light of learning that they carry. “If we wish our children to change the world in the ways in which they are capable, we need to open up opportunities for them.”7  Find ways to help in your schools and change your policies.  The solution for me isn’t home school, since my kids already get all I have to give (and listen so much better to someone else anyway), but if it is for you and your family, be strong in your decision.

I don’t know the answers.  In fact, I barely know where to begin.  What I do know is that it’s not too late for him.  And I refuse to go down without a fight.8
1Especially Ender.  Ender’s Game is one of the best books ever for young gifted kids.

2Somehow in my research I lost the reference for this quote.  So I'm not perfect. Neither is P!ink.

3Mommy to 4


5 The boys' teachers are discussed in depth in this post.

6In case you wanted to know, stingrays don’t have eyelids either, as Micah has correctly surmised from what he already knew of sharks.  His mind works in such an exciting way, in a way that is seldom utilized during a school day.

7Quote from my gifted teacher friend Dawn

8If you had told me that one day I would write a blog post with notated references and scholarly links, I would have laughed.  Now I know that anything's possible if you are passionate enough about the subject.  Next week--back to the fluff and stuff that normally fills this space.  Oh--and Tucker comes home.  There is that small item of business.  Thanks for bearing with me on my week-long rant.  I'd love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment!


  1. You want my thoughts? A broken record - I think you should get into politics. Maybe you could change something.

  2. I will say this Jen, school is just a fraction of your kids education. If you keep fanning the flame as you said, your kids will keep learning. I've learned that while I send my kids to school, they often learn the most at home or in our family life was we try and bring them as many experiences as we can. I know people look at us crazy because we are always traveling with our kids, but that is one way I have learned to enrich my kids lives. I do what I know works and for my kids going and doing works.

    I hear your frustration and see it in my kids. My Drew loved to write, he always wrote then a teacher told him he wasn't writing the way they wanted and now he hates writing.

    I don't know what the solution is, I've just learned to savor the years that my kids have good teachers.

  3. Excellent post. I have really enjoyed the thoughts and ideas you've put forth. You have a really firm grasp on what is going on with public schools as well as the consequences of the possibilities.

    My personal opinion is that education should be handled on a community level. Teachers should be directly accountable to the parents of their students rather than some far-off national government.
    Also, the TEST which is the polarizing issue among parents, educators and administrators. There must be some method to measure progress and skills and knowledge obtained. All we hear about is how evil the test is but our nation demands standardized tests for entrance into many post graduate programs as well as board ceritfication tests before beginning one's career. I personally don't believe that the TEST is the problem.
    There are many problems which lead to our education problems. But if our communities handled the education of their children, instead of some talking head politician whose children attended private schools, then change would take place.

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  5. This is a comment that was emailed to me.

    I am torn when it comes to this subject. I have kids on all parts of the spectrum: gifted, average, and needing the help of the Title 1 funded programs to learn how to read. I know that in Mesa there are parents that are in direct discussion with the superintendent working towards finding a solution for the gifted children. The truth is this...the funding from the federal government has so many stipulations and so much paperwork involved and is specifically given to help those falling behind (at least in the case of a Title school).

    Now comes that part where I am torn. If my child is gifted, chances are they will grow up and be successful in what they choose to do. If they are "bored" in school and that is their worst struggle, well, I don't feel too bad (and as I explained, I do have a gifted child). If my child cannot read, they will eventually become a burden to society.

    I am also an instructional assistant at the elementary school so I see these programs in action every single day, ELP and Title programs. And I am not an advocate of "no child left behind".

    I agree with what you are saying. I honestly do. But you haven't mentioned if you have a child on the other end of the spectrum. If you did, it might change your perspective a little. It wouldn't change the fact that the gifted are definitely being given the shaft, you might just have a little more tolerance for the time spent in helping those that can't even read.

    By the way, I know you are a wonderful person and mother, even though you don't know me. My sisters were mentioned in your marathon post (Hope & Jill).

    Here was my response:
    This is interesting to hear. I don't have a child on the other end of the spectrum, but I do have one not in school yet, so she still may surprise me.

    I do sympathize with the learning disabled kids and getting lost in a classroom. I think that most people recognize that problem, and that's why they have the bulk of the funding and the bulk of the attention and I think they probably need it.

    However, your comment that "gifted kids are getting the shaft" is the problem I am addressing. This problem is invisible to most people and even to some teachers, who harbor the opinion that they may be bored now but they'll be ok. I don't think that is always the case. There is just as serious danger in losing a gifted kid to an inability to function in society as there is to a child with disabilities getting lost in the shuffle (think Asberger's or other similar problems). What most people don't realize is that those gifts can end up being classified as disabilities and be just as crippling to living an independent life. Have you seen A Beautiful Mind or Shine? Both of these movies deal realistically with some of the problems that plague profoundly gifted people.

    I think all children would benefit from a reworking of the system, especially focusing on learning more than testing.

    What I had really intended when I began this series was to advocated for pulling gifted kids completely out of regular classrooms most of the time so that they can be taught at their speed, but I wonder if that would truly benefit all students the most, so I stopped before writing that, thinking my opinion through before I decide completely on my stance.

    Like I said, I don't know exactly what the solution is, I just know something needs to be done.
    Thanks for your comment and your perspective.

  6. As a teacher it has been interesting reading your posts all week. There is a lot I agree with and a lot that I disagree with. There are two points I'd like to make.

    First, saying that schools are failing kids is too broad of a statement. The truth is that the schools are failing some kids.

    Schools are a reflection of society in general. I can't think of a system (health care, church, etc) that we have in society that in some way doesn't fail or let people fall through the cracks.

    In 23 years of teaching I've seen some parents do and say things that you would NEVER believe. But I could never say that parents are failing their children. The truth is that some parents are failing their children.

    Second, you have to be your child's strongest advocate.

    When you see things that don't work for your child you have to be the agent of change. This is true for ANY student no matter what type of learner they are from gifted to average to learning disabled.

    You have a stonger voice and more power than any teacher that works in the school. I can beg for resources for students until I'm blue in the face and it isn't until the parents speak up that something finally happens. Don't give up, educate yourself on what is best for your children, and move forward every day.

    And lastly, please know that the vast majority of teachers are doing the best they can do. Just as I know that the vast majority of parents are doing the best they can do.

  7. What an interesting series this has been. I wish I knew the answers, but I do think that "No Child Left Behind" has had unintended negative consequences.

    We were educating our kids far better when I was young. Maybe some of the answers lie in looking back to the past ideas and combining them with present information and technology to come up with a better future.


  8. I've been thinking a lot about this series. Like some who have commented, I have kids on many sides--gifted OR struggling to keep up.

    I have a child who I believe to be one of those rare intellectually-AND-academically gifted. Which I am sure sounds nice, but man I wish that kid had to study at all. He isn't learning disappointment very well, because he rarely is. When he doesn't get everything right, he can't deal. He needs to be PUSHED and feel failure on occasion, but there is little inside the schools that offer the extent of pushing that he needs.

    My oldest doesn't think linearly. She is genius artistically and creatively, but the test scores and cookie cutter education get her down and frustrated. I disagree that her art is lauded and respected as would be athletics. In fact, I think it is almost treated condescendingly, with a proverbial pat on the head because she can't do anything else.

    My third is a closet intellectually-gifted student. I explained him once to his teacher as "apathetic" and she readily agreed. He acts as though he doesn't know what's going on because it is easier that way. He is totally lazy, educationally. His teacher is worried about his 1st grade reading not being up to par, but he reads Harry Potter out loud to me at home. He has found that being mediocre is a lot easier than being smart in school.

    The problem is, while I agree with you on a lot of points (and I understand that you have been at this a lot longer than I have-and with more children), your frustrations about gifted children not being treated appropriately comes across a lot like the child who says, "I got all of the answers right and didn't even study."

    Your kids are smart. They are compared to Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Lincoln. I wouldn't call that bad company. Misunderstood genius is a rough road to take in life, to be certain, but it is kind of like the gorgeous 6-ft model saying, "I was so awkward and everyone made fun of me for being so skinny." Of course that isn't great to be teased, but you want to scream at her "ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I am supposed to feel sorry for your knock-out body and perfect face?"

    You mentioned that if kids are athletically-gifted that parents can put them in programs to accelerate their abilities. These programs are super expensive. My sister has a child in this category and I am exhausted hearing about his schedule and all the money required to keep him there. There are two boys in my ward that got a perfect score on the SATs this year. Two out of eight in the entire state of Utah are in my neighborhood. And I see how much time and energy their parents put into their education. They are shuttled to different schools, extra programs, and they don't spare any time for sports, scouts, etc. I don't think the sports and academics are much different.

    The testing at schools has got to change. For sure. If I could afford private school, I would sincerely consider it. As it is, I cannot, and my kids are going to be OK. I am expecting tears, shouting, and loads of frustration. I am expecting grades that will make parents and children angry and possibly a few times where we will need to fight them. I am hopeful that my kids will want to keep learning past high school and that there will still be institutions that offer these opportunities commiserate to their talents and needs.

    I guess there is no lasting point to my comment. I appreciate you bringing this up and laying it out so articulately. It has definitely been in my thoughts for days.

  9. * commensurate NOT commiserate


  10. i wish that your series could be printed in the new york times.

  11. p.s. "cornerstone preschool" was me posting comments. didn't realize i was posting comments under the preschool blog that i manage, love it when that happens:) ha

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