The XX Factor

How Young Is Too Young for Gifted and Talented Programs?

Over on her excellent parenting blog yesterday, Janice D’Arcy posted on the Maryland State Board of Education’s new “gifted and talented” guidelines, which suggest that teachers begin to identify advanced children as early as pre-kindergarten. While supporters of the measure say that the policy would only encourage passive monitoring at the earliest ages, many other educators worry about the unfair exclusion of disadvantaged minorities and late-bloomers. D’Arcy explains:

Groups like the local chapters of the ACLU and NAACP are also pushing back against the regulations. Opponents fear that separating the youngest promising students — students whose skills at that age may be more a reflection of socioeconomic advantage than innate intelligence — will create a two-tiered educational system that will persist through high school graduation.

It’s hard to disagree with this critique. While like D’Arcy, I’d love to imagine that the G&T system could be “fluid and flexible enough to accommodate students at every age,” I just don’t think the reality bears that out. All too often these programs have the effect of separating (ghettoizing?) kids onto different educational tracks for the rest of their schooling years.

In my case, most of the classmates with whom I began my district’s G&T program (in the third grade) eventually graduated high school with enhanced diplomas of the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate variety; newcomers to the mix were rare. In the end, I can’t help but wonder if the critical thinking and research skills we were trained in early-on had more to do with our being “good at school” later—we’d had more practice, after all—than some kind of innate intelligence.

Still, while pre-K does seem far too young to start labeling kids, the worry that truly advanced students might be bored and unengaged without special attention is real, too. But to my mind, this is more a problem of what we expect of our teachers these days than evidence of a need for special classes. If, instead of being forced to obsess over ambiguous test scores and the meaningless evaluations based on them, teachers were allowed to run their classrooms with a more nuanced hand, they might have time to cater to students of all skill-levels.