Dear Care and Feeding,
My oldest child, “Julie,” is in fourth grade. She attends the local public school that is K-8 and generally has a great reputation: high test scores, small classes, experienced teachers, involved parents. Starting in fourth grade, there’s a “gifted” track kids can test into. Julie’s entire group of friends tested in and now attends all their classes together. Julie qualified, but my husband and I don’t believe in tracking or separating kids. We did not allow her to move into the gifted track. She took it hard at first, saying she has no friends anymore, all her friends are smart and she’s dumb, her teachers now know she’s dumb, etc. We continued to reassure and affirm her and thought she’d get over the adjustment by making new friends.
We’re now halfway through the year and Julie’s still heartbroken. She’s also begun saying classes are boring and too slow. Clearly, she isn’t thriving socially or academically. I know it seems insane to keep her out of a gifted program which would likely address the majority of these issues. But I absolutely don’t want to contribute to what I believe is the premature tracking of kids. This is a good school—all kids should be fine in general classes. It’s not like the “regular” track is full of kids who are in any way less deserving. How can we balance what’s good for our individual daughter, even if it’s not something we believe in?
— Gifted? In Georgia
Reading between the lines, it appears as though you allowed Julie to believe that she didn’t qualify for the program, and now as a result she is doubting her intelligence. I’m sure it would have been difficult to tell her that she did qualify and then explain the reasoning behind your decision not to let her enroll. But you made this choice—one that has had a real impact on her education, her social life, and, apparently, how she views herself—based on a principle you felt was important, and so it seems to me that, at minimum, you should have been able to explain that principle to her while being honest about her abilities. I don’t want to say you skipped a teachable moment—I think you skipped a parenting moment. I can’t say whether correcting the record now would do more harm than good, but if your daughter’s self-esteem has taken a hit based on false information that you either actively advanced or did not bother to correct, I don’t believe that’s right.
I’m not unsympathetic to your point about these programs: I also feel conflicted about the stratification or binning of students according to perceived ability at younger and younger ages, particularly if those separations then become rigid and don’t allow for kids to move between tracks. There’s no denying the reality of persistent and harmful inequities in education. And it would certainly not be okay if being in “regular” classes at your school, for example, meant that a student got less attention, support, resources, or access to quality teaching than their peers. But if the kids on the standard track are being taught well, by good teachers who care about their learning and progress—if in fact they’re able to get more help if they need it, or work at a more flexible pace when warranted—then I don’t think their educational rights are being trampled. Assessing students’ specific strengths and needs begins as soon as they start school—it can be tough to teach kids as individuals if you don’t have any idea how they’re doing individually!—and different kids do learn at different paces and have very different learning needs and styles. Tracks moving at different speeds and approaching the same curriculum in different ways are likely your school’s attempt (albeit an imperfect one) to meet individual students where they are and make sure that as many of them as possible are appropriately challenged, working at a level and a pace that’s right for them, and getting what they need in terms of support.
I agree with you 100 percent that kids on other tracks are no less deserving or capable of learning; I just don’t agree that the existence of an accelerated program implies that they are less deserving, and wonder if perhaps you’re the one projecting a judgment of superiority onto the “gifted” program that does not exist? Of course, you have every right to maintain that it’s an unacceptable practice, and draw a hard line. You can refuse to let your child participate in it. But if you make that decision, then you also need to accept the consequences: Julie may continue to feel upset where she is, and the next two years might be hard for her socially and academically. If that’s the case, you will need to listen to and validate her feelings: Don’t try to talk her out of how she feels, or tell her she just needs to have a better attitude or make new friends (though I would devote some time to explaining why “dumb” is not a word she should use to put herself or others down). She has a right to her feelings about her situation.
I think it’s important to note that Julie is nearing an age when this could and perhaps should be a decision you make together. Certainly by the time she’s in sixth or seventh grade, she should have a say in which classes she takes; you should not be unilaterally deciding her schedule with no input from her in middle or high school. If you intend to allow her to enroll in accelerated courses at that point (assuming she still qualifies) it might be worth asking yourself whether her unhappiness is worth a delay of only one or two years. If I were in your position, I think I’d prefer to sit with my own conflicted feelings about these programs—and/or make room to question or expand my thinking—than force my child to endure years of boredom, broken friendships, and lowered self-esteem.
More Advice From Slate
We recently hosted a get-together with new-parent friends where we played some video games, cooked dinner, went for a walk, and let the kids play in the backyard while we made small talk. It was one of the most positive and beneficial (and only) social interactions of our entire summer. We have similar parenting styles, values, and professions. The kids behaved nicely, the conversation flowed smoothly. Textbook summer garden party. I texted our friends the day after to thank them for their great company and received nothing back. I checked in after a week, and they called me and proceeded to (gently) berate our parenting style and suggested we take anger management courses and seek out therapy to correct and prevent the harm we are doing to ourselves and our children!