When I was eight, I was selected for my school board’s gifted program. I would spend the next nine years of my life taking early-morning buses across town, undertaking weird projects with a small group of other precocious kids. It set me on a winding track through university, grad school, and now to my current precarious writing lifestyle. It was something I took a kind of pride in.
But recently, the existence of programs like these have come into question. This summer, aschool diversity task force in New York issued a report recommending the abolition of its own gifted and talented program, condemning it as racially biased and counterproductive. The report cites damning statistics — black and Latino students are dramatically underrepresented in the program, which separates students young based on a single test taken at kindergarten age.
My own gifted class experience is hardly a rebuttal to this charge. In my first five years in the program, I can remember one non-white kid. Our cultural concept of genius is distinctly white and male, so it’s easy to see how teachers asked to identify talented children would draw on this same idea. Other critics argue that such early testing draws not on inherent talent, but on children whose parents have the time and resources to introduce them to reading and math skills at an early age.
Ironically, the proliferation of gifted classes may have created a generation of educated, politically progressive adults looking to abolish them. Search “gifted class” on Twitter, and you’ll find a variety of complaints by former gifted kids, who see the designation as having given them false confidence that later lead to burn-out. What’s more, the whole enterprise cuts against the blank-slate approach of contemporary progressivism and the desire to direct resources to those in need rather than those who are succeeding.
With the typical contemporary rhetorical escalation and moral dudgeon, gifted programs have been labelled as racist and “eugenics” by some. I certainly sympathize with the desire to ensure the public school system is egalitarian, and yet I find myself defensive of the gifted class concept. Is it possible to identify kids as having unequal skills and talents without treating them unequally?
Gifted classes do address a genuine need. I was actually struggling in mainstream education — bored by the material, I hid under desks and wanted to play computer games all day. (Some things haven’t changed.) I didn’t get along with my classmates. Moving to a class that allowed me to be more creative, to make friends with people who approached the world in something closer to the way I did, was a huge benefit to my life.
At the same time, a gifted class is a rather blunt and one-dimensional solution to the problem of children learning at different levels. Designating kids as inherently “gifted” at a young age, like they’re X-Men, flattens out the complexity and variation of human development. When I was nine, I was considerably ahead of the curve for language and math, about average for science and social studies, and behind my peers’ development in terms of physical and social skills. What made me worthy of being highlighted as “gifted”, and encouragement to focus on areas in which I excelled, rather than correction to the ones I was lacking in?
This brings us back to one of the core principles of our school system, the sorting of children based purely on age. This system assumes an essential homogeneity of development, with a few exceptions that can be safely quarantined off into their own classes. It assumes that children will advance at the same rate, regardless of the resources they have outside school, and that difficulties are simply a matter of innate ability or lack thereof. Of course, within the system teachers work tirelessly to help kids who are having difficulties, to treat them like a person with their own unique trajectory instead of simply a pace-horse, but they are always fighting against an institution that tells kids otherwise.
If we must abolish the gifted class, then, let it not be in favour of dumping kids back into the mainstream and assuming that their talents will lead them to success regardless. The families that actually are privileged won’t be hurt by this solution; they will always be able to find a private school or after-school program that can help develop their kid’s “specialness” and show it to university administrators. The only blow such a move would strike would be against talented kids from working-class or poor families.
Instead, we should endeavour to reform the educational system in a way that offers more possibilities and more nuance for students, no matter where they are on their educational track. This may mean focusing less on instantaneous evaluation through grades and more on the gradual evolution of skills. It may mean more flexibility in student placement throughout the early grades. Whatever it looks like, we should strive to make sure every class resembles the gifted classroom, not the other way around.