I am, upon occasion, tempted to think the idiocy I’ve seen in academia has run its course, that the high water mark has been reached. Then the good folks at Powerline come up with something like this:
The Washington Post reports that the Montgomery County school district (which covers an affluent suburban county just outside of Washington, D.C.) is concerned about racial disparities in its ‘gifted student’ programs. A report it commissioned found marked disparities by race and ethnicity in enrollment and acceptance rates, with white and Asian students faring much better than their black and Hispanic counterparts.
The report notes, for example, that enrollment in the district’s elementary centers for the highly gifted was 47 percent white, 34 percent Asian, 8 percent African American, 8 percent low-income and 4 percent Latino in the 2013-2014 school year. In Montgomery Blair High School’s elite math, science and computer science program, enrollment is 57 percent Asian and 28 percent white. African American and Hispanic enrollment are each less than 5 percent.
Before we proceed, let’s define just what a “gifted” or “gifted and talented” (GT) or “advanced placement” student is. As a teacher of such students, I have, perhaps, some small insight.
GT kids are those capable of doing more, faster, and to a higher level of accomplishment than their peers. They’re not only the kids that obviously “get it,” they tend to be self-starters, kids that enjoy learning, who actually crave it. They tend to be self-motivated, and also have a host of other character traits and behaviors that set them apart from others. Most tend to actually like to read, though this no longer is absolutely true for the current generation of kids tested into a stupor from the first day they set foot in a classroom.
These are the kids with bigger vocabularies than their fellows. They write better, think better, have a much larger frame of reference, and tend to get adult humor much more readily than their peers. In some respects, they tend to be more comfortable with adults than with peers.
Though this be horrifically politically incorrect, GT kids are more intelligent than others. Yes, believe it or not, in academic pursuits, intelligence matters. Being smart is not only an advantage, it is absolutely necessary.
In short, they stand out. Generally, they are easily identified, and by a relatively early age, everyone—students and teachers alike–knows precisely who is and is not a part of the GT crowd. Not every GT kid takes exclusively GT classes. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the classes they’re taking in a given semester, they might opt out of a GT English or math class merely for time management reasons. And there are certainly GT-capable kids in regular classes simply because they don’t want to work harder, and don’t crave the extra intellectual stimulation.
To analyze disparities like these, two key questions must be asked. First, at what rates are the various groups applying for admission into such programs? Second, what are the selection criteria?
We need to know the population distribution of the various ethnic/racial groups. We also need to know the past academic accomplishments of each individual. Few kids suddenly discover in high school that they have become gifted and/or talented such that they’re ready to make the leap to GT classes. However, some kids want to get into GT classes because a friend is in one, and some parents want to thrust kids into GT classes for status or political reasons. Both circumstances are grave mistakes, and tend to push kids that would pass, even excel, in regular classes, into situations that will inevitably cause them to fail, even to lose class credit.
There is one additional issue that is absolutely vital, and which puts everything else into context, but I’ll save that until later.
As to the first question — applicant flow — it is clear from the report that minority group members aren’t applying at as a high a rate as others. The report tries to attribute this to failure by the school system to let ‘Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, non-English-speaking, and low-income families’ know about the programs.
Obviously the reason such kids aren’t applying cannot possibly be that they are choosing not to apply? Surely there can’t possibly be cultural differences between White and Asian cultures and Black and Hispanic cultures? It just couldn’t be possible that White, and particularly Asian, cultures value academic achievement and education more than Black and Hispanic cultures, could it? The report must be right: the schools are trying to hide the GT program.
But the report also says this:
‘[The schools system] has developed and implemented a wide variety of communication tools to share information about the programs with parents and community members. These include printed materials that are mailed to MCPS households in seven languages; information on the district’s website and PTA listserves and webpages; informational meetings at local schools in English and Spanish; program-level Open Houses; and outreach through school-based counselors, staff, and principals.’
Ruh-roh, Shaggy! So what’s the problem? Perhaps the printed materials should be in eight or nine languages? Billboards? Hire the Goodyear Blimp to fly over the city 24/7 with the message flashing on its bigger than billboard flanks, repeated in multiple languages? Vulcan mind melds with every student?
According to the report, some parents of minority students complain that even with the outreach described above, they are ‘require[d] to conduct independent research.’ The horror! [skip]
Now, let’s consider the selection process. How does Montgomery County decide who gets into its programs for gifted students?
According to the report, the school district ‘utilizes multiple indicators in the selection process that include, in addition to cognitive assessments, teacher recommendations and other school-based input, report card grades, unique student profiles, demographic data such as eligibility for free and reduced-price meals, and the lack of an intellectual peer group at the home school.’
Clearly, then, the school district is already fudging its definition of gifted — e.g., by relying on demographic data such as eligibility for free and reduced price meals (what does getting a free lunch have to do with being gifted?). But the report complains that given the lack of diversity among those selected, ‘the process may rely too heavily on one or more indicators or may need to consider additional measures of student ability.
Yes. One or more indicators like high intelligence or demonstrated exceptional academic ability? Keep in mind, gentle readers, that accepting kids that are clearly not up to the level of accomplishment, ability, understanding and speed required in GT classes is not a kindness, for they will, sooner rather than later, fail and fail badly. What will that do to their fragile self-esteem? Every year we end up removing several kids from GT classes because they are simply not capable of doing the work at a minimal level. GT kids are like graduate students—at least before graduate school substituted social justice attitude for academic achievement—in that they are expected to maintain an “A” average. GT kids are always comparing their scores on individual assignments and in the class overall. They’re very competitive.
There are surely GT kids that might be getting free and reduced lunch benefits, but that says nothing more about their fitness for GT classes than their shoe size or resting heart rate. Teacher recommendations are useful only in vetting kids not known to a teaching staff, as in 9th grade students coming to high school for the first time from another campus, or kids moving into a new school district.
The report doesn’t say which indicators may be relied on too heavily. But you don’t have to be gifted to realize that the authors think there’s too much reliance on cognitive assessments (i.e., test scores), the traditional and most sensible single tool with which to determine who is gifted.
Actually, test scores are not the most sensible tool. Every year, genuinely GT kids fail such tests. They often think too deeply, or argue with themselves that there are no good, correct answers to questions, and they’re right, but that causes them to fail. The most reliable tool is past performance in GT classes. Years of accomplishments reflective of intelligence rather than a single data point best reflect ability. However, we sometimes accept kids that are clearly not GT material, because they really want to take a class, and are willing to work very hard. These kids, even though they don’t achieve as much as GT kids, generally pass, and learn a very great deal, much more than they would in a “regular” class. They are, however, rare. Here we are dealing with determination rather than raw intellect and academic ability.
The report recommends that the selection criteria be broadened ‘to include noncognitive measures such as motivation and persistence, using group-specific norms that benchmark student performance against school peers with comparable backgrounds.’ In other words, it wants the district to grade on a racially based curve.
Using the curve, programs for gifted would admit (1) students who actually are gifted and (2) students who are gifted only in comparison to ‘peers with comparable backgrounds.’ Because space is limited, by including the latter group, the district would exclude some in the former group — i.e., actually gifted students.
Of course it would, which is the point, particularly if those excluded kids are White, or particularly Asian. It’s just not socially just to have too many actual GT kids in GT classes, particularly if they’re Asians.
Motivation and persistence are great attributes, but if they aren’t reflected in exceptional test scores and academic performance, they don’t make one ‘gifted.’ Moreover, doing well in relation to ‘peers with comparable backgrounds’ doesn’t even demonstrate strong motivation and persistence if one’s peers lack motivation and persistence.
I cannot repeat this enough: GT kids are expected to carry “A” averages, and not just “A” averages, but very high “A” averages, closer to 100% than 90%. They must be capable of doing more work than their peers, at a substantially higher level of accomplishment, and much more rapidly. Putting anyone not up to those standards in a GT class is malpractice. It actually harms them, because they will, and quickly, fail. How does knowingly setting kids up for embarrassing and inevitable failure achieve equality or any other irrational social justice goal? Or are other motivations involved?
Montgomery Blair’s math, science, and computer science program has produced more Intel Science Talent Search finalists since 1999 than any school in the United States. But students who get into the program with “mismatched” credentials won’t win talent searches. In fact, they will probably struggle unless the program is dumbed down.
Unfortunately, dumbing down gifted programs appears to be what Montgomery County is fixing to do. These programs, such as Montgomery Blair’s staggeringly successful one, are slated to be another casualty in the war on standards.
There are indeed people around the country that disagree with the very idea of GT classes, because their mere existence causes non-GT kids–and their parents–to feel inferior. These are the people who demand the same outcomes regardless of individual ability or effort. The nail that sticks up must be hammered down. We see the same motivations in our military with Obamite social justice warriors trying to dumb down requirements for combat soldiers, and even elite special forces units.
I have not seen the report involved in this article, but I am certain it will be lacking one essential element: any evidence of a single genuinely qualified Black or Hispanic GT student, one with a high IQ, one with years of GT accomplishment, denied entrance into the program. The kind of complaints that produced this, and every similar, report have to do with statistical disparity, not reality. Show me the qualified student denied admittance, and that’s easily remedied. But that’s not what social justice warriors seek to fix. They don’t care about individuals; they care about vindicating their ideology, and about money and power. Individuals are useful only in their utility toward achieving those goals, and are always thrown under the school bus when they stray from the ideological reservation, or their utility wanes.
The greatest tragedy is that money and power tend to be the driving force behind the tidal currents roiling education these days. If GT programs are sufficiently dumbed down, there will be no one in the next generation bright enough to fix that problem. Which just might be the point.