The Tantrum: Is Gifted & Talented Evil?

October 20th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  23 Comments

classroomI went to the season’s first New York Public Schools Gifted and Talented information session on Monday night. Whatever I was supposed to get out of the meeting, I came away with this: the K-5 Gifted and Talented program seems like an almost complete sham, but I might still try to get my daughter into it.

Several hundred parents and a handful of coughing kids filled the downstairs auditorium at Brandeis High School for almost two hours. As theater, it was atrocious: a starched woman with librarian glasses and an Edwardian collar reading the Gifted and Talented program’s website–verbatim at times–to a simultaneously bored and anxious crowd (the last open house I went to–for pre-K–was just as stiffly presented).

But it wasn’t the lack of entertainment value that angered me about last night. It was that the speakers could make no case for why Gifted and Talented is better than general education. The Gifted and Talented program seems to be defined only by its barriers to entry: you must score in the 90th percentile or higher to get into a district-wide program, and 97th percentile or higher to get into a citywide program. The test is, for a four-year-old, an alien battery of exams that lasts up to 90 minutes, administered by a stranger without a parent in the room. They are the booklet-based OLSAT (which although cheaper to administer, is far less natural than the observation-based Stanford-Binet test that NYC used to use) and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment.

Not only that, but they made it quite clear that there were no extra resources available to G&T classrooms, and that class size would, if anything, be even larger. “People tend to think that Gifted and Talented classes are smaller,” she said. “Au contraire.” (you can tell she’s gifted coz she speaks French!) Turns out the Teachers Union specifically allows for gifted classes to be larger than general education classes.

Nor could she point to any broad curriculum differences between general education and gifted and talented. That all depends on the teacher, she said, and besides, all levels are guided by the same statewide standards (blech).

She did announce that if we had concerns with the quality of our kid’s gifted and talented instruction, we should meet with the teacher. If a few meetings didn’t resolve the issue, then we could go up the chain. Actually, what she said was, “If after a few meetings you are still not satisfied, you may request a three-way.”

A three-way with the teacher isn’t really what I had in mind, but OK: I’m sure it’s backed by the latest research.

But seriously: what is K-5 Gifted and Talented about, then? If they have no extra funding, (potentially) larger class sizes, and are defined only by the fact that the students did well on this odd little exam, then the only people the programs really serves are the parents. It’s the parents who are such vain little strivers that they would get all excited about putting their child through a testing process to get them into a program with such illusory benefits.

Viewed more dimly, G&T is most successful at allowing well-heeled parents to feel good about their choice to send their children to public schools. Gifted & Talented means they won’t have to put darling Jayden in the unwashed hordes in general education.

Meanwhile, that’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because G&T does take many of the kids of the parents who care enough about the richness of their children’s kindergarten experience to go through the test  and segregate them out of regular classrooms. It diminishes the diversity, on many levels, in both sides of the school. And to that end, it’s no less dangerous than private schools are to the presumed mission of public education in this country: free and equal education for all.

And yet.

I think I will sign my daughter up for the test. This makes me a rank hypocrite in a lot of ways. Yes, I’m curious how she’ll do at concentrating for that long (it could go either way), but I don’t need that test to tell me that I have a bright and curious child. Nor would I get too excited if she didn’t pass, because I think this OLSAT is abitrary and incredibly narrow.

But if she scores well, I also think I might enroll her in Gifted and Talented, if the schools look good. And here’s the thing: I don’t even  really know why. If I can shirk my own responsibility here for a moment, let me blame society: Like a lot of modern parents, I am strangely compelled by the idea that I should be lifting up my kids through my own effort, industriousness, and cleverness. Even when it’s just a nameplate, an empty signifier, like a Gifted Kindergarten class. We all want to be “good” parents, and good parents get their kids into Gifted and Talent. God help us all.


  1. Didactic Pirate says:

    October 20th, 2010at 9:40 am(#)

    We want opportunities for our kids. Even if we can’t put our finger on the tangibility of that opportunity, we still want it for them. Wanting that doesn’t make you a hypocrite. Just makes you a Dad.

    I do think that if enrolling your child in one doesn’t mean a smaller class size, then it’s a questionable track to follow. But if i were in your shoes, I bet I’d still have my kid take the test too. How can we not?

    This was a great post. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Nathan says:

    October 20th, 2010at 10:46 am(#)

    Thanks, Didactic. I guess my problem with the quest to always do better is that it can go off the rails so easily. We don’t think it through, and we don’t always think about what is really best for our kids as individuals. Like, for example, thinking it better to put them in a larger-sized class just because it’s called Gifted.

    But I appreciate the solidarity when it comes to my weakness against my impulse to strive blindly for my kids…

  3. TorontoDad says:

    October 20th, 2010at 11:21 am(#)

    Actually, what she said was, “If after a few meetings you are still not satisfied, you may request a three-way.”
    I haven’t actually shot milk through my nose in laughter for several years until having read this. That line deserves some sort of award! Thank you for including!

  4. Shawn Carpenter says:

    October 20th, 2010at 11:28 am(#)

    Hilarious but insightful posting — I loved it. Did the presenter mention any special criteria for teachers in this program vs. teachers for the masses? Are they Gifted and Talented also? As Didactic Pirate relates above, all good parents want opportunities for their kids. My twin two-year-olds currently attend a private school, and they love it. Before they were born, my wife and I checked out almost every day care program in a ten mile radius; we were mostly underwhelmed (and sometimes shocked) at the services and quality of them. Many consisted of “pens” of fenced in children segregated by age group, and several were permeated by the scent of poop and urine. Not a place where I want to leave my children all day.

    When they are old enough, they’ll go to the public schools in the area. Fortunately, they are all excellent. That said, I’m sure my interest will be piqued when words like “gifted” and “talented” pop up. I hope everyone is doing great. Shoot me an email when you’re coming down my way.

  5. DaddyClay says:

    October 20th, 2010at 11:49 am(#)

    And, as a kicker, research shows that G&T programs don’t do any good anyway. No measurable academic benefit or long term impact. Mostly because testing kids for admission into these programs is a sham. A finding I heartily believe because my kids have never even caught a whiff of a G&T classroom. Sour grapes? Totally. Genetics? Absolutely. But it made reading “Nurtureshock” even more fun.

    Bronson and Merriman render these findings very well in that book. My paraphrase above is a poor substitute.

  6. Nathan says:

    October 20th, 2010at 12:13 pm(#)

    @TorontoDad Glad to hear you shot your load. That’s what we’re all about here at DadWagon.
    @Shawn I have no doubt that your kids are gifted. Keeping them away from caffeine will be the challenge for you.
    @DaddyClay I’m almost ashamed to admit I haven’t read Nurtureshock yet. Sounds like I’d like it. As for the shammy test, I’m gonna try to draw some mockup OLSAT questions and post them. It’s the weirdest crap you’d ever have a four-year-old do.

  7. TechyDad says:

    October 20th, 2010at 1:33 pm(#)

    My son is gifted (IQ tested at 134) and, unfortunately, our school district has no resources for gifted kids. If your child is slow, you can get remedial help. If he’s advanced, he needs to sit through a fifth time of learning just how to figure out what 8 + 3 is when he’s ready to do multiplication and division. (Seriously, they’re at single digit math and when I showed my son some division and multiplication problems, he understood them right away and asked for more.) I’m looking into some books from (designed for gifted kids) and am going to work with him on his math some more to help him advance as much as possible.

  8. Amy says:

    October 20th, 2010at 2:11 pm(#)

    We hypocritically signed our daughter up for the G&T test though we think it’s ludicrous to test 4-year-olds that way. It all seemed part of the part-time job of finding a NYC public school for my kid.

    She tested 93rd percentile, qualifying her for the district G&T program. We should have loved it. The class size was going to be tiny because they have a hard time drumming up interest in the neighborhood. The class projects on the walls looked impressive. We decided against it because the school was in the crappiest, most crime-ridden part of the neighborhood. And, though the building was spacious, they had the G&T kids sequestered in their own wing, totally isolated from the rest of the school (not to mention that three schools were sharing the same building). I couldn’t imagine my 5yo traveling 40 blocks to be with the same small group of kids for her entire elementary school life.

    No amount of field trips to MOMA to do class projects about the Fauvists could make up for the lack of diversity and other shortcomings of the program.

  9. Carly says:

    October 20th, 2010at 2:19 pm(#)

    I’m also curious about the tests. How do 4 yo’s answer multiple choice with a straight face? How do they sort out adult correct versus correct as whispered to them by their imaginary friend/monster who often tells them to say the exact opposite of what they know to be ‘true,’ just for a laugh?

  10. Nathan says:

    October 20th, 2010at 2:36 pm(#)

    @Carly: Not only that (I especially agree with the “just for a laugh” pitfall), but I also have to think that the person who administers the test 1-on-1 with your kid has extreme power. They’re only allowed to say the question once for the OLSAT, so if they don’t enunciate well or aren’t particularly likeable or dynamic for that age group, there could be a wild variation in how the kids do. It’s all just so unscientific, as far as I’m concerned.

  11. Tim says:

    October 20th, 2010at 3:11 pm(#)

    The kids in the citywide G&T programs are working about a year ahead of grade level and cover that material in greater depth. It is true that many district programs are hit-or-miss, and that parents who live in great (i.e., economically well-to-do) districts often opt to keep their children in a quality gen ed rather than send them to a district G&T. G&T teachers receive special training and certification; you can read about the requirements here (

    There are a couple of things missing from your analysis, imo. One is the plight of the very bright child who goes to an utterly crappy district school (and there are a bajillion of these) — for them, G&T programs are potentially nothing less than a lifeline. The second piggybacks on what TechyDad wrote — NCLB has created a machine where most of the incentives (and most of a principal’s bonus) are aligned with bringing up the state test scores of the lowest-performing students. In a worst-case scenario — overcrowded class + lots of struggling kids + overwhelmed teacher — “Jayden” is going to spend his year doing independent busywork while everyone else is frantically being test-prepped.

    I agree with you 100% that there is a lot not to like about G&T, starting with the test, but it’s a symptom of other broader flaws with the system, not the disease.

  12. Nathan says:

    October 20th, 2010at 3:52 pm(#)

    @TechyDad: I hear you about having to just sit around. This is probably an issue with any kid–everyone has their strengths and weaknesses–but must be particularly true with gifted kids. It’s the one thing that makes me consider homeschooling. Because really, how can anyone with even 20 kids hope to keep everyone engaged?

  13. Nathan says:

    October 20th, 2010at 4:01 pm(#)

    @Tim–thanks for the link to the G&T teacher curricula. It’s so strange that they didn’t mention any of that at the Open House–they were specifically asked about what makes the classes different. I didn’t mention it, but their answers were totally non-committal: the class may work more quickly, but not necessarily, because gifted doesn’t always mean fast. “There are so many different kinds of intelligence,” they swooned (as if they were testing for any of those different kinds).

    Nor did they mention anything about working a year ahead of grade level in the citywide schools. Not that I think my daughter would ever have a chance of getting into those, but still.

    I don’t know about the plight of the bright kid in the crappy school. I think those schools are crappy for everyone. But NCLB does put pressure on working with the lowest performing, and you can’t Leave No Child Behind without also Holding Some Other Children Back (they should’ve branded HSOCB as a concept, too).

    Anyhow, I think you should go around to their roadshow with them, because they could have mentioned some of this. It at least would have shown some glimmer of added value to G&T besides the obvious (and somewhat repellent) aspirational payoff for the parents.

  14. Jon-Paul Villegas says:

    October 21st, 2010at 10:48 am(#)

    Having gone through public schools from k-high school, I went through the 1980’s version of this program in Southern California. Actually kind of hated it as an elementary schooler–took you out of your regular school a day a week to place you with other supposedly gifted kids, many of whom were essentially Ralph Wiggum types but with a miraculously accelerated capacity to do word problems and spell things correctly. That having been said, these programs might actually be useful in terms of tracking your kid to be competitive academically, particularly if they will be competing against folks from private schools later on–not necessarily because the actual curriculum is objectively better, but because self-identification as a bright, capable kid goes a long way towards actually advancing a kid’s potential for academic performance in the long term.

  15. Nathan says:

    October 21st, 2010at 2:36 pm(#)

    @Jon-Paul: yes, sorta sad, sorta true. But the bright kids feel good precisely because they’re not the “dumb” kids, and thus begins a lifetime of hopefully imagining themselves with access to power, even if only because they know they are higher up in the food chain that others. Yay. Sigh.

  16. Will says:

    October 22nd, 2010at 12:41 pm(#)

    Feedback from a parent on her G&T experience.

  17. Jill says:

    October 22nd, 2010at 3:33 pm(#)

    I work with freshman engineering students at a large, public university. Their average Math SAT score is just shy of 700. They are roughly the top 5-10% of their high school classes, they all took honors classes (and always have), took AP or IB or college classes in high school, and they will tell you with very, VERY rare exception that they studied less than an hour a week in high school. Less than an hour a week got them As in honors and AP classes. No joke. I ask them at every summer orientation session. Their parents, who have declared them geniuses, verify this fact.

    Yet, for all their honors, awards, and academic feathers in their caps, and despite their 12 years of honors/gifted/whatever-you-want-to-call-it classes, their first Physics exam average on the college level is routinely around a 50. My point: American K-12 education is a mess–gifted or not. But I will say this for gifted programs: The child “left behind” by No Child Left Behind is the gifted kid in the regular classroom. At least in the gifted class, most kids perform decently on standardized tests, so teachers don’t have to spend inordinate amounts of class time coaching the slow-to-average students on how to master the garbage exams, thereby ignoring the students who might otherwise thrive. I agree with Tim. If you need justification on getting the little one tested for gifted programs–and you don’t! You’re a dad seeking the best for your child!–let No Child Left Behind serve as that justification.

  18. KTVee says:

    October 24th, 2010at 10:26 pm(#)

    Wow. Just wow. I am here to tell you that if you came to my school, I would tell you exactly why your child would benefit from my gifted progam. Our numbers are smaller than the regular classroom. Our students are supported in their affective needs. Our kids spend their day thinking, collaborating, investigating, and being challenged. Now we are looking into ways to challenge our kids the rest of the week, the other 4 days when they are not in the G/T classroom. I am so very sorry that you attended that meeting and received a “taste” that was less than favorable for gifted ed. But, I just wanted to give my 2-cents here and say that this is not the norm. I sure hope your child’s needs are met in the gifted and in the regular classroom.

    P.S. I work in a public school. :)

  19. Nathan says:

    October 26th, 2010at 12:00 pm(#)

    I certainly believe that’s all possible. It’s just that New York’s DOE didn’t make any effort to describe any of that good stuff. So all we are left with is striving for the sake of striving…

  20. kevin says:

    April 21st, 2013at 8:02 pm(#)

    I have three children. I am in my thirties. I was in Gifted classes in middle school and AP in high school.

    Did you take ‘normal’ classes in school? Let me tell you my experience:

    – All work was read the textbook fill out the accompanying worksheet based on the reading. For 180 days.

    – Class mates who didn’t want to be there, weren’t interested in learning. Only interested in status (read: attention grabbing distractions, jokes).

    -Teachers spend ALL of their time on class logistics and discipline. 15 unmotivated students are much more work to get through material then 28 G&T students who are trying to go Ivy league.

    -Unsafe. Walking into a class, a 300 lb middle schooler would slap my head. Every day. He didn’t know my name. I carried a chain and knew how to use my combination lock as makeshift brass knuckles in middle school in case I needed to protect myself.

    I was no particularly easy target; while I scored 700+ on (then) both sections of the SAT, I played two varsity sports in high school and college. I can’t imagine what this experience was like for someone who was below average in build, self-esteem, or extroversion.

    If I was putting my kids into school (ha!) I would jump at the chance to have them grouped by ability, even if there were no other difference. You become who you associate with, friends with those you are in frequent contact with. Being able to associate with peers who had their sites set on college kept me off drugs, out of jail, and in school.

    Oh, and my parents CHOSE this school district to move into from out of state. My mom was a school teacher and the ONLY priority with regards to what city and neighborhood we moved into was the quality of the schools. My parents made six-figures in the South. This is the experience at a good school. At a bad school, I shudder.


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