With a recent mandate from the state Board of Education that school systems throughout Maryland provide “different services” for students who are identified as Gifted and Talented, some education experts are arguing that less labeling would be more beneficial.
On Feb. 28, the state school board voted 8-1, with board member Luisa Montero-Diaz of Montgomery County opposed, to change the requirement for coursework for Gifted and Talented students. The board also agreed school systems can begin identifying Gifted and Talented children as young as 3 years old.
According to the school board, the change will create basic standards to provide services for advanced students in all public school districts in Maryland.
However, labeling young children as Gifted and Talented — a process that begins informally in Montgomery County in pre-kindergarten with teacher recommendations — might be hurting underachieving students. Students are given the label in second grade after formal testing and teachers often use it to help determine if a student is ready for accelerated coursework.
Patricia Campbell, an associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Maryland, said Gifted and Talented labeling, particularly in mathematics, gives early-achieving students the advantage of advanced and accelerated coursework in their elementary years; an advantage they build into their high school years. Under that model, she said, students who are not seen as capable of understanding advanced coursework early — more than 60 percent of Montgomery County students — often are never given it; a disadvantage that carries through their academic careers.
“You end up with ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots ... and the have-not kids don’t get as much as those who have this label,” Campbell said.
Campbell argues for advanced classes for only the top 1 percent of learners, those who drastically outperform their peers. Like many who oppose labeling students, she said all elementary students should be given similar instruction.
Part of the problem is the label tends to break down differently along racial lines.
Of the students labeled Gifted and Talented in Montgomery County Public Schools in 2011, 46.6 percent were white, 21.9 percent were Asian, 13.1 percent were Hispanic, and 11.2 percent were black, disproportionate to the figures for those of whom were screened for the label, of whom less than 35 percent were white, 14.5 percent were Asian, 25.8 percent were Hispanic and 19.2 were black.
In 2011, 10,765 students were screened, 37.2 percent of whom qualified, down from the 38.3 percent the year before, according to the school system. The nationwide average is generally less than 15 percent.
George Vlasits, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Forum — a coalition of parents and educators that opposes labeling students — and a former Montgomery Blair High School teacher, said the disparity exacerbates the achievement gap between white students and their Hispanic and black peers. He said students who fail to earn the label or succeed early often feel like underachievers.
“These kids in the on-level track, they get the message you’re sending,” he said. “You’re saying ‘This is all you can aspire to.”
Steven Craig, an economics professor at the University of Houston in Texas, published a study in November of Gifted and Talented students in a school district in the southwestern U.S. that concluded such programs have little benefit in all subjects except for science.
“What we basically found was that these kids were going to succeed anyway,” he said.
Montgomery school administrators say advanced classes are not solely reserved for those with the label. Marty Creel, director of enriched and innovative programs for Montgomery County Public Schools, said entrance into one of the school system’s highly-selective magnet schools, International Baccalaureate programs, or primary-level centers for the highly-gifted (home to about 900 students), is based on the performance of individual students, their test scores, grades and teacher recommendations, not the Gifted and Talented label.
“We’re not concerned about labels,” he said. “Students who need enriched programs are given them ... we focus on the individual.”
Supporters say the label, and the school system’s advanced programs, are why Montgomery County Public Schools often is regarded as one of the best in the country. Fred Stichnoth, president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County, said advanced students need advanced learning, just as those who struggle need extra help.
In a March 22 letter to Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, Stichnoth wrote parents of gifted students are growing frustrated with a lack of opportunities for advanced-level classes in non-magnet schools.
Stichnoth and other supports of Gifted and Talented say the school system should expand its magnet programs — which serve less than 5 percent of students — to serve more of the gifted population.
“Kids are ready to learn very different things at different ages,” he said. “When they are ready, they should be accommodated.”