The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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Mark Leviton’s interview with Linda Kreger Silverman [“Beyond Their Years,” May 2015] was painful to read. Now sixty-five years old, I still remember my childhood experiences: I was very smart but had poor grades because I was inattentive and bored, a loner who didn’t like to be disturbed. My parents decided I needed educational tools at home: Daily flash-card memory drills in math, English, and history. A “reading machine” with a window of scrolling text that rolled by faster and faster. Weekly book quizzes given by my father. Tests and more tests, standardized or otherwise.
I was taking college courses by my junior year in high school, but I also skipped classes and became a “truancy problem.” It was decided that all I needed was more structure and discipline, and I was almost enrolled in a military academy. I finished high school on both of the principal’s lists: I had the best grades and the most detentions.
My parents sent me to an ultra-conservative college, but a couple of weeks before graduation, I dropped out. The pressure of trying to meet others’ expectations was too much. Eventually I enrolled in a state college, landed a job and new friends, and realized I could never become the person my mother and father wanted me to be.
My parents disapproved of my wife (we’ve now been married more than forty years) and my successful but sometimes disjointed lifestyle. They never understood that I was happy with the life I’d created for myself. Most of us who are “gifted” simply want to fit in on our own terms. Maybe it’s time you let us try.
The pieces in the May issue on gifted and intellectually disabled children should be required reading for educators and policymakers. As a general educator who has served both types of students, I often struggle to meet kids’ needs and am frustrated with the lack of training and resources available to help teachers challenge gifted students. Teaching gifted children in the general-education classroom can be difficult because they often show a lack of effort and get hung up on perceived injustices.
Since gifted children represent the next generation’s best hope of finding solutions to society’s problems, I am dismayed and sometimes resentful that they are stranded in an education system that is so good at offering personalized support to those with intellectual disabilities. But reading Heather Kirn Lanier’s essay “The R Word,” about raising a daughter with a disability, was a good reminder to balance my compassion for all students. Policymakers should do the same.
I’d be more likely to accept Linda Kreger Silverman’s opinions if she had spent her career teaching in a regular classroom. She seems to have made up her mind “in high school” that such a thing as a gifted child exists, but a seasoned teacher would tell you that all children learn at different rates, by different means, and at different times. Every child needs a sensitive and flexible teacher, and separating out those judged to be “gifted” is not a good idea. (Why is “gifted” less objectionable than “superior intelligence”?) A better approach is using a range of activities and interactive learning tools for each student at every stage of his or her development.
As someone who was identified as a gifted child (but who, thankfully, never took an IQ test), I was dismayed by Mark Leviton’s interview with Linda Kreger Silverman.
Cloaking her approach in a scientific facade, Silverman is open to the idea that gifted children are drawing on past-life experiences, which should disturb anyone committed to objectivity and peer-review. And her rejection of Stephen Jay Gould — among the greatest scientists of the past hundred years — should worry all of us who heard his clarion call for an anti-racist approach to scientific thinking.
We do not live in a society hostile to “giftedness.” We live in a society hostile to critical thinking. To suggest that critical thought is available only to a tiny portion of children is preposterous. Silverman has spent her life looking for genius but has failed to note the barriers to its being acknowledged: capitalism, imperialism, racism, and sexism. If we want genius to emerge, those are the problems we need to address, instead of segregating developmentally advanced children into a separate class.
Linda Kreger Silverman asserts that the SAT test “correlates highly with IQ.” She doesn’t mention that SAT and IQ scores also correlate with parental education and income. Both tests, just like other “objective” measurement tools, are rife with cultural, racial, and class bias. They are loaded in favor of those already set up to succeed.
Silverman says that her organization has trouble securing grants to make its expensive services available to lower-income students. This is the case across the board for lower-income students; when they are exceptional, there are few resources available to them in public schools. Costly Advanced Placement exams and similar programs intended for “intelligent” students are a form of educational apartheid, unavailable to disadvantaged youth in the same proportion that they are available for advantaged students.
I found this interview to be The Sun at its worst: encouraging a blithe solipsism that poses as enlightened social thinking.
I was a “gifted” child, tested as having exceptional vocabulary and spatial-reasoning skills. I was pulled out of my regular classes to do special projects, allowed to listen to music during my math tests, and constantly reminded of my giftedness. By high school I was terrified of not fulfilling my “potential.” It’s taken years to undo that damage and learn to love myself enough to see my true gifts.
All children are gifted in different ways and should be treated as such. To place some in a category of superiority is a mistake. It damages those who are included as well as those who are not.
I stopped reading the interview with Linda Kreger Silverman before I finished it. I entered a gifted program in the third grade. At a high-school reunion four years ago, a number of people told me they remembered me as very bright.
While I suspect this is true, I don’t think we have the tools to conclude this about anyone. I agree with a lot of Silverman’s claims about our schools’ failure to address the needs of gifted children, but our schools are also inadequate in addressing the needs of all students.
It is tempting for me to go along with Silverman’s assertion that some children are naturally sensitive and gifted, drawing on my memories of being bullied or my continuing frustration at people who seem unthinking and lacking in curiosity. So I was surprised when I reacted with such disappointment to the interview. I’m not convinced it’s impossible for anyone to achieve lofty goals, and I don’t think we’ve figured out what makes some people exceptional. What made Darwin who he was, or Isaac Newton, or Joan of Arc? Was it their innate giftedness or the right combination of opportunity and determination?
Ability-based programs that label children as gifted imply that the children who are excluded from the programs are not gifted. And since acceptance into the programs acts as a form of reward, whether it is intended that way or not, these programs are also unhealthy for “gifted” children. Research shows that children praised for innate ability are more likely to give up when they face obstacles.
Achievement-based programs, on the other hand, challenge students without sending the message that it is their innate abilities that matter. Children rewarded for effort and achievement learn persistence in the face of failure.
Linda Kreger Silverman claims achievement-based programs are influenced by social prejudices and suggests, for example, that they undervalue girls. But girls typically perform as well on academic achievement measures as boys. The reality is that the most common form of ability-based assessment, IQ, is correlated with socioeconomic status.
No system for selecting children for specialized education will be perfect, but labeling children as gifted or not gifted is more damaging than labeling them as academically advanced or not advanced.
Giftedness is not the potential for success. Success depends on opportunity and effort. For children to persist in the face of failure, psychologist Carol Dweck advocates that they be praised for their efforts, not their abilities. True. But Dweck also asserts that Edison, Darwin, and Einstein were “ordinary bright children who became obsessed with something.” If you have seen The Imitation Game, about computer inventor Alan Turing, it’s difficult to maintain the belief that we are all born with the same intellectual capabilities. Only in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon are all children above average.
The terror of not living up to one’s potential is a byproduct of the erroneous equation of giftedness with success. So is misguided pressure on gifted children to succeed. And so is the belief that intelligence is not measurable. IQ tests do not predict who will be successful; they document which children have learning needs so different from the other students that they require special education. The regular school curriculum is designed for average students. It is not appropriate for those who develop at an irregular pace. Special education requires documentation of learning differences.
Gifted children are students with special learning needs. How are egalitarian beliefs served by teaching a student what he or she already knows? And how would this student learn to apply effort if the curriculum is so easy that school is effortless? Interestingly, Dweck’s earlier work on gender differences sheds light on this issue. She found that bright girls who floundered when they encountered middle-school math had had insufficient experience with challenging work in elementary school. “Continued success on personally easy tasks” failed to produce confidence or persistence. Her solution? Provide more challenge.
Effort is kindled when students wrestle with new concepts — when they have to struggle to learn. Gifted education specialist Carol Morreale said that when we give gifted students the same work as all the other students, we deprive them of the right to struggle to learn. Dweck reported that when bright girls were continuously rewarded for performing what they already knew, they came to believe that when they did have to put forth effort, it proved they were not capable. I recommend that gifted girls be tested well before middle school so that they do not judge their intelligence by their math grades.
Advanced children come from all socioeconomic circumstances. Without being recognized and supported as gifted in the public schools, these students quickly lose motivation. This stratifies society even more than labeling, because the wealthy have other options, such as private schools. Early identification of gifted children from poverty changes lives and benefits all of society, which is why the Gifted Development Center has a scholarship fund to find economically disadvantaged gifted children.
Thousands of “twice exceptional children” — both gifted and learning disabled — are invisible without assessment. IQ testing is not an elitist plot; it is a necessary intervention to discover and protect capable children who fail in school.
When work is sufficiently challenging, effort is likely to follow. Gifted students should have the right to struggle, and the right to learn something new in school every day.