Sunday, September 20, 2020

The winding path of gifted education: An example

As parents, we witness the ups and downs our gifted children experience within the education system. It almost seems like a random gallery of mishaps and roadblocks, with some occasional bursts of brilliance. We know that advocacy and a good relationship with our children's teachers are critical in order to formulate creative solutions. But disappointments abound, and just like our kids, we are in for a bumpy ride.


The following is one real-life example of the twists and turns, roadblocks, and surprising support that emerged during one gifted child's education:

The criticism
Sam (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) faced boredom and frustration during heterogeneously-grouped middle school classes. However, he found a refuge in Latin class, where the topic was more challenging. He grasped the information quickly and easily excelled. But he was repeatedly chastised by his teacher for raising his hand to answer questions too often and conveying an attitude that the material was easy, and was accused of arrogance, While not the most socially aware student, Sam had no intention of criticizing his classmates; he just was enthused and energized by the subject matter. 

The brilliant idea

During his yearly GIEP meeting (and yes, Sam was fortunate enough to live in a state where GIEP's provide some legal safeguards for gifted education), Sam's gifted supervisor suggested that he subject accelerate in Latin at the start of high school. His parents had not considered this option, as Latin was not Sam's favorite subject; he was much more interested in math and science. But it sounded like a great idea, especially since Latin was a small class, and he would receive individualized instruction that would allow him to catch up to the other students. His parents were grateful and frankly, somewhat amazed that the gifted supervisor enabled this transition.

The implementation

Sam blazed through Latin. He subject accelerated not only one year, but two, and by the end of 10th grade, had completed coursework for Latin 5, the highest level offered at the school. In addition, he received an almost perfect score on the Latin Subject SAT's, and a score of 5 on the Latin Vergil AP test. 

The roadblocks

Clearly talented and enthusiastic about Latin, Sam wanted to continue Latin studies the following school year. However, the school could not provide any accommodations. His Latin teacher offered to provide guidance for Independent Study; however, this was blocked because the public school administration did not want to set a "precedent" where a teacher offered more instruction/time/energy to an individual student than was in his contract. The head of the Language Department had two inappropriate suggestions: either Sam repeat Latin 5 (despite his mastery of the subject, and the above listed exceptional scores on the SAT and AP tests) or he could work on an Independent Study on his own, without receiving any course credit or notation on his transcripts. Essentially, the message/challenge implied that if he really liked Latin, he would study it on his own without any recognition of his efforts.

Another brilliant idea

Sam's Latin teacher was furious - both for how Sam was treated by the school and the Language Department, but also because the teacher was curtailed in his desire to offer even a minimal amount of time to provide enrichment for Sam's education. So the gifted supervisor stepped in. Several Latin departments at local colleges were contacted, with an inquiry about whether they could provide further enrichment in Latin. 

The kindness of strangers

Two local colleges offered to help. Sam (with the insistence of his Latin teacher, who was thrilled with the options) chose to take a 300-level college class offered by a nationally-known Latin scholar at a local ivy league university. Although Sam was able to attend a few of the in-person classes, most conflicted with his high school schedule. As a result, this kind professor offered individualized, online instruction. Sam did well and received a good grade in the class. Sam's parents found out much later that the professor offered his time free of charge. Neither his parents nor the school were asked for payment. 

A bitter pill to swallow

Despite Sam's exceptional talent and clear enthusiasm for Latin, once his education was no longer offered through the public school, his abilities were ignored. At "Senior Awards Night," Sam's parents had to politely applaud while another student received the Latin award. In fact, Sam only received an award for his excellence in a creative arts field; he failed to receive any awards for academic excellence. He excelled beyond his classmates in several subject areas, had excellent SAT and AP scores, was ranked second in his class, was a National Merit Scholar, and quietly tutored some of his classmates (some of whom received the awards). However, since he was taking dual enrollment classes at a nearby college, he was overlooked for any recognition. When students subject accelerate, and when many of their classes are online or off-campus, they can become isolated from the school, and their successes or struggles are more easily ignored. Sam's parents knew that in the scheme of their son's academic career, these awards were arbitrary and meant little. Yet it was a challenge to sit by and applaud the awards decisions, knowing how the school blatantly disregarded their son's accomplishments.

With gratitude 

Sam's gifted education in the public school system was replete with opportunities and disappointments. However, this example of creative thinking on the part of his gifted supervisor, and the kind professor who generously offered his time, was a high point. Furthermore, this professor provided a supplementary letter of recommendation for Sam's college applications. Sam was accepted to that particular ivy league university, along with numerous other colleges. He chose to attend a different ivy league university, and although he never majored in Latin, took several Latin classes. Sam gave the professor a small gift at the end of his ongoing education with him, His parents sent a note of extreme gratitude. But the gift of generosity on the part of this professor cannot be overstated.

A final word

Gifted education is often a patchwork of what is available in school and in the community, and what parents can offer from home. There are occasional moments of brilliance - where teachers "get it" and have the time to engage these students. Other times, there are disappointments where gifted students' needs are overlooked. Sam's situation typifies the uncertainties, roadblocks, unexpected surprises, and random luck that accompanies gifted education. Please feel free to share your own stories below.


  1. Oh so many thoughts on this at once. My how our school system has changed in 50 years. Gifted education was never perfect, but was not only funded when I went to public school, but academic achievement in gifted children was prized and promoted. But over the years things changed. We began to see gifted as elitist and tied only to wealth. How sad because the statistics don’t bear this to be true. Yes, opportunity makes a difference, but gifted are born not created. And speaking of statistics, we need only look at school districts who have figured out that their gifted population of students were exiting with numbers big enough to make them create homeschooling programs of their own, to help retain their high achieving students. But the bigger issue is our social fear of the educated. It’s not politically correct right now to be smart. I think it started when we split the monies from special education away from gifted education. They were originally in one pot and seen as opposite ends of the same spectrum. It was seen as taking money away from the educationally handicapped, but not educationally handicapping those students who had to stunt their education. Now the goal is to get everyone to a certain standard to pass. If you exceed the graduation requirements, then we have exceed or goal and wasted our monies. So the goal is not to educate our students but to process our children through a system like widgets on an assembly line. It’s a social disconnect that’s holding us back really. Fundamentally public school must change and it’s happening as we speak caused not by introspect but outside forces of the pandemic. I believe we will emerge better for it.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Darlene. You raise so many good points about how gifted education is underfunded, misunderstood and viewed with suspicion. I am glad you are hopeful about the future.

  3. I had to switch my then Kindergarten child to a different school because after 1 year of asking for more advanced homework or testing for gifted, nothing happened. The new school seems to have more experience and are working with me to a certain level. My daughter is in gifted class but she is PG (profoundly gifted) so even the gifted class does not offer the challenges her brain desperately craves. There is so much red tape and long waiting periods to access this resources as well. I am trying to get her to skip a grade but with the virus, there are not doing any testing for that. Meanwhile my daughter is still not learning much in her gifted class. My daughter did also experience criticism for giving a correct answer, but was way off the scope of the general class. I have her in enrichment programs outside school, but those classes can get expensive too. It is unfortunately that, as a single working mom, I use the school as a babysitter. I know I am just starting (now 1st grade), I just hope I can push enough to get my daughter into her right academic level. Definitely, active advocacy and constantly monitoring your child to ensure he or she are "learning" is one of the main activities of a parent. It is also very exhausting because it feels you are swimming against the current.

    1. Ro, Thank you for your comments. You so clearly describe the struggle families face, and I hope you are able to secure enough academic support for your daughter along the way.

  4. I just saw a comment you made on a post by Paula Prober and replied to you there. That prompted me to come back and check out your blog. I haven't been in a while, because things are going well for us on the educational front.

    We were fortunate to score a spot at a very rigorous top tier private school in our city, which, while not directly addressing the gifted issue, provides an intensity, depth and rigor and has provided adequate challenges for our kids. They're happy and their classmates are "like them" even though the G word isn't ever mentioned. We feel very lucky to have this opportunity.

    We chose to do elementary school at a public gifted magnet. It was an interesting situation. It was a magnet which also accepted zoned students. As the neighborhood around the school was regentrified, with new homes valued at $750k to $1 million, there were fewer and fewer gifted magnet spots available. Some of the newly zoned children were gifted, but the majority were not. So as my children worked their way through the school, the classes got more and more mixed, until by the time my youngest finished 5th grade, it was absolutely impossible, even through advocating with teachers and the administration, to get any kind of enrichment through the school. I also saw the same thing as with Sam's parents regarding awards. It was upsetting. Although we got over it. :)

    What I see happening, in my little bubble, is a wealth-gap in education. Even in the upper middle classes, if you can't afford private school, your children are not going to be exposed to the rigor and growth they need to feel fulfilled. The public schools are being forced to slow down. I'm also realizing through this Covid-fueled mess that we're living in that many of the parents I knew at our elementary school have children with ADHD and ODD and other learning disabilities, that of course, did not come up in conversation before. Now they are all over Facebook looking for tutors because online education is not working for them. I do have sympathy for them, I hope that comes through here, but I have a different problem for my kids and therefore have trouble empathizing. Many of these parents use public schools because they are guaranteed IEPs and 504s for their children with learning disabilities. This in turn makes it less likely that the straight up gifted kids will be numerous enough to encourage the schools to address their needs.

    I was very quiet and careful about how I approached my advocacy because it became obvious early on that even in a school where 50% of the students were GT qualified, only about 5% were actual, untutored naturals. At one point, our AP actually told me that public schools weren't equipped to handle students like mine. That's when my husband and I took a good, hard look at our finances, decided sacrifice was possible, took a deep breath and applied to the most selective private schools in our city. And I was grateful, but not surprised when our son got accepted at all of them. There should be good options for people who can't afford the tuition, or don't want to be in an elitist environment (because it is-- we just have to deal with that part).

    I really wish there was a safe place in society where we could go and just let off steam (kind of like I'm doing now, but IRL). Our school now is better that way, but I still wouldn't feel comfortable just being me. I feel like a secret agent sometimes.

    1. Anonymous, Thank you for your open, honest reflection of your experience as a parent. And thanks for your comments on Paula's wonderful blog, also. I really like your last comment about being a secret agent - it does feel like a cautious, stealth approach is what so many parents have to choose - carefully advocating to ask for an appropriate education for their children, but avoiding any appearance of pushing too much.

      I am so glad you found a school that works. I agree that there is a wealth gap - so many parents cannot afford private schools, and public schools are overwhelmed. I hope all continues to go well for you and your family.