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When we label some students gifted, are we calling others ungifted?

I often hear from metro Atlanta parents unhappy their child didn't get into their school's gifted and talented program. Many parents believe the general curriculum is keyed to the lowest common denominator, so they want their kids in advanced classes.

Gifted coordinators maintain their testing criteria identify hidden gems but you typically find the exact kids you'd expect in such programs -- bright kids of bright parents. (This weekend I am interviewing an 11-year-old who scored a 5, the highest grade possible, on the AP Calculus exam, a test taken by elite high school math students. At his current pace, the 11-year-old could study graduate-level mathematics in high school. I would call that truly gifted.)

I followed a teacher at a north Fulton high school once whose gifted language arts class had 17 students. His "regular" class afterward had 26. Yet, the teacher said many of the kids in the regular class were as bright as their "gifted" peers but missed the TAG cutoff by a few points.

In this essay, Emory University student Sunidhi Ramesh discusses the gifted label from the perspective of someone told she didn't merit it. Ramesh is a junior double majoring in neuroscience and sociology. This is her second piece for the blog. She is a gifted writer.

Ramesh did not tell me how well she did in school, but Google did. As well as being picked for Georgia's highly selective Governor's Honors program while a Fulton County high school student, she was a National Merit Scholarship winner and a bridge champion. She has a long list of academic distinctions and honors -- despite being told in second grade she was not gifted material.

For additional reading, go here to see the AJC's in-depth examination of  racial gaps in gifted programs. To learn about the deeper nature of gifted classes, go to this AJC story.

By Sunidhi Ramesh

When I was in second grade, my teacher called my parents in for a conference to warn them about an observation she had made about me.

“She isn’t what I would call gifted,” the teacher told them. “I wouldn’t hope for too much if I were you. She can’t handle it.”

Today, reflecting on this story my parents never fail to repeat, I am struck by the tendency for teachers to place their students within categories. In the past few decades, thousands of elementary and middle schools have implemented “gifted” or “talented” programs to supposedly single out the students with potential from those without it.

These programs are not limited to elementary schools. In the school circuit I grew up in, the gifted kids in elementary schools ended up being the gifted kids in middle school and the Advanced Placement kids in high schools. These are the students that the nation ultimately sends to its top universities.

So, what happens to the other kids, the students who are supposedly not gifted? Sociologist Brenda Ring believes that self-esteems and self-concepts are immediately put at risk. Furthermore, “ungifted” students tend to stick to the label; they fail to challenge themselves, attributing this to their “lack of talent” or “smarts” for the harder classes. Ultimately, this creates a lag in the system. While a hundred students are excelling under the praise associated with “gifted classes,” a thousand more kids are cutting themselves off from the potential they are told they do not have.

According to Ann Robinson of Western Illinois University, “the gifted are labeled because they deviate from the norm in a positive way. They are ‘above average’ in intelligence or creativity or in whatever constellation of factors used to identify them.”

But what the system and, surprisingly, recent research in the field both fail to question is the supposed impact of separation not on the “gifted” but on the students who are not. What happens when a second grader is told she isn’t “gifted?” What happens when she continues to hear this until she believes it?

How can we expect our elementary school students to learn and grow a love for learning if they are told they are not talented or unintelligent? Most importantly, how can these kids believe in themselves if they are aware that the education system does not?

In his book “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined,” author Scott Kaufman explores these questions through his experiences as a child who suffered the backhand of gifted labeling.

“In this artificial world of school we created,” he writes, “labeling is important. Individual differences collide with limited resources, creating a situation where parents are scrambling for special services for their children. With the future of so many lives at stake, it is crucial that we scrutinize exactly how we identify those who do not fit the norm, since the methods we use affect our interventions as well as our expectations of just how high we allow them to soar.”

With this, it becomes apparent that our system of targeting the needs of the gifted fails at considering the needs of the rest. Yes, these programs are important in targeting the needs of all students, but the manner in which they are executed fails to guarantee a positive end result.

“I firmly believe,” Kaufman continues, “we can recognize and value every kind of mind without diminishing the value of others. I do not see intelligence as a zero-sum game: just because someone is talented (whatever that means) by the standards set by society does not mean that the person who isn’t does not have dynamic potential for intellectual functioning. There are so many different paths to success.”

It was years until my parents told me about my second grade teacher’s conclusion. Still, somehow, I remember feeling different for being part of the “other group.” I remember watching the “gifted” kids reading poetry while the rest of us were still finger-painting. I remember explaining my failed spelling tests to my parents with the excuse of not being “like the other kids.”

Why do we limit or label children because they do not fit some standard system of talent? What is talent, really? Are we born with it? Or do we acquire it through work and perseverance? Michael Phelps wasn’t born swimming, yet we call him talented. Albert Einstein’s lack of communication skills and behavioral problems led his school teachers to assume his incompetence, yet he remains one of the most renowned physicists in history. Thus, if talent is built, why do we look for it so early and isolate students for the lack thereof?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not asking for the elimination of gifted programs. I am asking for the elimination of the label, for a sort of upward mobility that allows for students who might be late bloomers to still have the time and motivation to continue thriving.

Most importantly, I am asking for the broadening of the terms “talented” and “gifted” to mean more than “the good test-takers” or the “well-behaved students.” I am asking for the budding musicians and artists to be rewarded for their interests rather than scolded for doodling in class. I am asking for “talent” to stand for the kid who tries his hardest despite being labeled “learning disabled.” I am asking for “gifted” to define the girl whose teacher told her parents to lose faith in her because she still had a strong Indian accent.

Why? Because a system that was created to boost a part of America’s children has ultimately left the vast majority of them behind. A dozen years after being labeled, I still remain plagued by questions.

What would have happened if my parents had stuck to what this teacher told them? What if they hadn’t believed in me or pushed me to keep challenging myself? Where would I be now?


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.