Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wrestling with Gifted Classes, Race, and Gender or Confronting the Honors Cabal

One of my favorites.

What now of the gender gap in public education?

Is is not a little commented upon irony that at every level of educational attainment that girls outperform boys. Yet, men somehow grow up to rule the world? It is also little commented upon that there is an informal system of "affirmative action" for men in college. Funny, that point is too infrequently mentioned in our debates on "preferences" and college admissions. Makes one think does it not?

As detailed by The NY Times, this pattern of gendered outcomes is mirrored even in the talented and gifted programs in our public schools.


Educators and experts have long known that boys lag behind girls in measures like high school graduation rates and college enrollment, but they are concerned that the disparity is also turning up at the very beginning of the school experience.

Why more girls than boys enter the programs is unclear, though there are some theories. Among the most popular is the idea that young girls are favored by the standardized tests the city uses to determine admission to gifted programs, because they tend to be more verbal and socially mature at ages 4 and 5 when they sit for the hourlong exam.

“Girls at that age tend to study more, and the boys kind of play more,” said Linda Gratta, a parent at the Anderson School on the Upper West Side, one of the most selective. “But it’s a mixed bag. The day of the test, you could be the smartest boy in the world and just have a bad day.” She said that Timothy, her first-grade son, had approximately 10 boys and 18 girls in his class.

Biases and expectations among adults are often in play when determining which children count as gifted, and fewer boys appear to end up in gifted programs nationally. A 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences reported that boys were “overrepresented in programs for learning disabilities, mental retardation and emotional disturbance, and slightly underrepresented in gifted programs,” said Bruce A. Bracken, a professor at the College of William & Mary who wrote one of the two exams that the city uses to test gifted children. He said the implications of the study were “disturbing.”


The piece is powerful. But, it is also noteworthy for how race and class are omitted from the equation. As is repeatedly documented, take the gender gap in school achievement at large, and then multiply it for young African Americans and Latinos. Black and Latino boys are significantly more likely to be in remedial programs, labeled ADHD, suspended, or be placed on the lowest tracks in their respective schools.

On that point: am I the only one who hates the tracking system, yet would throw a fit if my child were not put in the highest level?

Second on that point: Aren't tracking and the honor roll the biggest rackets of them all? Everyone is on the honor roll be they in the best or the lowest track. This is doubly cruel: I have relatives who children were in remedial classes throughout school. Yet, because they received "honors" each term, said parents were convinced their kids could go to Yale or Harvard. Talk about a setup for inevitable disappointment. This is a cousin to the Trophy generation, snowflakeitis that is currently afflicting our universities--we have raised a generation where everyone is special, talented, and gifted. What will be the consequences for the United States economically, socially, and politically as this entitled class takes the reigns of power?

Some of these outcomes are the result of limited social capital and a lack of resources and parental involvement. Likewise, faulty metrics for determining intelligence and "intellectual ability" explain some other results. Sadly, good old fashioned laziness and racism still account for a good part of these disparate outcomes.

Here, my beef with the talented and gifted programs, as well as tracking, is a personal one. Upon entering the fourth grade, I was initially put into the lowest cohort. I had always been in the highest track, but I was summarily demoted. For the grace of God, and one great (yet really tough) former WAC who was my teacher, I would likely have flunked out of school and become the highly successful criminal mastermind I was always meant to be.

I was bored, finishing my work in 2 minutes, and consequently getting in trouble. This teacher clearly knew something was up and contacted my parents. Together they discovered that I had been put into the wrong track. A simple bureaucratic mix up? No, upon some research it was discovered that a student teacher had done the placements that year. Under time constraints she put all of the black kids in the lowest track. Why? Her explanation under threat of lawsuit: "it seemed efficient given that black kids do badly in school." True story.

I was also not allowed into our school's talented and gifted program. My mother, being a perennial striver, wanted to know why I was not admitted. Once more, social networks, race, and class rule the day. Apparently, although I had met all the criteria for admission, certain spots had been promised to a select group of students and their families. Another threatened lawsuit later I was reluctantly admitted--Black folks love threatening to sue people by the way (I don't know if we ever follow through though). I refused to go on basic principle. You don't want me. I don't want you. Funny thing, to my knowledge not one of those "talented and gifted types" are doing well today.

Interestingly enough, that was not my last run in with the evil gatekeepers of "honors" and "talented and gifted programs." In High School I would eventually break down the barriers and join up. Predictably, I would be run out by an English teacher who stated that my writing and analytical skills were sub par. I vividly remember the paper in dispute--it was an essay on Silas Marner. I had developed a thesis on greed, gender, and white racial identity. I was flatly told those were not elements in the book and that I must not be able to fully comprehend the text. Being the obstinate respectable negro that I am, I left the class (she made it clear I would get an "F") and swore revenge in my best Wrath of Khan impression. Funny thing, I made true on my promise. And yes, she was terrified.

Like many students, I didn't get my full honors, Phi Beta, uppity top of the class awards and bonafides until college. Doubly curious, whenever I sit down with a bunch of respectable negroes from the striving middle and working classes, there is some version of the above story. Moreover and almost to the one, we remember being the only non-white kids in those spaces. I would hate to be so reductionist, but could it be that in many schools "honors" and "talented and gifted" are coded as "Whites Only" spaces?

Wow, this has actually been cathartic.

Do others have similar tales of woe and triumph in the face of the honors cabal? And what does it say about our educational system, that so many who are not judged to be among the best and the brightest in either elementary and secondary school, rise to the top in college and/or leave formal training and become stars on their own?

Is the system that broken?


Imani Asako said...

I hate to admit it but I too have similar experiences all the way through my primary and secondary education. In elementary school I was kept out of gifted math and english until my attitude caught up with my teachers who realized I frequently fell asleep during lessons or complained about sitting through someone reading Stuart Little too slow for me.

In high school I was a freshman in sophomore honors geometry and one of 3 blacks in the class. At the 4 1/2 week mark our teacher informed a few of the students (including myself) that she thought we would do much better academically if we moved down to regular geometry. I don't remember being offended or caring much about her suggestion but I went down to the regular geometry class which was filled with a lot more students who looked like me. Unfortunately, it took that math class up until the Christmas holiday to catch up to where my honors math class had been during the 4th week of school. Needless to say I got a lot of rest in that class and learned quite a few tricks and games on my TI-83 plus.

Astra Reed said...

Yea this is very true boys are very far behind then girls even each school record inform us this thing... the reason behind it is girls are more reserve then boys ... and they catch oppurtunities more easily according to there skills and par...

Anonymous said...

Gifted Class saved my wife, a Creole Black growing up in New Orleans. She still talks about the effect her Gifted Teacher had on her - it was the first time her intelligence received validation and encouragement.

She's talked a lot about how our kids belong in "gifted" - I don't even like the term "gifted". At the magnet school my kids go to in a poorer, black, community in Omaha, they give out enough honor roll awards for enough things, that everybody managed to get one.

I confess that I was thrilled when my 9 year old got a special award black for her reading skills signed by Pres. Obama. So yeah, in the abstract there is disdain for the system - but if my kids gets in the elite, I like it.

I read Gatto when I was homeschooling - a useful man.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@Danielle: Old school with the graphing calculator! Damn--how many students don't even know how to use that...or a card catalog. Nice, to have you chime in. There is so much hurt and pain to these stories. I don't often share them, but these narratives really do serve a sharp critique to the myth of meritocracy.

@Astra--True. But, what of the irony that girls keep boys behinds in school, but then men end up ruling the world? Am I the only befuddled by that?

@Dr. Burp--great name by the way--great teachers can really move us or hinder us depending on the lottery. What can we do to change education so that more folks of the highest quality are moved to enter the profession?


Nina said...

I was always in gifted classes. For those of us who were poor, minority and especially female it was a lifesaver and the best thing about school. It was the only time I had with teachers who understood giftedness and actually CARED about us and not just the rich white kids.They understood the pressures we were under to conform, the low expectations others had of us, that our boredom would be misconstrued as defiance, inattention, and lack of ability and they worked to keep us engaged.

We were with peers who respected us, who didn't bully us, who

(FWIW, a significant percentage of my gifted program classmates grew up and left behind poverty, crappy 1 bedroom slum apartments,trailers etc and became well respected, and financially successful doctors.Some are senators and politicians. Me? I'm po',but I'm from an established upper middle class background and sort of went the bohemian rebel way because I didnt share the same hunger and fear of living in squalor that many classmates did.)

Re the gender disparity- Need more male teachers. Female teachers are IMO more likely to prefer quiet sedate girls to rowdy boys.

Voluminously Yours said...

I had a rather similar experience growing up poor in a rich suburb. I had been placed in the TAG program early in Elementary school but my grades lagged behind because I was consistently bored reading books for school that I had finished two or three years prior. My fourth and fifth grade classes were combined and I was finally excelling in fourth grade with a teacher who was willing to invent an independent study program to keep me interested.

However, when that teacher left on maternity leave during the beginning of fifth grade and we got a substitute for the first few months she could not comprehend why I was so misplaced. When my standardized tests placed me at the top of the class she insisted that the score was a fluke and demanded a retest.

I ended up scoring higher the second time around, and needless to say my mom was furious. When the substitute was asked why she hadn't contacted my parents about any of this beforehand, the sub responded, "Well he just didn't look like a boy whose parents would care enough for me to call."

gordon gartrelle said...

I was the only kid placed in the "academically talented" program in Kindergarten. The entrance test consisted of a teacher asking me to name a pickle.

I had pretty good experiences with the program, actually. We did interesting science inquiry projects. All the kids should have had the same opportunities. I don't remember any teachers being hostile or condescending to me (but my parents were no nonsense and my dad was a teacher).

My middle school gifted teacher was a very cool black woman who used to take me aside and have non-dumbed down political conversations with me.

In high school, There were only two black kids in the Honors and AP classes: me and another black girl. Never had any real problems there that had to do with me being black.

Working in the public school system today, however, I see a lot of suspect things going on with black kids and academic placement. This is one of the instances in which the boys get the short end of the stick.

Big Man said...

I went to all black schools for most of my schooling. I was always top of my class.

I only had the problems you discussed when attending schools with white folks. My intelligence and attitude didn't change, but the perceptions of that intelligence and attitude did. By the grace of God, I had strong parents who would not allow me to become a statistic, but many folks don't.

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

Sounds familiar.

In my district, the way they got around desegregation (the main "minority" was Latinos...we Blacks were few/far bt., and this was not implemented until 1978) was to resegregate the curriculum into some b.s. called "core" and "core plus". The "core plus", music, special ed, gifted, was what they decided to "bus".

All kids like me, in music and so-called "gifted", knew, was that we got to escape regular schooling, once or twice a week.

We all rode with the special ed/speech kids, so no one knew which of us were the next Dudamel, or had a stutter or were supposedly borderline geniuses.

But it was completely counterintuitive to have The Black Child on a bus to the low-income part of the district, since we lived in the (overwhelmingly, suffocatingly, cross-burning) white suburban part. The entire setup, and the district's approach to desegregation was a joke, from start to finish.

So was "gifted", since our teacher was going through a divorce and spent a lot of her time in the corner, crying.

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

Also meant to add one of the joys of all-white private Christian high school, in which some bigot English teacher they'd hired away from bummfrack .ca decided to teach Huck Finn, and have the children read aloud from the text going around the room.

My mother hit the roof when I came up with a "C" on the mid term and she stormed the dumb bigot teacher's office (both my parents were both ordained ministers and public school teachers, yes, with something to prove to the whites using their aquisition [me] as their perennial test case.) Dummkopf teacher told mother he felt I was "intimidated by the reading material", along the lines of "can't comprehend it". What none of the interested parties knew was that there was a lot more going on than a desire to prove my personal "merit" to a bunch of 15 year old dyed-in-the-wool bigots.

There are a lot of "growin' up queer in Reagan-Era Prison Camp High" stories. Here are a couple more if anyone's interested http://bit.ly/bOxtRx

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

Crap - sorry, link didn't work http://bit.ly/bOxtRx

TMA said...

I was placed in my school system's G&T program in kindgergarten. I was tested by parental request telling my parents about a boy named Ronnie (can't believe I remember that!) who got to leave class to read extra books...I wanted to read extra books, too. My parents had no idea that program existed. I'm glad I was a self-motivator. Haha!

I remained in G&T classes until I left my school system to attend a public residential high school 2.5 hours away from my home for my junior and senior years. I'm so thankful I urged my parents to get me tested. I wouldn't have had many of the opportunities I had if I hadn't been seen by teachers as "smart" and been in those classes.

G&T classes only seemed to really make a difference in middle and high school. My English and math classes always covered more material in more depth than did those of folks who were not in those classes. They were also much more interesting. By the time I got to middle school (and this was the case throughout high school), out of 30 students in G&T, only two were black...myself (a black female) and a black male. While I enjoyed those classes because they were interesting and challenging, I hated, especially in high school, questioning racial assumptions made by the teacher (this occurred all the time in English) and being the "Black voice."

I think the system is corrupt and needs to be changed. Why shouldn't all children have challenging, engaging classes? Why does it take being in G&T classes for black children to be seen as "smart" and worthy of time? Why the gender gap? (And I ask that as a graduate of Spelman College.) However, I know I would fight to get any children I may have in those classes. I know that the quality of instruction is better and that being "positively" tracked opens doors. I also know it's mainly a subjective and BS system. Again, I will fight for my future children because despite all of my education, I know that I will most likely be unable to afford the cost of private school (I live in Brooklyn). Ain't America great?

I'm a long time reader. This is my first comment. Thank you for talking about this.