I have been blessed to teach in the urban school district of Pittsburgh for more than 20 years. Although much has changed in public education — as we have moved into and through the “school reforms” highlighted by No Child Left Behind — among the constants are two mutually exclusive facts of life.
One: Whether we express it this way or not, teachers struggle to live by medical practitioners’ maxim of “First, do no harm” in regard to our students.
Two: So much of what we are required to do pushes us to face the reality that sometimes we do just that.
Among the more consistent harms we inflict is the identification and segregation of students into clusters of so-called “gifted” (or “gifted and talented”) groups — which separates them from all the “others.”
Whether that labeling and segregation involves taking students out of a building for a day, or into “special” classrooms for “enriching” activities, or in some places going so far as to set aside whole schools for “gifted” students, it does not change the bottom line. Children — developing young people — are classified, and are aware of being classified, in ways that give them false identities.
A few isolated aspects of a child’s “strengths” or “gifts” or “talents” — as perceived and analyzed via flawed-to-just-plain-wrong tests and “analyses” — determine the way in which the child is seen by the whole teaching and learning community. They also determine what kind of “enrichment” (usually fun) activities the child is entitled to. Most of all, “making” or “not making” the cut distorts a developing self-image and sometimes irreparably damages the child.
A story on the other side of the labeling phenomenon — equally destructive to a child’s self-image and to our society:
Catherine was having a good 8th-grade experience. For years she had been subjected to the message that comes over the school’s speaker system on Mondays calling on all “gifted students” to report to the buses for the day’s trip to the “gifted center.” Even though the words have been changed to name the school the students are going to, and the word “gifted” is no longer spoken out loud, she knew. And she knew she was not invited. For much of her middle school time, she had withdrawn from class discussions when the “gifted” students were present, choosing to read “baby books” and repeating, “I can’t write” when faced with a composition assignment. But this year is different. This year, she has teachers who have helped her recognize that she has a lot to say, and she’s begun to pour ideas onto paper, simultaneously reaching for more interesting and challenging reading. She has begun to see herself differently.
This Monday the school speaker system is calling, again, for her classmates, her peers, to board the bus that will leave without her. She has come to school with heightened interest today, because she is confident that she will get good news that will show the progress she knows she’s been making. I am concerned, because I know she is looking to the results of just one test, which will either replace or confirm her “non-gifted” label. As we look together at the screen on which her score appears, Catherine is the first to respond to numbers similar to those from her last test. That screen — one moment in her hours and weeks of her school life — puts a very different label on her. It sets her aside from her classmates and friends and future workmates and neighbors by giving her a label the opposite of “gifted,” replacing all of the notebooks full of her writing, all of the discussions she’s led on what she and her classmates are reading, all of the positive reports home, as it echoes that school speaker system call that leaves her out. I watch in a temporary daze of powerlessness as she jumps up, runs to the table where her writing awaits, dives under it, bangs her head over and over again on the floor, chanting, “I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid.” When the “gifted” kids rejoin her class on Tuesday, the message will be reinforced for her. There are two groups of students — the worthy, and the low-scoring kids like her.
Two years later, scrolling through the rolls of students at her high school, I am not surprised to see that her name has disappeared. She is now “out of the system.”
When the bus pulls away from the school, taking the anointed children to their enrichment place, who is left behind?
From my experience, those who are “not gifted” include a symphony of spirit, intellectual and academic talents, senses of humanity, leadership skills, and exemplifiers of what humanity is at its best.
These attributes are equally, if not more, varied and necessary as those of the group that carries the GIEP (gifted individualized education plan) labels with them. Usually those left behind better reflect the cross section of humanity that our public schools serve. Always the group that is left behind sustains gaps in self-confidence created by the absence of the GIEP.
Some educators may internalize this labeling in ways they are not aware of, lowering their expectations for students who are not classified as gifted. Whole systems are in place in some schools that push these students into rote learning and/or computerized “interventions,” assuming that they are not ready for the enrichment their “gifted” peers supposedly need. Equally damaging to these anointed children is the impression they are given by their schools that they somehow are more talented, worthy, educable, with more valid ideas and insights, than their peers who are not so labeled.
On the other hand, many of us who are blessed to be with the “other” children find ourselves working especially hard to also provide them with special opportunities to reflect the reality that each of them brings with them talents, insights, personal characteristics, and, above all, potentials just as deserving as every other child’s for recognition, encouragement, and enrichment. Here’s another representative story:
James is an African American high achiever. In 7th grade he had a well-fed passion for reading and writing and for social justice, which led him to decide to become a journalist. Since 6th grade he led his Reading and Social Studies classes in exploring history and current social issues, in reading classic and current literature, and in writing investigative and persuasive pieces that have been the core of exciting debates and discussions. He became a leader of Student Council, finding, advocating for, and helping to put together campaigns to bring solidarity and relief to people in need in Haiti and in impoverished local neighborhoods.
Like his college-attending siblings, James is the product of a home led by a self-educated single mom determined that her children will get the education they deserve. Through middle school, she has found that for them in the public schools. However, none of them has been “identified gifted.” In fact, in 1st grade, James was identified “learning disabled.” The fact that he was now at the top of his class did not make up for his lack of that GIEP, which would prevent him from easy access to the advanced classes in high school to which all students with that GIEP had automatic entry. So his mom readily responded to a plot I developed with James, and the three of us met with one of our area’s outstanding journalists. He was so impressed with his conversation with James that they developed a plan for James so that once he was in high school he could spend time in the newsroom on a regular basis, getting to know this work from the inside. This “non-gifted” young man, with so many attributes we so need in our world, would continue to spend his Monday mornings hearing that announcement that would continue to exclude him and so many peers; for still, he had not earned that “gifted” label.
As our society becomes more and more divided between haves and have-nots, we, who care about children, need to recognize this: Our schools are places where children can thrive, and also places where harmful systems hurt children. Each and all of us owes it to our children to make our precious public schools places where all children know that they are needed, that they are extraordinary and have great potential, and that their communities are working to recognize and open doors for their unique and special talents. All of our children. Each one of them.
It is past time for us to call for an end to the labeling and segregation of our children based on assumptions that some are more worthy of — or more in need of — a richer, more stimulating, more challenging education than their peers. Public education’s mission is — or should be — to welcome every child into the richest possible educational environment in which educators provide multiple and varied opportunities for that child to develop as part of a beloved community of learners.
We are going down too many roads that push too many of our children aside, reinforcing the worst of our society’s racist and classist limitations. Let us push back hard.
Kipp Dawson (email@example.com) teaches middle school English/Language Arts in Pittsburgh Public Schools. A different version of this article was previously published in PublicSource. You can visit them at www. publicsource.org.