Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ambition and Ability

While talking of parenting challenges, a desi of my acquaintance told me about her experience getting her son into the gifted and talented program at his public school. Apparently, she coached the kid for close to a year before he took the identification test. Her husband was not convinced that their child was truly gifted and actually frowned upon her efforts to force fit him where he probably did not belong. She persisted because she did not think her son was any less able than a lot of other kids she knew who were in the program. Her efforts paid off - she was rather proud of her accomplishment.

The boy has now acquired the coveted label of "gifted" something that enjoys cachet in desi social circles. Her husband, despite his initial reservations is happy for the kid. I was quick to attribute such over-zealousness to her being desi given our cultural predisposition to push kids a little too hard to achieve academic excellence. I found out that I was very wrong in that assessment.

In NYC for instance, there are coaching centers that prepare 6-7 year old kids for the OLSAT and a battery of other "IQ" tests used by public schools for gifted identification. Their efficacy can be judged by that up to three fourths of the class in certain schools earn the coveted "gifted" tag. Now, statistically that makes as much sense as every parent thinking that their child is above average does. Instead of the top one or two percent of the population, we have seventy-five percent making the high intellectual ability grade. Even after adjusting for the high density of well educated, high-intelligence and high-income parents in the area, the seventy-five percent figure is much too high. It does appear to suggest one of two things - either the bar is set too low or the identification process is seriously flawed. Either way, the "gifted and talented" label suffers loss of value and credibility.

It is no wonder then that schools often tell parents that every child is gifted and any early signs of being special will all but even out by the third grade - that is when most kids are reading at grade level or higher. They tend to be skeptical when parents claim that their child is too bright to be in regular classroom. It makes sense because it is hard for them to tell a hot-housed kid performing at several grade levels higher apart from one who is a natural and therefore meriting their attention. It can be argued that a child driven to achieve, should be given the same opportunities as one whose raw talent makes such achievement come by with much less conscious effort, schools seem to view the two qualities as distinctly different.

When you pit the prepared to the teeth kids (like those being coached and primed at home like my desi friend's son or by test preparation professionals in big cities) against those who come into these tests cold (as I believe they should for the results to mean anything at all), the competition becomes somewhat uneven if not unfair. The test instead of
measuring ability ends up measuring achievement doing disservice to everyone in the process. It seems that there is no clear way to tell the two types of students apart.

The truly gifted get lumped along with those who have merely worked hard and mastered a set of skills - having grown up in India, I am only too familiar with students who are master test takers but are entirely unremarkable otherwise. This variety would form the lowest common denominator of a TAG classroom. As a result, those truly deserving of the label "gifted" (for what it is worth) are not served well even with this advanced curriculum - they continue to struggle to fit it, find a peer group that equals their intellectual and creative abilities.While they have some respite from the monotony of their regular classroom , they still don't get the challenge and the mental stimulation they need in their "gifted classroom" - because of such less than satisfactory outcomes, books such as Genius Denied get written.

Now, if the schools were to raise the bar and say there will be a program for high-achievers and a separate one for who have exceptionally high innate ability, chances are that that the parents who are bent on hot-housing the kids so they make it into the TAG programs, would now train their kids to reach the higher bar. It would perhaps become a status issue for them for their children to not make it to the top of the scale. It is no-win situation for both the cash and resource strapped public schools and the the kids who really need a very different kind of education to make the most of their truly special gifts.

The gifted program in public schools, is one of the many things about America that had sounded wonderful to me growing up in India. I believed that there was a different and better way to educate children. The idea that every child's innate ability would be recognized and nurtured to reach its full potential sounded like the ultimate dream in a crowded classroom of forty five kids where teachers had neither the time for nor interest in being talent scouts. We were on our own, churning through the system mostly on auto-pilot, sinking or swimming as we went. As I get familiar with how it really works here in America, I am not sure that the program is everything I once imagined it might be.


Kamana Sharma said...

The gifted program may give a status symbol to a parent but i believe it will give the child the confidence that he/she is good. Though it is debatable if this 'really' is true because of the above mentioned reasons :).

unpredictable said...

I love the way you write. It's unassuming and doesn't try to please. And i LOVE that little book mark/ bell thing on the top right of your page :)

Rohini said...

I wonder if they have done research into whether these so-called gifted kids actually perform better or are more successful as adults...