Earlier this year the Fordham Institute wrote about the challenge of the gifted gap in our nation’s schools. Put simply, gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds too often are not identified as gifted, which causes them to lose out on access to a variety of gifted-and-talented programs at their local schools that could accelerate their development and social and economic opportunities.
The report’s authors offer seemingly three solid recommendations toward this end—universal screening for gifted students; identification of gifted students within each school, not just district-wide; and active efforts to counter bias.
Those make sense if we assume gifted programs are a good idea. But in a day and age where we can move past our factory-model schools and personalize learning for all students, such that students can move at their own pace and not grow bored or disengaged and can dive deep into areas of passion, should schools be in the business of placing labels on students designed to sort them?
Count me as unconvinced.
In 2010, a fifth-grade student named Jack (his name is disguised) started the year at the bottom of his class in math at Santa Rita Elementary School in the Los Altos School District in California. I visited the class several times during the year. Jack had struggled to keep up in math and grew to consider himself one of those kids who would just never quite ‘‘get it.’’ In a typical school, he would have been tracked and placed in the bottom math group—and he certainly would not have been considered a “gifted” student. That would have meant that he would not have taken Algebra until high school, which would have negatively impacted his college and career choices.
But Jack’s story took a less familiar turn. His school transformed his class into a “blended-learning” environment to personalize the learning. After 70 days of using Khan Academy’s online math tutorials and exercises for a portion of his math three to four days a week, rather than remaining tracked in the bottom math group, Jack rose to become one of the top four students in his class. He was working on material well above grade level.
The reality was that Jack had just missed some mathematical concepts in much earlier grades that continued to haunt him. When he had the opportunity to revisit those concepts and master them, several of his misunderstandings disappeared. Jack started to soar.
The traditional system would never have been able to reach Jack. Its treatment of students like him amount to educational malpractice, even though we do not call it so. Labeling other kids as gifted would have damaged Jack’s ability to make progress, both because of his self-perception as well as others’ perception of him.
As Jack’s performance changed, Jack’s self-perception changed as well. I am also fairly certain that Jack’s performance, as well as that of his classmates, will remain uneven, with bursts of accelerated progress and periods of struggle.
Closer to home in Lexington, Mass., where I live, over coffee a parent told me that his daughter in the eighth grade was anguishing over whether to take regular or honors math next year in high school. The stress over the decision was intense, he said. As stress like this builds, he told me that many parents were considering taking their students out of the public school system. I couldn’t believe this was all just over what math class a 14-year-old should take. Why did she have to choose, label herself, and place herself on a track with no flexibility?
If Lexington Public Schools moved to a mastery-based system, one in which students progress as they master material, not based on an arbitrary measure of time, and utilized blended learning to personalize for each student, she could just take “math.” Lexington High School could maintain a minimum pace at which she had to move and then she and the school could see how far and deep she could move in mathematics. In the course of taking it, she might surprise herself—and avoid closing off a door too early. If colleges really needed a label later to evaluate her, the school could retroactively provide one based on her actual progress.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for saying everyone is above average and giving medals for participation. A mastery-based system is more rigorous than our current one because students would only make progress by demonstrating mastery of learning. Rewards would only follow true mastery. But I’m also unconvinced applying labels makes sense when, in a personalized system, those same labels could be wrong and outdated on any given day. Labeling risks shortchanging a lot of students. And society loses, as we miss out on fully developing future human capital.
If we give students like Jack the stretch opportunities they need to soar without labeling them gifted—or avoid incorrectly labeling them and taking away those same opportunities—don’t we create a better system?
The more important principle is to make sure we do not shortchange students based on their race, income, or gender. And if we start judging everyone based on mastery, I think our chances are a lot higher of fixing that problem than if we continue to obsess about labels.