Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Talented and the Gifted

My son's "talented and gifted" (TAG) test results have finally come back (actually, they've been sitting undiscovered in his backpack for 2 wks).  He indeed qualifies--by a long shot. 

I've grumbled and agonized about 1) why it took his school so long to agree with me that he is possibly smart (much less TAG); and 2) whether and how identifying him as TAG will actually make a positive difference for him.

On the first point, the kids at his school that have stereotypical Aspergers symptoms are tested right away. I'm not saying that the kids are actually diagnosed with Aspergers.  Rather, at his school, those traits (problems in social interaction, motor clumsiness, encyclopedic of a narrow subject, etc) are equated with TAG more readily than any other signs.  The other factor ensuring that a child is tested early is parent request.  According to the TAG coordinator, a fair number of kids tested do not qualify. 

Like my son, our neighbor was not tested until 4th or 5th grade (at mother's request, not teacher's)--she tested practically off the charts.  Who knows how many TAG kids are missed.  I imagine kids who are English as a second language and kids of lower economic strata are most harmed by this faulty system.  In sum, our teachers do not seem effective at identifying TAG students.  This, in itself, is a big mark against the TAG program.

My other issue concerns the benefits of TAG.  The TAG handbook notes that TAG students can take more advanced classes.  But my son qualified for that anyway, without TAG.  TAG students can also skip a grade, but I don't think my son would benefit much from that.  He'd be removed from his social circle and also would have a much harder time qualifying for sports teams, as he'd be a year younger than everyone else.  He likes playing sports.

I'm sure my anxiety and resistance to TAG has to do with my own experiences in school.  I skipped 4th grade, and when I entered middle school (6th grade), my mission was to hide my intellect and socially succeed through mastering "normative femininity."  I didn't advertise my gpa to classmates.  Through I.Q. testing, I was placed in the "academically talented" class--but I never told my friends what I did in 4th period.  That 4th period class included me and maybe 8-9 other kids--I was a cheerleader, most of the rest socialized over playing Dungeons and Dragons.  We all got along well, but I wasn't close with them.

I felt a forced choice at my school--one was either "academically talented" OR popular.  Interestingly, this was NOT directly enforced by the popular kids.  Indeed, the cruel harassment that I recall now came through other academically talented kids.  I remember on the 7-hour bus ride transporting the entire district's "academically talented" juniors and seniors to the Shakespeare Festival, a group kept kept jeering me for my letter jacket (I was on a couple teams, not just cheerleading).  They were surprisingly aggressive about it.

Another time, my summer cheerleading camp shared a campus with an academically talented program of some sort.  My friend and I thought we had befriended two foreign students with strong accents, who kept asking us to tell them all about cheerleading in America.  On the last day, in front of a lunch table full of their "intellectually-gifted" friends, these "foreign" students (now minus the accents) told us, "Did you know that the word 'gullible' is not in the dictionary?'"  Howls of laughter erupted at the expense of the stupid cheerleaders.  Ironically, my 5-member squad produced a medical doctor, a corporate lawyer, a teacher, a professor, and a stay-at-home mom (perhaps not too far off from that lunch table of geniuses).

The popular kids, in contrast, were mostly unaware of the kids in the academically-talented program. They certainly didn't spend time constructing a week-long ruse to humiliate them, much less even look their way on the bus.  The anti-intellectual pressure was more quotidian, if less creative: pressure to not use an advanced vocabulary; laughs when one of the guys acted stupid; positive attention from boys when a girl performed what we might call "airheaded femininity" (I like to believe that I never succumbed to that).

As usual, this is a series of reflections with no specific conclusion.  I am working to separate my issues from my child's.  I don't think he has any issues--except that problem with horrific spelling. But as the TAG handbook tells me, that is not an uncommon trait for TAG kids.  Horray!


  1. Interesting perspective. I don't have kids but many of my friends who do are struggling with similar issues.

    I went to a school that was dead-center mediocre, had some G&T (as they called it) through 6th grade, then no AP, but if your parents were pushy enough, they let you take classes at the local community college. So, at 15, I was taking college courses in Spanish, art, and Latin. (You were supposed to take math, but I didn't like math and finding loopholes is what I am most gifted and talented at, really).

    I sidestepped the popularity issue by being a theater geek, and this was the idyllic days when you didn't have to worry about cyberbullying etc. so I escaped relatively unscathed. I'm glad I didn't pick up the obsessive perfectionism that some of my friends got from magnet schools, but the bad habit of 'skating' (because I didn't have to work hard) has stayed with me.

    I still don't know what the right answer is when it comes to smart kids. I was bored in school and now I often wish I'd absorbed more when I still could, but there's no denying the anti-intellectual tendencies of hormonally crazed teenagers, and I'm glad I wasn't completely out of the social loop. I mean, I still don't self-identify as a proper nerd even now, I'm definitely more of a geek.

    When I was teaching, I became ruthlessly Darwinian about the issue -- yeah, smart kids, I know it sucks that you're bored/in charge, but guess what? That's gonna be the rest of your life so you may as well learn to deal with it...but that was at the college level, so I don't imagine it's a good strategy for younger kids. I think you can only do your best to keep theme entertained/stimulated, while explaining the reality of the world to them.

  2. I can definitely relate to "finding loopholes is what I am most gifted and talented at, really." Very funny and tragically true for my life too. In high school, I somehow arranged to avoid the honors class (or any class) of "xyz" by sitting in study hall instead so that I could "study" the subject and test out of it the next summer. Stupid! I should have just taken the class. Who let me get away with that?! Worst part is that I ended up with a PhD in something very close to xyz.

  3. From an elementary teacher and mom of two gifted adults (25 &27)

    Gifted and Talented classes depend on the teacher of the class. If they are creative, the class can be wonderful. Most districts will not test before third grade since the IQ settles around that age. Gifted classes are federally mandated but federally unfunded. More and more districts are moving into G only, which is sad for those who are gifted in other areas than academics.
    It drives me crazy that we will spend $10,000 more on a child who does not have the capacity to feed themselves instead of on the child who could cure cancer. Grease goes on the wheel that squeaks.

    As far as skipping grades, I totally agree with with your assessment. It is slowly becoming acceptable to be smart in school.
    Our son started school young. It was suggested that he skip fourth grade. We held him- since his father had skipped and regretted it. Our son still wags his finger at us for starting him young because his strength for sports was a year behind those he competed with. You were well rounded. I am sure you want your child to be as well.

    We told both our children that their purpose was to be the best and to bring a friend to be the best with them. In high school they both competed in sports and were the captains. They started clubs. They did independent studies with teachers who held feet to fire- reading books that the average student would not have tried. Believe me, WE were the ones seeking out those teachers and placing them in those classes.
    In college our son took 26 hours a semester. He didn't want to miss out in learning anything. Graduated in Physics and Chinese. Well balanced, he does not play games to get what he wants.
    Our daughter rebelled against school. She now runs a large social network in her area of the country while she "stays at home" with our grandson. Her husband, gifted as well, was a Marine linguist and now makes more at twenty-three than most academic people, without the benefit of college. There are many roads for gifted adults.

    Help your child be balanced. It sounds like your parents did that for you. Carry on the tradition.
    Obviously the "letter" that he was accepted in the backpack means he is good where he is at. If he wanted more, he would have been waving it in front of your face. I hope your "gifted teacher" is better than most that we encountered in our children's nine schools. If they aren't, then it is up to you to nurture their spirit!

  4. Thanks for the insight. Our school district has many high-performing and TAG kids, but I don't think the funding is at all impressive. And the TAG coordinator is overworked and definitely under-inspired (another reason I held off getting son tested). It is definitely up to us nurture my kids spirit here! I'm glad you emphasized balance. Your kids seem to be doing well AND well-adjusted. Refreshing!