If you don't label the smartest kids "gifted and talented," will they still get the education they deserve?
That's the question in Baltimore County, where school Superintendent Dallas Dance has proposed eliminating the name in a new policy — the latest move in a larger shift in how the district educates some of its brightest students.
For some parents, it's a move that goes too far.
"When you don't name a population, identification issues arise," said Julie Miller-Breetz. She has gifted and talented children, and chairs a citizen's advisory committee that reports to the county school board.
"It is a small problem, but it is a big problem," she said. "It is a word, but it carries a lot of weight."
Research has shown that gifted and talented children have social and emotional needs that differ from those of other students. State law requires local school districts to identify them and tailor classes to meet their needs.
Baltimore County selects its students in third and fifth grades based on achievement and other, more subjective criteria, including personality, creativity, curiosity and ability to concentrate. Roughly one-fifth of students qualify.
In the past, such students typically were given their own classes, in which teachers guided them through a curriculum developed specifically for them.
But last year, the county changed its approach. In the elementary grades, teachers now teach different levels of students in the same classroom. They break students into groups by ability, and then work their way around the classroom, instructing each of the groups according to its level. Educators say the small-group model allows them to move students in and out of groups more easily.
Dance wants to codify the approach in a new policy, which is scheduled to receive a public hearing this week.
Nowhere in the new policy do the words "gifted and talented" appear. In its place, the county uses the term Advanced Academics, an umbrella name that includes gifted and talented, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes for high-achieving students.
Wade Kerns, the county's coordinator of advanced academics, said the name reflects the change in approach. "We made a change in our philosophy and practice," Kerns said. "We wanted to be aligned with what is on the ground."
Kerns said the term gifted and talented is too narrow to encompass the range of the district's offerings for bright students.
Jeanne Paynter, a former director of gifted and talented education for the state Department of Education, said the county risks running afoul of state law.
"Gifted and talented has 60 years of research documenting the needs of the student, the characteristics, the methods to identify and the methods to serve" those students, said Paynter, who now teaches at McDaniel College.
"Lumping all the programs together is fine," she said. "But where is the policy that stands up for the rights and needs for this special needs group?"
Kerns said the district is following state law.
"There is no danger that it is going to go away because we haven't used those three words in our policy," he said.
The school board has scheduled a hearing on the proposed policy on Tuesday. The board is scheduled to vote on Sept. 13.
Miller-Breetz said other districts in the state lack policies for identifying and teaching gifted students. Without such policies, she says, districts can too easily change or drop the programs. She called on the Maryland State School Board last month to hold districts accountable to the requirements of the law.
"The word gifted, complex as it is, really does mean something," Miller-Breetz said. "It takes students out of the purely academic sphere and into the unique social and emotional sphere that gifted and talented kids often inhabit."