THE DEFINITION of gifted and talented remains elusive. Some school systems use standardized tests to identify smart students. Others, including Anne Arundel County, rely on teacher observations and parental advocacy.
Some parents and educators might regard students who earn straight-A's as gifted, but grades could mean different things in different schools. Then there are debates over whether standardized tests really measure ability or potential. Are the tests so racially and culturally biased that some children are handicapped? Are some smart children just poor standardized test-takers?
How many truly gifted and talented children are there anyway? Are we talking about the top three percentile in each grade, or even a smaller group that consists only of those competitive enough for Westinghouse scholarships?
'Gifted hard to define
Not even Johns Hopkins University's well-regarded Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth can say for sure what giftedness is and what it isn't.
Spokesman Charles Beckman said the term "giftedness" is difficult, if not impossible, to define.
The institute attracts bright students throughout the nation whose parents can afford academic summer camps it operates by the program. It seeks The program looks for children in the 97 percentile or higher in the different areas of academics, and it looks for 7th-graders who can score above 1,200 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
"If you do have a true math genius on your hand, that kid is going to score in the 700s or 800 on the math portion of the SAT," Mr. Beckman said.
Seven types of intelligence
Beyond that, Mr. Beckman points to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner and his seven types of intelligence, which postulates that children may be gifted in many ways:
1) Linguistic: Able to read, write and perform other language skills at a high level.
2) Interpersonal: Highly capable of dealing with others, being a leader.
3) Intrapersonal: Self-motivated.
4) Logical: Keen ability to detect patterns, categories and relationships, which may be apparent in math, strategy games and experiments.
5) Kinesthetic: Process information through physical function, such as athletes, dancers and craftsmen.
6) Musical: Discriminating listeners who grasp differences in sounds.
7) Spatial: Thinking in images and pictures, such as mazes, jigsaw puzzles or Lego blocks.
Under Dr. Gardner's model, children who are quite normal in most categories may be highly gifted in others.
Most every parent wants his or her child labeled as gifted; some have pushed school systems for more programs to nourish superior abilities.
Two Anne Arundel parents formed a lobby recently to become advocates for smart students as parents elsewhere have done with success in the past. Anne Arundel County Public Schools officials have welcomed their organization, as they should. The gifted and talented lobby is forming just as the school system is preparing to resume a major part of a program that has been on hiatus for a year because of a funding shortfall. Although accelerated programs have remained in place, 18 resource teachers are returning to supervise activities designed to stimulate energetic young minds.
Unlike the previous program, however, the 18 resource teachers will not be assigned only to the county's 18 middle schools. The instructors also will have responsibility for the county's 76 elementary schools in a K-8 format.
Teachers will work in classrooms with the brightest children instead of separating them from classmates, says Diane Sprague, coordinator of the county's gifted and talented programs.
"This is more of a plug-in than pull-out," she says.
This arrangement gives middle school students less time with resource teachers than under the existing program.
Less is good?
It is hard to imagine that less can be just as good.
Ms. Sprague points out that Anne Arundel has continued to offer accelerated programs for children who perform above grade level in certain subjects. The system also has after-school enrichment programs at the U.S. Naval Academy and the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts.
If public schools had the U.S. Mint at their disposal, officials could spend more than they do on programs to give that extra lift to bright children. But schools don't have that luxury, just as many parents can't send their children to the Hopkins institute's summer camps at $2,000 a pop.
Nonetheless, schools must use their resources to stimulate the minds of all students. That might mean helping one student explore the Euclidean algorithm while getting another to master the multiplication table.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.