Md. right to adopt new regulations for gifted and talented programs

New rules on school gifted and talented programs approved today by the state board of education have drawn fire from a coalition of groups that say such programs harm poor and minority students. The critics, which include Casa de Maryland and the Montgomery County NAACP, argue that the very act of labeling some students and not others as gifted creates winners and losers, and that the principal victims of such inequality are African-Americans, Hispanics and students from low-income families.

But surely the solution isn't to abolish gifted and talented programs entirely, as the critics propose. Rather, it should be to make sure as many minority and low-income children as possible participate in academically enriched programs. The state ought to be working closely with advocacy groups to identify and recruit such students and to monitor their progress. That's not "elitism," as critics charge, but an altogether worthwhile effort to draw out the best from the state's most exceptional students.

Nor is the board's action in any way an attack on poor and minority students. It merely specifies how local school districts should go about identifying gifted children, designing programs for them and reporting on their efforts.

Under the new rules, children as young as 3 could be identified as gifted. This has prompted some critics to complain that 3 is much too young to start labeling kids, gifted or otherwise — even though such arguments are at odds with how the state treats other students whose circumstances are in some way different, such as those with learning disabilities or physical or emotional disabilities. Virtually every study suggests that early identification of such children allows educators to intervene in ways that benefit these youngsters and that the benefits continue throughout their school careers. Why should it be any different for those who are uniquely gifted in music, mathematics, art or science? Moreover, the regulations do not require districts to identify such young children as gifted but merely create a framework for doing so if they choose.

There's no evidence to suggest gifted and talented programs harm kids who aren't enrolled in them. It's counterproductive to put kids in academic settings that are beyond their abilities because they are likely to become discouraged when they can't keep up. Yet, by the same token, it's just as bad to put unusually precocious youngsters in classes below their ability level; the result is usually that they get bored and never learn to realize their full potential because nobody recognizes they have it. The critics' solution — to put everyone in the same class but to rely on the teacher to present targeted material to students of widely varying ability levels — serves no one well, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

Granted, many children identified as gifted and talented traditionally have had well-educated, affluent parents who lavish them with attention, stimulating experiences and praise from infancy. There's little doubt a family's socioeconomic status is a significant — though not determining — factor in school success.

Yet those who criticize gifted and talented programs on principle as elitist and exclusive seem to forget that minority and low-income parents often are just as committed to cultivating their children's innate gifts with the same loving intensity as their more affluent neighbors, despite frequently having fewer resources. Indeed, many minority and low-income parents fully recognize the value an excellent education has for their children's futures. The difference is, affluent parents have the means to provide challenging experiences for their children even if they are unavailable in public school; poor parents often do not.

Most school systems already offer a range of instructional strategies that are consciously geared to students of different ability levels, even when the programs aren't formally labeled gifted and talented. Honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, "college track" programs and other designations are all ways of grouping together students of higher ability who can benefit from a more challenging curriculum and enriched academic programs. Gifted and talented programs should remain part of that mix.

The state board is right to push local school districts to adopt uniform standards for the early identification of exceptionally able youngsters and to devise programs that allow them to develop their talents to the full. And as the board surely knows, those programs won't be fulfilling their stated mission unless they reflect the state's diversity in terms of minority and low-income student enrollments.

More than ever, Maryland's future depends on nurturing the young minds of those who will be its future innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, artists and musicians. The state would be foolish to ignore their extraordinary gifts, or throw away the years of effort their parents put into cultivating them.

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