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Riding on their Coattails


Do you realize what you’re saying‽‽‽

I have a pet peeve. Well, my sister would tell you that I have more than one pet peeve … but when it comes to the education of gifted children, there’s something that really irritates me. I have a few examples that will help me to explain and illustrate…

A month or two ago, a tiny article appeared deep in an area newspaper with the headline, “Chancellor wants math, science program for elite high schoolers.” The article stated that the chancellor at Montana Tech (an excellent engineering, math, science, and mining school) is considering creating a residential program for about 40 of Montana’s top math and science students. They would be dual enrolled in high school and college for the two year program. The students would be selected based on test scores, interviews, and recommendations, and would have to be Montana residents at least 15 years old. An anonymous donor is willing to help significantly with the program’s costs.

While many, if not most, of you live in states where Governor’s Schools and other such similar options are available for some of your gifted students, nothing of the sort exists here in Montana. To my knowledge, this would be the first option of its kind in my state.

I excitedly read the little article until I came upon the last paragraph. And that’s when my ears started steaming: “Concerns include the effect on local school districts if their top students transferred to the program at Tech. Districts’ financial support is based partly on the size of enrollment, and outstanding students often help to boost schools’ composite scores on standardized tests.”


It’s been over a month since I first saw the article and cut it out, and my heart still races in anger when I read that!!!

Never mind their education. Never mind their RIGHT TO LEARN. Never mind what’s best for the child. Just make sure the school looks good. Yeah – that’s what’s most important…

Sadly, even in my own amazing district, similar comments have been made. About nine years ago, one of my 4th graders moved rather suddenly to another Montana town part-way through the school year. This was pre-NCLB and back when Montana only tested kids in the 4th, 8th, and 10th grades. When I expressed my dismay and sadness that she had left without being able to say good-bye, another teacher said, “You’re tellin’ me! We were really counting on her to help raise our test scores this year.”

Is that really all that she was valued for? These children do not exist to make us look good!

Not long ago, another one of my 4th grade students chose to attend a private school for a short time, but she soon returned to our school after one semester. When I expressed how happy I was that she was back (and she was thrilled to be back), a certain someone grumbled, “Yes, but since she wasn’t here for the first half of the year, her test scores won’t count for us.”

It makes me want to cry. Can’t we be thrilled that she chose to return, no matter when that return occurred? Can’t we value these kids for who they are, not for what impression their test scores say about us?

I have nine 5th graders this year whom we have subject-accelerated in math. Every day they spend one class period in a 6th grade classroom taking 6th grade math. A couple weeks ago, these kids asked me which CRT math test they would be taking this spring… the 5th grade test or the 6th grade test. They all wanted to take the 6th grade Math CRT because, after all, that’s what they’ve been learning this year. But no – since they are technically 5th graders, they have to take the 5th grade test. When I told a teacher about how bummed out they were by this, she said, “No! We need their scores in the 5th grade!”

Ladies and gentlemen - Do you realize what you’re saying‽‽‽

When any of us as school officials make these kinds of comments, especially when it is a “first reaction” statement, the strong impression given is that our biggest value of these students is their good test scores and the benefits said scores bring to the image of our schools. If that is why we want to keep these kids in our schools, then frankly, we are using these kids for our own gain.

Ask any gifted kid and you’ll find out that that’s not the only time and way they feel used in our schools.

Time and time and time again, teachers pair up gifted, high achieving, and advanced students with struggling students. The going philosophy is “Group work? Make the groups heterogeneous so the top kids can help the struggling learners.” If a gifted student finishes early with an assignment, what do we tell him to do? “You may help the other kids.” Excuse me, but who is the teacher in the room? Whose JOB is it to do the teaching? Is it the responsibility of a quick little eight-year-old? NO. That quick little eight-year-old’s job is to LEARN, not to teach.

About a month ago, I was at a training session where the presenter gave us an activity to do that involved each group randomly selecting a hypothetical classroom scenario from a packet of scenarios. My group (all three of us from the field of gifted education) never completed the activity because we were totally derailed by the inappropriateness of the classroom scenario we happened to select. It read, in part, “The teacher has previously grouped the students into pairs. In each case, a higher-performing student is paired with a lower-performing student. The higher-performing student reads the passage to model correct form for the lower-performing student. The lower-performing student then reads the passage.”

Which student is learning in this scenario? Which student is not learning something new, but, rather, is being used as a surrogate of the teacher?

This presenter travels all over the country training teachers for a particular program. How many thousands of teachers have been trained with that example and given the impression that it is therefore best practice? *sigh* And sadly, how many gifted students, day in and day out, find themselves used in such a manner? It frightens me to contemplate. (Anyone wanting to read the vast literature available on appropriate grouping practices with gifted children can get a great start here.)

A long time ago, I advocated for the offering of advanced or honors classes in a particular subject area in one of our schools. The response from one of the teachers was, “But if you take all of those kids out and put them together, then who’s going to be the ‘spark’ that gets the class discussions going in the remaining classes?”


Um… how about the teacher?

These children have a right to learn! If we don’t stretch them, they aren’t learning anywhere near what they are capable of learning. If we rely on them for shiny, golden test scores, if we rely on them to help us teach the other kids, if we rely on them to get a class discussion going … then for whose benefit do they sit in our classrooms every day‽‽‽



Thank you, thank you for this post.

I can tell you what this attitude among teachers and administrators breeds among highly gifted students: cynicism. And at worst, alienation.

Bright students know exactly what is going on.

Unfortunately, yours isn't the first story of this type that I've read. A couple of articles have reported that students are being deliberately held back from acceleration or other programs in order to make use of their scores on standardized tests. Much of this is being blamed on the NCLB, but when it comes right down to it, the de facto view of gifted children is "how can we make use of them?"

Our space and science competition with the Soviets resulted in increased interest in improving math and science courses and identifying children who were particularly gifted in those areas. Concern for the well-being of gifted children has never resulted in any changes--only concern for how we can use them. I have no hope that this will ever change.

I'm not agreeing that it's right, but there are some ways around the political "downsides" of the state science & math school.

The kids scores can be assigned back to their "home" school. I've heard of school districts that do this for gifted students who are pulled to a gifted magnet -- it encourages the teachers at the "home" school to actually refer the students who need the magnet school.

The students can also be counted as attending their "home" school for funding purposes, assuming that funding for the state school is separate from the normal formula.

I agree with you about 90%. The point where we differ is on "using" gifted students to tutor other students. Although I agree with you that it is often done without regard to either student's needs, I do think that learning to teach; learning to explain things in a way that others can understand, can be as valuable as learning "new material". I think this is something gifted students in particular should be expected to learn and supported in learning. Not just being thrown into being expected to teach other kids without knowing how, and not doing it all the time instead of learning anything new, but as part of a program which also involves challenging work for the gifted student, and with a teacher monitoring both students' experiences, and making suggestions or helping as required.

In my district, the principal of the gifted magnet elementary once told me that he has *more than once* had African American principals of largely African American schools say that they thought the magnet school was great, and they'd love to send their own children there, but that they didn't want to send away the brightest from the schools they headed. Partly as a result of such attitudes (though there are many reasons), the magnet school looks way too white, and puts off even more African American parents from enrolling their children there. EVERYONE LOSES OUT with such a scenario, including the white and Asian gifted kids, who don't get the benefits of an appropriately diverse school, and get saddled with the suspicion that their school is put together on racist grounds.

I think schools should be judged on the amount of *progress* each student makes in a year (value-added assessment). That way schools would concentrate on the populations they can best help -- and often, for the lower-scoring schools, that would mean bringing up the scores of the very lowest. There's plenty of honor to be had in getting a fifth-grader from a second-grade reading level to a fourth-grade one, even if they're still technically below grade level at the end of it. You don't need to average the scores with those of another fifth-grader who reads at seventh-grade level without your help.

I think value-added assessment would help all children directly, more than giving the school "credit" for students who are sent elsewhere would.


I can't recall the number of times that my daughter was used as a surrogate for the teacher. The conversation usually went something like this:
Teacher: "Since you have finished the assignment early, would you please help the other students?"
Daughter: "Ummm, can I do something else? Read a book?"
Teacher: "No! You may not read! If you are going to be a disruption, then you'll have to see the principal."
Daughter: "Uhhh, okay, I guess I'll help."
Public school (even with gifted program) was entirely unproductive, so now we home school our daughter. We are all so much happier.

An example from my 7 year old second grader.... At a parent teacher conference I was told my son was not participating in group activities. I asked exactly what was happening. The teacher explained, "(Your son) completes the work quickly and waits for everyone else to finish." I asked what he should be doing. I was told, "He should help the rest of the group to get the right answers." Starting next year, we will be cyber schooling him. I have had enough of the lack of concern over his need to learn.
Your blog gives me hope that there are teachers out there who really understand my child. If only I lived in Montana!


What you wrote today is so true.

PLEASE, PLEASE come teach at my daughters' school!!!

I have been told that it would be waste to teach my daughter because she could pass the standardized test if they kept her in a cardboard box for a year.

I was also told she needed to learn to be happy when other children learn, not to learn things herself.

When I asked if there could be a cluster grouping of gifted children at my daughters's school, the principal said it wouldn't be fair to the other teachers, because one teacher would have a class with high test scores.

I then suggested that the children's progress be measured and that would be used to rate teachers. I was told this wouldn't be fair because bright kids often don't make a year's progress in a year.

Not once in the conversation did the principal mention that children learning should be a goal.

Why do people, such at the ones in my daughters' school, go into teaching when they are so obviously hostile to bright children?

I agree with MathMom that a small amount of learning to teach others is a valuable part of education. My son's school does it by pairing the students in the highest grade (6th) with the first graders and having one period a week of "buddy time" when the two grades get together and do things (crafts, reading, ...). This buddy time has value for both groups.

The age difference helps to make the relationship clearer also, as it is not helping a peer but being a role model.

Hello to all :o) Thank you for the comments and interaction! When I wrote this post, I debated whether to be more explicit about my overall views on tutoring/mentoring (because I figured this might come up in the comments section), but decided the broader topic was too much of a tangent from my specific point in this post. However, seeing that a few have mentioned the benefits of such relationships (perhaps with the interpretation that I don't share those views, based on my comments above), I shall use this opportunity to expand/clarify. If you read MathMom's link that she posted in her comment, what she says in her blog post closely outlines most of my views on the overall topics of tutoring/mentoring. I have always been a huge proponent of mentoring. As an undergrad, I created a volunteer mentor program that matched up college Honors students with gifted kids in the local K-12 schools. I was a volunteer mentor for the program myself for three years. Until recently, I was President of our local (county & Reservation-wide) Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization for five years. When our middle school here does Healthy Choices Day every year (which would make for a great post topic, but it's not GT specific), I always coordinate the Mentoring activity. And tomorrow night I will be helping our girls' PE teacher with her annual Girls' Night Out, an evening that creates opportunities for positive interaction/mentoring between our middle school girls and about 50 amazing local women. A handful of my high school students each year choose to volunteer as tutors for elementary or middle school students. My "beef" is not with the concepts, principles, and research-proven benefits of mentoring and tutoring. My specific point was that I see the option *mis-used* ... and frankly sometimes even abused, particularly when it comes to our highest-achieving students.

Tamara, thanks for the clarification, and sorry for misunderstanding/misrepresenting your views. You are 100% correct that having kids tutor is often misused or abused, and I believe that this leads to parents having a very negative view of it, and not being able to appreciate its benefits.

The key point here is that gifted students (if not many others) need to be challenged daily, at least in their areas of strength. Teachers should know this and take it as their responsibility.

Your point that the academic and social welfare of students is more important than a teacher's test scores is well taken. When judgments are made by political standards, life is frequently not fair. Teachers still have to do what is right for students.

The research I have seen is pretty clear on the fact that peer tutoring does not help the gifted students at all.

As for the state level tests. They are created to test students at grade levels, and not to test what they have recently learned. That's another political decision that is not fair. You can work with your local teachers union to change that. Especially in math, teach the students what they are ready to learn, and let the test scores fall where they may.

While this might sound cynical, it allows focusing on educational concerns at school and on political concerns elsewhere.

Thank you, thank you, for this post and for your wonderful blog.

Another way that the school use the kids to collect ADA for their attendance while, at the same time they know the kids won't learn anything.

A teacher and the SUPERINTENDENT of my children's school district said that it was unreasonable to expect children to learn something everyday. This is a district that send a pre-emptive nastygram home at the beginning of the school year scolding parents for not sending their kids to school.

Umm, if my kids were learning, they would be in school everyday. But, often (once or twice a month) there are educational things to do outside of school and we do them. Also, there are days when they need to recuperate from the stress of sitting in a class for six hours waiting for something new to learn.

and lets not forget how there can be an extra whammy for our twice exceptional kiddos.

Our school got to take advantage of my son's 99th percentile reading comprehension score all the while insisting his placement towards the bottom of grade level for reading was totally his place to be!

Home schooling by mom over the following summer sorted that one out...so now it is only a single whammy (scores still high but he's grouped more appropriately...but still not challenged, except in his LD area--thats another topic)

And yes our school system is one that likes the bright kids and their scores...but has little challenge for those that are beyond bright. It is particularly bad in the early formative years. I think it does get better later. We still have a few years to survive to get there and find out.

Remember, this "help the other students" idea isn't an NCLB artifact. When I was in school, it was de rigeur for the brighter students to teach the others, particularly in the early grades. Back then we called it "Teacher's Pet" instead of "Peer Tutor" but it's the same concept. And it is still what passes for differentiation for gifted in some classrooms.

It's a bit OT, but my biggest issue with grade level testing, for all children, is that it's completely worthless. It's no wonder we look at kids as nothing more than potential test scores. We test in October, before the teacher has had time to do much beyond learning the students' names, and don't get the results back until April, when it's too late to do anything about a child who is struggling. That's not holding the child *or the teacher* accountable, since we're blaming this year's teacher for last year's learning (or lack thereof). The whole system is screwy.

If we really want standardized testing to gauge academic progress, we need a test in September (with results in weeks, not months) and a follow up test in April or May.

As a teacher and school test coordinator, this topic hit home with me. I heard the exact same comment from a fellow teacher three weeks ago! For many years now, I've been differentiating in the classroom. For me it is not just the right thing to do, but also contibutes to my classroom management. If kids are engaged, they want to be in school, they want to learn, and they will behave.
At a training for our new math program, I was told to keep everyone together because the high kids would help engage the lower kids. Yeah, right! The high kids may contribute more to the discussion, but at the same time the low kids already know that the others have the answers they don't. Why pay attention? Running two math groups, three in some years, is not always easy, but necessary to meet the needs of my diverse learners. It gets easier when procedures are established, everyone is learning, and I don't spend valuable teaching time dealing with behavior issues. Projects and individualized reading programs also help me to meet the needs of all of my students. A conference with one of my gifted kids about a recent test score led to changes in his reading program to help him advance to a higher reading level. Wow! His insight into his learning was amazing! He is highly engaged, when he might otherwise be a disruption. The only time I use mixed groups is for science. Because of a inquiry approach, I find that this is one place where even my lowest reading 4th graders often contribute the most to the group.
Unfortunately, this doesn't happen in all classrooms. Until we all realize that all students must be learning every day, we will continue to deal with disruptions and inappropriate behaviors that stop everyone from learning. Should we send the gifted kids to special class or school? Only if they continue to encounter teachers who treat them as test scores, and not as learners.
Sorry if I've rambled on. You really hit home with this topic.

My daughter was in a biology class in her high school that mixed ability grouped the students. Part of the grade was a group grade. Even if the bright kid did all his/her work, he/she might be penalized by the group grade. Rationale: the bright kid should have motivated the others to do a better job. My daughter often ended up doing the whole thing by herself, just to make sure that the grade was good and not going to hurt her GPA. Effect: the other students chatted and generally had a good time, whereas she worked under noisy and distracting circumstances. Who learned what in this case? My daughter learned that she really hated group work and became a convinced single player. The others learned that they could get a free ride given the right group.
I ended up talking to the bio teacher and he made a U-turn with regard to the grading. At the end of the school year I had the impression that the grading was so loose and arbitrary that basically anything my daughter did was going be ok grade wise. Personally the teacher was nice and I am sure he could have done differently. He seemed to be trying hard to conform to some kind of education philosophy that is being pushed very hard at that school, by the school district, and by some people in the education department of the university of my town.
So I am all for pulling out the kids who can learn more and give it to them.

The only thing I'm wondering is why you were surprised. For many teachers and many administrators, gifted children are a pain. It's really obvious why they're not classified as a separate subgroup under NCLB: because then teachers and administrators might actually have to ensure that gifted students actually make progress. As it is, they're too often kept busy with make-work projects or logic games - anything so they'll be distracted long enough for the teacher to work with the "bubble kids." Their sole VALUE to the school is in raising test scores. That's it. Otherwise, they make too many teachers and too many administrators painfully aware that they're not teaching many of these kids much at all except a profound hatred for school. Sorry to be cynical, but I'm sure you know I'm not lying about it.

I can confirm that "help the other kids" isn't just a NCLB artefact. It happened to me in the 1970s in Australia, too. I used to get pulled out of third grade to read to my old second-grade teacher's current second grade kids, while she did whatever teachers did when they should have been working. Fantastic way to alienate the kids in the year behind to you, or what?

Love the blog topic and these posts! Using kids to teach the class happened long before NCLB. I moved from Illinois back to Ca (only had been to school in Il though) in 1968, supposedly the height of Ca's public ed years. My school in Il had used ability grouping in academic subjects (though no mention was EVER made of this there), so I considered myself an average student who struggled with math and PE. My new CA school made a big deal about having a few "gifted" classes (which were full when I arrived). There were about 5 of us "gifted" kids in a social studies class. We were assigned to work ahead in our book, given access to the teacher's key, and instructed to "help the rest of the class with their questions" while our teacher, whose primary subject was PE, planned "Blue and White Day" and other essential tasks. Not only didn't we learn much that year, but it took till Easter to reach where all levels of classes at my old school had been at Thanksgiving when I left Il (same text book)!
I do however agree with MathMom that it is a valuable experience for bright kids to learn how to explain concepts to kids who haven't yet caught on to them, as long as it is not done all the time, and as long as the teacher gives guidance on how to do it. I think that peer tutoring is a good experience for both parties, so don't agree that the best way to have kids help others is cross-grade. Everyone eventually finds a topic where they need help, and knowing how to ask for this help, and how to receive it, is a valuable lesson for even the most gifted students.

As a parent of 2 gifted boys living in Australia my experience is somewhat different, but oh so familiar sounding.

Here "test" scores are not the way schools receive funding but more so based on the types of students that are within a school.

Children at the lower end of the education spectrum means a school gets more money to teach these programs. Gifted kids aren't "worth" enough money to schools here.

My boys got nothing in terms of their education based on their giftedness but when my eldest was diagnosed with dyslexia the school suddenly sat up and took notice. In the end the only solution was to move them to another school!!

My own experience at school meant I used to "pace" myself with my work, cause I didn't always feel like helping the other kids everyday. If I was in the mood I finished quickly, if I didn't I took my time, waited until two or three others were done, then handed my work in! lol

Gifted Parent Educator

Wow, am I sorry I haven't kept up with this AMAZING blog.

Helen said "schools should be judged on the amount of *progress* each student makes in a year (value-added assessment)" and Rich said "teach the students what they are ready to learn, and let the test scores fall where they may". I couldn't agree more, and with Tamara's post (and outrage).

My own proudest grade was not an A, but a B when I took calculus without having the prerequisites. It was the first time I understood what it felt like to learn - but I had to wait until college for that, and I almost didn't make it. It scares me when my daughters bring home too many A's.

There seems to be a consensus regarding ability grouping for gifted children, but "ability grouping" sounds a lot like "tracking". Besides the negative connotations of the "T" word, there is research to the effect that tracking has a detrimental effect and that mixed-ability grouping has a positive effect on learning. How do we reconcile these disparate points of view? My instinct is to do away with age-based placement and replace it with readiness-based placement. Would this work? Would it backfire? If it could work, how do we make it happen? Are there better solutions?

Just found this blog, and I LOVE this.

When I was in school in the '80s, my first school district used tracking extensively, and I was generally in the top or near-top groups. Then, in 10th grade, my family moved to another state, and I enrolled in a so-called "elite" private school--billed as the best in the state--which did NOT use tracking. In my old school, bright 9th graders read and discussed Dickens and Shakespeare. In the new one, my mixed-level "10th grade English" class covered basic expository writing (which I'd done in 8th grade), a few short stories, and some poems. "Discussion" consisted of one of the students reading the poem aloud and the teacher asking for questions. Luckily, my family moved back to my old city after 10th grade and I was allowed to rejoin my old classmates.
Did I, or the other strong students, help the slower students in my "mixed" class? No, mostly we slept or skipped class. There’s this idea that stronger students will “spark” the slower ones, but I’ve never seen it. The slow ones give up, and the smart ones check out mentally.
In the military, I found a physical parallel--during normal physical training, the soldiers generally broke up into ability groups based on their 2-mile run time. This worked reasonably well. However, at least once a week the officers got a wild hair to LEAD something, and all the soldiers had to run together in a single formation. These runs were useless for everyone except the low end of average; the slowest ones gave up and walked, the upper middle were bored, and the fastest people were in fact sometimes physically injured by having to alter their stride to accommodate the slow pace. Everyone hated these runs, and found any excuse not to participate. (I took the GMAT to get out of one.)

Thanks for this whole discussion. I was refreshing to be reminded that good people are pushing for good things for good kids in our schools.
The piece on Varsity Academics particularly hit me. I still do not know why that is such a hard sell to staffs and the community.

This is good discussion. Agree the children have a right to learn.

This year I started taking some steps toward "differentiating" instruction. This was motivated by a combination of small classes and a shocking range in ability even in my advanced classes. By throwing technology into the mix I've been able to spend less time correcting and more time teaching.

Some kids don't "get it" when we teach a topic. These kids need and deserve the chance to learn. On the other hand, other kids in the class do "get it" and deserve the chance to move on. I've taken the plunge and allowed it to happen. Right now my Chemistry class is actually 3 different classes.

Students do need a push. I've set a minimum bar because I've learned that even some "good" students aren't good at working independently. A big part of this year has been teaching kids to work independently without me standing over them or hand-holding. A boy in my Physics class had a breakthrough today when he realized what he was doing wrong all by himself.

Differentiating is hard on the teacher. I started with two courses this year. Next year, I'll refine them and start on a new course. I know its unfair to the kids in my undifferentiated courses, but, as long as public school retains its current structure, I'm only one man.

i'm so glad i risked being considered a "pushy" mom back when my son was in his first year or so of elementary school. i volunteered in the classroom quite often (parents: that's the only way to get the real deal!!), and i noticed that he was being sat next to lower-performing kids who often were behavior problems. i was told that he was a good model for these children. i insisted that it was not my son's job to discipline unruly children. he later was tracked into a gifted program where that was no longer an issue. fierce advocacy is so critical!!! i'm proud to say that i'm the parent of a college-bound teenager.

thanks for writing this piece!

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