In The Press

Why urban schools don't need gifted programs

By Jay Mathews, The Washington Post
Originally published 8:00 AM ET, 12/ 9/2010.
View the article on The Washington Post website.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told me recently that a plan to hire a gifted-and-talented coordinator had been cut from her budget. Times are tough, she said. Sacrifices have to be made.

But I don’t think this is any great loss at all. God dispenses his blessings and talents to poor and minority kids, too, so our cities have many gifted children. Unfortunately public schools, including those in the suburbs, rarely have the resources or teaching expertise to challenge them much. For urban schools, the standard gifted and talented system is often a waste of time.

I was reminded of this in a new book by the best inner-city high school principal I have ever known. Henry Gradillas, who ran two large high schools in Los Angeles, including Garfield in low-income East L.A., figured this out nearly 30 years ago. He had listened to his most talented teacher, Garfield Math Department Chairman Jaime Escalante, make fun of designating some kids gifted on the strength of a second-grade intelligence test. Gradillas began to see why Escalante (later made famous by the film “Stand and Deliver”) was right.


In his book “Standing and Delivering: What the Movie Didn’t Tell,” Gradillas (with co-author Jerry Jesness) describes how Garfield’s high poverty — also a key factor in D.C. schools — distorted the effect of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s gifted and talented (GT) rules in the 1980s.

“We had a number of what I call NFGT [non-functioning gifted and talented] students,” said Gradillas, a former Army ranger. “They had IQs that qualified them for the gifted and talented program but not the grade-point averages. A lot of them were taking Mickey Mouse classes and were in no way living up to their potentials. A lot of these kids lacked both motivation and study skills.”

He said, “We also had a lot of bright, hardworking kids who never were labeled gifted and talented because they lacked English skills in elementary school when monolingual English-speaking kids were being tested for GT. Others may have not had the IQ to qualify for GT, but they had the ganas [an Escalante word for drive], and they did well in higher-level classes.”

When I was finishing a book about Escalante in 1987, Gradillas identified, at my request, every GT student in the famous Garfield classes that produced 26 percent of all Mexican Americans in the country that year who passed Advanced Placement Calculus exams. The GT students made up only 20 percent of the total test takers at Garfield. They had a lower passing rate on the AP exams than Garfield students not designated GT.

This amused Escalante. As Gradillas describes in his book, when a GT student from another class sought help after school with a trigonometry problem, Escalante said, “I’ll let one of my students who’s not gifted explain it to you.”

Gradillas was a genius at finding loopholes in school regulations. Most districts let only GT students into GT classes funded by state grants based on the number of GT kids. But Gradillas discovered the rules actually said 49 percent of the class could be non-GT, so he added many undesignated students who were doing well. To appease GT teachers who feared dilution by these outsiders, he promised to remove any non-GT student who fell below a B in the course.

The GT label fixation appears similarly useless these days in the District, where the most successful schools try to raise the achievement of all students, no matter how high or low they start the year. If Henderson uses money saved by not hiring a GT coordinator to cut to train more teachers in how to enrich all classes, Henry Gradillas (still doing some teaching in Wisconsin at age 76) will approve.

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