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Not only does the gifted system pit kids against each other, but it also separates them unfairly. I do not think the gifted system should still exist. Students should be able to choose whether or not they take the accelerated math classes, and the classes available to them should not be decided on how well they test on one day.

Photo by Alex Smith-Perry, VOX ATL teen staff

The ‘Gifted’ System Sets Students Up for Failure. Here’s Why. [Opinion]

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In elementary school, I was tested and got put into the category of “gifted.” As I got older, I saw my friends get into the accelerated program and myself crack under the pressure amid expectations from the gifted system. I was not able to live up to the “gifted kid” standards set by teachers who told my middle school classes to act better because they didn’t expect disruption from the gifted class. I believe subjecting any child to the expectation that they are supposed to do better than others and telling them that they are better than those other children is damaging and unfair.

In the DeKalb County School System, kids are put into the gifted program (if they test high and are creative enough) in elementary school and into the accelerated math program in middle school if they score well enough on the 5th grade Georgia Milestones test. While some say this is giving kids opportunities to thrive, putting kids into categories at a young age pits them against each other at a highly formative time in their lives. “There are middle school tracks — regular, high achievers, and gifted.” explains Martha Donovan, a longtime metro Atlanta educator who has worked in multiple school districts through the years. “The theory is that students who need this acceleration will benefit from this additional service.”

In my experience, the kids put into the accelerated program (high achievers, as Donovan calls it) acted as if they were above the kids in the general education program (regular) and even the gifted students. But I do not blame them. As Martha Donovan put it, “(Telling) a group of students (that they) are extra special raises them up and they act on it.”

The Jane Elliott Test

In 1968, a teacher named Jane Elliot performed an experiment on her (white) students to show them how discrimination felt for Black people. She separated the classroom between people with brown eyes and people with blue eyes, and convinced the children that the students with blue eyes were worse than those with brown. The result was the children with brown eyes acting as if they were better and even verbally attacking the students with blue eyes. When we separate children by levels of intelligence and tell them that some are better than others, why do we expect them to act as if they are all the same?

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During my interview with Martha Donovan, she mentioned the issues with the standardized tests that get students into the gifted/accelerated programs, saying, “ I generally think that standardized tests have always been biased to favor the knowledge and skills of people that were raised in privileged and mostly white environments.”

Standardized tests have always been racist (The SAT was created to benefit white people), so why do we trust them to effectively and fairly separate students based on levels of intelligence? In DeKalb County, the district demographics are 89% students of color. The gifted program is 62% students of color. “The tests have failed time and again to achieve their intended purposes: measuring intelligence and predicting future academic and professional success. The tests, not the Black test-takers, have been underachieving,” says Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in an article published in a 2021 edition of NEA [National Education Association] Today. He is an author, professor and director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, and an activist.

Pitting Kids Against Each Other

Not only does the gifted system pit kids against each other, but it also separates them unfairly. I do not think the gifted system should still exist. Students should be able to choose whether or not they take the accelerated math classes, and the classes available to them should not be decided on how well they test on one day. You may be thinking, but what about the difference in learning styles? Or even in intelligence? My answer would be that this is why we have support systems in place, such as 504 or IEP plans. These plans are created for students with disabilities that affect their performance in the classroom and put in place in order to make the learning material appropriate for every student. Why are only some students given the chance to succeed through gifted certified teaching styles when we could teach all students this way and support them as needed?

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I am not the only student with these feelings, though. I asked some students (former and current) who had been in the accelerated program at DeKalb County what their opinions were on the gifted system, and here’s what they said.

“Being a gifted kid made me suffer from immense burnout from trying to live up to the standards all of the adults in my life unfairly put on me. I was never allowed to make mistakes, or be different. It was awful.” says Mars Markham, a recent graduate of DeKalb School of the Arts.

Julian Hand, a recent graduate of DeKalb School of the Arts, said, “It’s literally based on Eugenics. And as someone who was on both sides of the SpED to gifted spectrum, SpED kids in particular were constantly told to look up to the gifted kids to try and be like them, when in reality, the truth is often that gifted kids and SpED kids often have the same disabilities, it’s just that gifted kids display more “desirable” aspects of it.”

“I Was Told I Was Smart My Whole Life”

When asked if he thought the gifted system was unfair, Nate Vigil, a Lakeside High School graduate said, “Yes, at least at Lakeside it seemed to sort of depend on one’s financial status and it was like 90% white kids.” He also mentioned, “It [messed]  me up because I was told I was smart my whole life instead of being told I was hardworking, so the first year of college without a rigid schedule my grades went to s**t. I had to learn how to be responsible and recover real quick on my own.”

When asked if she thought that she benefited from the gifted system, Kelsey Queen, a senior at DeKalb School of the Arts said, “Yes but only systematically. I don’t think I’m any smarter but I appreciate that it’s allowed me to take classes which will benefit me in college admissions.” I also asked her if she thought the gifted system was unfair and she said, “Yes because it’s based off of objective tests and statistics that don’t account for the individuality of students. I’ve met tons of kids who were not ‘gifted’ and were doing much better in school than me. Likewise, I’ve known some gifted kids who’ve failed just about every class.”

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Audrey Shubert, a recent graduate of DeKalb School of the Arts, said, “As a child I enjoyed thinking I was really smart but as I got older I realized how much they segregated the ‘smart kids’ and the ‘dumb kids’ and they claimed it wasn’t labeled but every kid knew what type of group they were in so it made this gross social hierarchy between the kids. I think the gifted kids get overlooked for signs of struggling and signs of neurodivergence because they’re not academically struggling so no one really cares.”

Dispelling Myths

Before I ended the interview with Martha Donovan, I asked her if there was anything else she would like to say. She told me, “One of the things 20 years ago that was believed was that these programs are ‘for the gifted kids’ and one of the things that I’ve always tried to do is dispel that myth. We didn’t create these programs just for the gifted kids or to give them something to do. I think that’s a mistake. I think that actually does harm kids that are identified as gifted; the idea that because you were identified as gifted your only choice in high school is to take these really hard college-level classes. It doesn’t work for everybody.”

We simply cannot pressure some children to do better from a young age and ignore or even neglect others who are not as skilled at taking tests. We must give everyone the chance to succeed. If we want to create a more diverse world where there are more people of color in higher-paying jobs and government positions, we must set them and everyone up for success from day one, and a great way of doing that is disposing of the gifted system.

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