According to data released by the Maryland State Department of Education, Maryland’s largest school system, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) identifies approximately 4,500 students in every grade level as gifted and talented—at least according to figures released for 2012-2013. The total number of students identified as gifted and talented (GT) during that academic year was 45,822, making for nearly 30% of the school population to be GT.
However, these figures can lead to misleading conclusions. Not all the students that MCPS labels GT do qualify for highly gifted centers in the elementary grades or for magnet schools in the middle and upper grades. According to documents obtained via public information request, the GT label is associated with students who performed above the level of the second grade curriculum and were given access to above grade level math, English, or sometimes both. Of the students corralled by this wide net, further testing results in a small group being identified to attend the specialized schools mentioned previously. Naturally, the vast majority of those labeled GT remain in their assigned schools and make do with the available advanced coursework.
If the figures and the MCPS GT labeling system are to be believed, around 30% of each classroom consists of students who are capable of performing at a higher level in English, mathematics, or both. Can differentiated instruction alone satisfactorily address the needs of these GT labeled students?
Practical and political realities strongly militate in favor of the school system having advanced classes available for these students. The practical reality is that MCPS is in the throes of a demographic shift towards less prepared students with greater needs. The idea that a differentiated classroom can accommodate both the well-prepared and the under-prepared without specialized interventions is not supported by peer reviewed research. According to news reports, the political reality is that certain demographics do value the gifted label. Consequently, keeping the GT label and maintaining truly advanced classes is essential to the survival of MCPS. Take away the GT label and the advanced classes and the schools system will lose its attractiveness to the middle class—those who make up the very tax base that the system relies upon to sustain its enormous budget–$2.28 billion for fiscal year 2015.
In the past MCPS has tackled the problem with characteristic politically correct logic. For example, in 2012, Churchill High School eliminated on-level history classes leaving students with the option of taking either U.S. History A Honors, or AP U.S. History A. It is hardly a secret that honors courses are nothing more than on-level classes with a fancier title. However, the relabeling of the courses makes for the appearance of all students taking high level courses, and of course justification for the claim that the gap is closing.
However, the practical realities of on-level courses, be they labeled honors or otherwise, is that the level of instruction is linked to the school demographics. Schools with large populations of struggling students pitch their instruction at a lower level that schools with large numbers of well-prepared students. Consequently, middle-class parent seek out schools that provide their children with instructional levels they need—the so called middle-class flight.
Public schools need to come to grips with the reality that the achievement gap is not amenable to quick fixes. It is a reality recognized in some quarters. For example, Byron Johns, chairman of the education committee of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP was recently quoted in The Washington Post as asserting that issues such as equity and the achievement gap “are complex societal problems, and they require persistent effort.”
Even while these complex issues are addressed, MCPS is duty bound to provide for the needs of advanced students. One of the “core values” expressed in the newly unveiled annual report to the community, requires that MCPS “PROVIDE DIVERSE LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES based on the identified needs and unique interests of students, including services and programs for students who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP); have been identified as highly gifted; have specific career interests; or may not succeeded in traditional school environments.” This core value provides the framework for providing diverse learning opportunities for advanced learners.
If MCPS is to stem middle-class flight it must cater to the needs of the middle-class student. Addressing the educational needs of the nearly 30% in every classroom labeled as GT through bona fide advanced coursework is a necessary first step. Providing the struggling student with the needed intervention and support to perform at the level of advanced coursework, if they so desire, must also follow. Both these efforts must be tempered by the reality that the gap is caused by complex societal and social issues and cannot be instantly cured.