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Making the Grade

Why parents should resist the allure of special classes for their gifted kids

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(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

My 7-year-old daughter, Josie, is crazy-competitive. At 3, whenever she lost a game of Candyland, she’d ricochet off the furniture like a screaming pinball, bellowing in fury for 20 minutes. She’s always wanted to be the winning-est, the smartest, the quickest. And that’s a big part of why I decided not to enroll her in a gifted program. After reading a bunch of research on the effects of labeling kids “smart” and “gifted,” I feared they’d only play into her worst win-at-all-costs tendencies. The girl’s so driven, I feared she’d wind up bulimic by the third grade and a plagiarist by the fourth.

Instead, Josie is in a wonderful, progressive public school that encourages collaboration, good citizenship, and cooperation. It’s not some crunchy-granola place where every child is told she’s a ray of sunshine, kumbaya. There is academic rigor and portfolio assessment. But there is no gifted program, and there are no letter grades. And, so far, Josie is thriving there. She talks about how everyone has challenges—academic, behavioral, social—and how everyone should strive to do his or her best work. Recently, when I idly referred to a character in the book The Tale of Despereaux as “stupid,” Josie stopped dead. “You said the ‘S word’!” she gasped. “But Mig is stupid,” I replied. “Well, she doesn’t go to school, her dad sold her as a slave, she keeps getting her ears clouted and she doesn’t have books or toys,” Josie answered. “She doesn’t have the opportunity to do her best work!” Point taken.

A few years ago, I wrote a column about why we were opting out of the gifted track. A reader who happened to run a gifted program, wrote to me in disbelief and fury: “You are sacrificing your child on the altar of your ideology!” Obviously I don’t feel that way.

But recently Josie read a book that triggered a serious conversation between us on giftedness and achievement. The Report Card is by Andrew Clements, a rock god among middle-grade readers. A former Chicago-area public school teacher, Clements often sets his books in schools and focuses on various ethical dilemmas students and teachers face: gender issues, the battle of an individual against a bureaucracy, intellectual freedom, racism. His books are lively and funny. His best-known (and best) work, Frindle, has sold 2.5 million copies and is about how language is invented and codified. A boy tangles with his uptight English teacher over whether he can succeed in getting a brand-new, invented word added to the lexicon. Josie, eyes shining, said it was one of the best books she’d ever read. I picked it up myself and couldn’t put it down—it’s entirely devoted to weighty intellectual and moral ideas, yet it’s written at a level most third graders will have no trouble with. And it’s funny. And moving. At the end, I was weeping.

The Report Card isn’t nearly as good, but it brings up issues worth discussing. Nora, age 11, is a genius, but she has hidden this fact—even from her parents and siblings—her entire life. (At 2, she recalls, she’d solved a complicated jigsaw puzzle her big sister was doing, and she didn’t like the googly-eyed, bug-under-a-microscope reaction her achievement earned her, so she she’d resolved to learn to blend in by copying the behavior of non-genius children.) Nora loves learning—she secretly teaches herself Spanish, exchanges email with a primatologist at the Jane Goodall Institute, and enrolls in a distance-learning astronomy course at MIT. But as far as anyone else knows, she’s an ordinary, average fifth-grade student. When she sees how her best friend is suffering with anxiety over the ramped-up pressure for good grades and test scores, she hatches a plan to prove to the entire school that these measures don’t reflect kids’ real intelligence or ability. She decides to bomb her tests.

Alas, Nora’s parents are cartoonish grade-obsessed villains; the token “gifted” kid in the story is a driven weenie; the school psychologist is a pretentious know-it-all. The only truly sympathetic adult in the book is the school librarian, who’s seen Nora’s online activity on the school computers and figured out she’s brilliant. Josie’s review of the book: “I loved it until the ending. The ending was bad.” I read the book myself—at the end (spoiler alert!) Nora has been unmasked as a genius and her big anti-grade-grubbing mission has failed, but she wins her own small battle, getting to stay with her “average” friends rather than be moved into the gifted program.

Josie was frustrated by this non-conclusion. “She didn’t really change anything,” Josie said. “It’s annoying not to know if anything is different in the school or in Nora’s life afterward, but the book just ends.” I was distressed that Nora never really does celebrate or share her enthusiasm for learning; it’s private, like a dirty secret. And too many bright-but-not-genius girls already think being smart is shameful.

I do respect that Clements doesn’t have an easy answer to the problems of grade-obsession. What does seem clear is that too much emphasis on gold stars doesn’t lead to good kids, though we parents fervently resist believing that. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues have found that kids who are praised for their brilliance and achievements wind up caring far more about their grades than about learning. They worry that if they take risks, they might fail, and that will mean they’re not really smart after all. But when children are praised for their effort, rather than their braininess, they’re more likely to try harder. They’re less freaked out by having to struggle and less fearful of tackling new challenges. Dweck studied the differences between kids who think intelligence is a fixed trait (something you have or you don’t) and kids who think intelligence is malleable (something you can develop, like a muscle). The ones who view intelligence as fixed are more likely to shy away from challenges, with their attendant possibility of failure. I knew those kids at Harvard—entitled little weenies who only cared about getting the right answers and didn’t care how they got them or who they trampled on the way. They were all about the destination, not the journey. (God, I really do sound kumbaya.) Besides, when it comes to real-world success, numerous researchers have found that character and perseverance matter more than brilliance.

In Clements’s books, the heroes are iconoclasts, kids who are willing to face down injustice, create new paradigms, make mistakes, irk the establishment. They aren’t weaselly people-pleasers. And they’re whom I want Josie to emulate. Of course I want to nourish and encourage her talents, but I want even more to encourage her for working at them. I want her to know it’s OK to fail, as long as you try. And I want her to be a good person, with the courage of her convictions, rather than a follower, surrounded by other privileged kids whose parents trumped their giftedness constantly.

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Ann Powell says:

Why are you running this woman’s mishmash of what her daughter does and reads, inept book reviews, generalized name-calling of Harvard students, and self-congratulatory trumpeting of what she imagines to be her superior ambitions for her daughter? (Children in gifted programs can’t also aspire to be “good (people with the courage of (their) convictions?”)

I don’t get, what’s wrong with special programs for gifted kids? Those kids sit at class, bored and unhappy. I think those programs are great for kids who want to learn and explore more, gifted or not.

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Making the Grade

Why parents should resist the allure of special classes for their gifted kids

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