Gifted education is damaging

I have decided that special schools for gifted/talented kids are a well-intentioned idea that ultimately creates neurotic kids and an environment that’s very conducive to bullying.

I could say it was just my own experience with the G/T elementary school I attended, and then later the art school I attended in a writing concentration. But it was much the same for my kids.

I thought I was real hot shit. After all, I’d had teachers telling me all along that I was special, different. Many people told all of us that we would be successful just because we were smart.

Of the people I know who attended either school, I would say that no more than 10 percent of the students ended up being exceptionally successful. By their definition, I might even be one of them, because I actually made a career from writing. But I’m not rich, largely because my parents weren’t. The kids who grew up to be rich adults also had rich parents.

That’s nothing new and it’s definitely not feeling sorry for myself nor blaming my parents. It’s just how it goes. Whether you grow up to be rich has a lot more to do with how much money your parents have than your own hard work. I only know one person (my high school prom date) who grew up poor and became wealthy through tons of hard work.

Yet I could say it was just my schools that fostered this, but my kids attended gifted schools for various lengths of time, different schools than the ones I went to. And on balance, looking back, I can say that it wasn’t good for them, either.

My oldest went to gifted schools for all but middle school, and it was not a good experience for him. Not only did he encounter the same bullying by rich kids that I did, but the steady influx of messages that you’re great and you’ll succeed just because of how smart you are didn’t do him any favors.

My middle son only spent three years in elementary in gifted programs and it doesn’t seem to have affected him much either way. I remember at the time he said the kids at the neighborhood school were nicer than the kids at the G/T school. But he’s had “senioritis” since kindergarten and it really didn’t change regardless of where he went.

My youngest is the only one of my kids who had to go to preschool while I was finishing my degree, who then went to a “young 5s” class, and never spent any time at all in a G/T school. He has the usual issues you’d expect of a teenager, but he seems to be the most well-adjusted of all the kids. He has a well mapped out college and career plan already as a high school sophomore. He seriously wants to save enough money to retire in his 40s. I believe he can do it if he puts his mind to it.

Sending the kids to these special schools also played a big role in keeping me at home for so long because they never have any busing. When my oldest went to the art school, it was almost 30 miles away from our house and he needed rides both ways.

He also had a sense of entitlement about it, not recognizing that it was a privilege that required sacrifice from us. There was a period of months where he had to hang out at my husband’s work after school because I was working and he was so resentful about having to wait somewhere for a couple hours.

I’m not saying that to complain about him. I’m saying that being in a rarefied environment where the other kids are wealthy and it’s less of a sacrifice to go there for their families makes you feel more entitled to be like your peers.

Interestingly, he now says the gifted schools weren’t good for him. The social environment in the high school art program he attended was a little better because the classes were about a quarter the size of the neighborhood school. But it also was a very competitive and unnatural environment.

It’s hard to know what to do when your kid is bright. My oldest went into kindergarten (not G/T) already knowing how to read, so for him the months of drills on recognizing letters and colors were like torture. When they said he could go to someplace that actually challenged him the next year, how could we turn it down? We wanted what was better for him and he was just so bored. In kindergarten.

Similarly, the G/T program I attended was new and started when I was in second grade. My parents made the decision to switch me there mid-year in third grade (after which I vowed I would NEVER make my kids switch schools mid-year.) I went from simple math and easy vocabulary drills to dissecting frogs, painting a replica of the Sistine Chapel on scaffolding, reading Beowulf in sixth grade. (No, I didn’t get anything out of the latter at the time.)

When you’ve got a bright, bored kid, how can you not want to give them a better standard of education?

But what you don’t see in advance is the lifetime of neuroses that the gifted school will create. Even though the school was small, we had more suicides than the “regular” school did. Those great educational opportunities helped us grow up faster, but at what price?

Ironically, it is my youngest who has never been in gifted schools at all who actually wants to follow a conventional path toward success. My oldest now has a decent job, especially for a 21-year-old with no college. But he had a lot of fumbling along the way, some of which was due to moving here but a lot of which was due to the gifted schools.

You simply can’t grow up constantly hearing how talented and smart you are without it having an effect on you. Either your family is wealthy and puts you in tons of lessons and camps, which is its own kind of pressure, or your family is kinda broke and you don’t understand why simply being smart isn’t making you successful. It’s a yardstick that few can ever measure up to.

From my own experience, it’s hard not to beat yourself up for falling short. You expect nearly superhuman things of yourself and are disappointed in yourself for not meeting them.

If I could do it all over again, this is also just another reason I wouldn’t have moved back to Michigan. If I’d stayed here, the kids probably would’ve been in preschool. I likely would’ve gone to grad school much earlier. We’d still own a house. There are no gifted schools here, only pre-AP and AP classes.

We have a little bit of self-segregation because technically the kids don’t go to the (much worse) school to which they’re zoned. But we probably would’ve been in a different district which has busing and I wouldn’t have had to stay home to be the driver.

I still want my kids to have the best education I can afford to get them, even here, and to have as minimal a disruption to the schools they attend as possible. But if I could really get a do-over, I don’t think I would’ve chosen gifted schools…for them or myself.

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