A Long Look Back to Propel Foreword Progress

By Charlotte A. Akin

The Washington Coalition for Gifted Education has historically worked on advocacy for gifted children in Washington State. The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) joined us this past year. Together we had measurable success in our legislative session. As a result, I was invited to NAGC’s Advocacy Conference in Washington D.C. I mulled this over for a while wondering what I might add to national efforts, given that I’ve been retired a few years. While I still have passion and years of varied experience in the field, I had doubts about my own contribution to this conference. I finally decided my personal history of public education actually provides context for current advocacy.

1950s: The Waning of an Era

When not yet in kindergarten in the early 1950s, my family traveled to South Dakota where an aunt was teaching eight grades in a one-room schoolhouse. I spent a few days with her, leaving early in the morning. She started a fire in the wood stove that provided heat for the classroom and sometimes a pot of soup. This was the last of an era where all children progressed through the grades at their own pace, learning what they actually needed day by day to progress. I knew I would be a teacher.

1950s and 60s Tracking: I spent my elementary years in a large inner city

school in Seattle where I enjoyed close friendships with children who moved with me through the age-based grades. This was the era of the space race, and tracking was the norm. When our family moved to the suburbs in 1960, the school assigned me to the lowest group in my new middle school – because I had come from the inner city. I was alone, unchallenged, and miserable. And I came to understand that tracking was based not on scores or any objective criteria, but on perception.

1970s: The Inequities Ingrained: My first teaching experience was

back in the inner city where I saw first-hand the inequity between schools in the same district. My school was without heat in the winter, not to mention red paper for Valentine’s Day. A fellow practice teacher had neither of these problems in a “better” part of the district. My master teacher told me to ignore a black girl who was “slow” and needed to be someplace where she could learn about birth control since she would soon just “get herself pregnant.” In a class of 43 fifth graders, this child was expendable. Losing the desire to ever be a teacher, I left the program. Re-doing the practice teaching only to get my BA, I fell in love with the classroom again. However, my first teaching job in 1970 was another close-up look at really shameful teaching practices when it came to poor and/or minority students.

2001: NCLB In 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became the law of the land,

taking direct aim at the ingrained practice of undervaluing and underserving minorities and those in poverty. No longer could low performing students be forgotten. Schools were measured by how many of their students reached grade-level benchmarks. Newspapers reported local districts’ proficiency rates and reported schools that were “failing.” Financial penalties were assessed on low-performing districts. Pressure was applied. Teachers were “held accountable” by their students’ scores on grade-based tests. Instruction was aimed at low performing students. While this was undoubtedly well intentioned, the unintended consequence of NCLB was that the brightest students were the ones left behind. Teachers wanted “their share” of these students who were already at and beyond grade level benchmarks, divvying them up so that it would be fair – to theteachers. No longer could bright children move together as a cohort of learners. Massive amounts of federal and state dollars went into special education and English Language Learners.

2015:ESSA The Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015 with at least a

mention of gifted children. However, there was and is an ingrained culture in the schools and nation of neglect for our gifted children. We are a nation that largely ignores its gifted students. And we have the results to prove it:

• The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Fifteen-year-old pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading are measured. First performed in 2000, it is repeated every three years. The U.S. at its best is in the middle of the pack when ranked with other nations. However, it is declining, even when looking at the top learners by country. Mark Tucker, President of the National Center on Education and the Economy said of the results “The United States cannot long operate a world-class economy if our workers are, as the OECD statistics show, among the worst-educated in the world”. Considering that the United States spends more per
student than any other country, that is saying something.

• Further examples are: A Nation Deceived: How America Holds Back Its Brightest Students (2004); the Thomas B. Fordham report, High Achieving Students in the Era of the NCLB (2008); and NAGC’s State of the States report.

History is important. I went to the NAGC conference to be part of it. The

conference prepared us to spend a day on the Hill talking to staffers and legislators. The take-away? These people had never before given a moment’s thought about gifted children and their (lack of) education. All the angst in the parent and education communities that deal with gifted children needs to get funneled to our representatives on the state and national levels. We need to step it up and talk with our representatives, giving historical context and presenting facts and consequences. We need to help legislators understand the needs of gifted learners so they will work with us to make schools appropriate for all children.