Thursday, May 12, 2016
By Emily Villamar-Robbins, guest writer
I am a believer in public school. Growing up, I attended public school from K – 12. During law school, I explored the history of educational inequality in the United States, including segregation, desegregation, the risks of tracking, and inadequate school funding. I believe that each of us has a civic and moral responsibility tosupport and fund public schools, and that we must actively defend the right of every child to access a free public education. I believe in diversity in education, and in the critical importance of equal educational opportunity for all populations.
As you can imagine, when I had children, I planned for them to attend public school. When my older son entered first grade, however, we faced a situation not uncommon for children identified by psychologists as gifted: without significant adjustments, the curriculum did not fit his development. For him to learn in school, we needed help from our district’s gifted specialists.
When a few family friends learned of his learning levels, some made well-intended comments:
“Public school won’t meet his needs.”
“Public schools have limited resources. They can’t help kids like him.”
While this may be the temporary reality in some cases, and especially in states without gifted education laws, I would argue that these statements are offensive: many parents of children “like him” cannot afford alternatives.
As parents and educators, we must work to shift perspectives.
The decision to pull advanced children from public school is common, particularly in areas with inadequately funded schools. Resigning ourselves to this practice, however, would reveal a terrible bias: if we fail to hold public schools responsible for meeting advanced learning needs, we assume that (a) children from low-income backgrounds cannot be advanced learners, or (b) advanced learners from low-income backgrounds somehow have less right to learn than students with average academic development. Experts know that intellectually advanced children are present in culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse populations. We need increased research to improve methods of identifying giftedness in underrepresented populations, but in the meantime, we can already identify children in families unable to afford alternatives to public school.
If we permit public education to remain underfunded, and if we excuse schools from serving high-ability students, where does this leave gifted children from diverse backgrounds?
For students with any learning difference, flexible strategies and continued monitoring are often needed. Luckily for my children, our state has gifted education laws, an advocacy organization for educators and parents, and state recommendations for serving gifted children in diverse populations. We are lucky to live in a district with dedicated gifted specialists and administrators who work hard to identify and meet gifted needs in all populations. Not all families are so fortunate.
Unfortunately, some education advocates have criticized gifted programs as elitist, unfairly blaming the concept of gifted education for disparities in school quality. While any strategy can be misapplied or misused, research supports the need for gifted education: just as children with learning challenges require different interventions, depending on their difference from the norm, children with extreme, advanced differences need curriculum modifications. As much as we wish it were simpler, schoolwide approaches, in isolation, may not succeed with some learning differences. Students with extreme differences – including the ‘gifted’ – exist at all income levels.
To succeed in our commitment to equity and the needs of all students, education advocates must find common ground. As educators, parents, researchers and lawmakers, we must advocate for improvement in public education as a whole, and we must increase efforts to better identify students with learning differences in diverse populations. At the same time, we have a duty to advocate for programs, professional development training, and interventions needed for students with all types of special needs and differences – including gifted needs.
About the Author
Emily Villamar-Robbins is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and she is a parent to two gifted sons from a diverse cultural heritage. Part of her legal work has involved serving as a staff attorney at Legal Aid and representing clients living below the poverty line. She currently volunteers in support of local education in Texas, and she is a candidate for graduate certification in gifted education. She is a contributing author for TheFissureBlog.com, an innovative resource on education and the evolution of learning.
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