When our older daughter was three and we lived in Manhattan, friends with older children gave my husband and me some well-intentioned advice: Better start preparing for the high-stakes game of kindergarten entrance exams.
In New York City, they explained, that meant hiring a tutor — to the tune of several thousand dollars — to help our preschooler prepare for "gifted testing."
New York City's public schools are ultra-competitive, with thousands of students applying each year for entrance to the city's famed gifted and talented programs. Behind the pricey push to get preschoolers accepted into the G&T program is a simple calculation: Early investment in education can result in 12 years of top-notch, free schooling.
If we didn't spend thousands to prep our preschooler, friends warned, she might end up in our poorly performing local public school, or we'd wind up having to shell out big bucks for a private-school education.
Cue the panic attack.
Aside from the question of whether we could afford a tutor, this gaming of the public school system rankled. If our child didn't test into G&T, would she end up on a lower-performance track for her entire school career? That's a lot of pressure to put on three- and four-year-olds. And what about all the families that can't pay?
Then Vermont called. After my husband received a job offer in Burlington, we sat down with an elementary school principal and brought up the question of gifted and talented programs.
"We don't believe in gifted and talented in Vermont," he informed us. "If you tell some kids they're gifted, you're telling all the other children that they aren't."
Vermont was offering a good old-fashioned public school education.
To our ears, the principal's words sounded sweet. But not everyone hears it that way. Many local parents, educators and advocates would like Vermont to do more to educate its brightest children. "What is the societal benefit to educating our leaders?" asks Ellen Koier, president of the Vermont Council for Gifted Education. "It's to our benefit to highly educate them."
Vermont is one of 15 states that do not require schools to provide special services to its Einsteins-in-training. But in 1996, the state passed a law defining the term "gifted and talented" — a possible prerequisite for any future statewide program that might serve those kids. According to the statute, they're "children identified by professionally qualified persons who, when compared to others of their age, experience or environment, exhibit capability of high performance in intellectual, creative or artistic areas, possess an unusual capacity for leadership or excel in specific academic fields."
Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca says a gifted student might be a middle-schooler who won a top place in a math contest geared for Vermont's top high-school students; or an elementary-age student capable of performing calculus.
Gifted children may express their talents through leadership or the arts, adds Carol Story, cofounder of the Green Mountain Center for Gifted Education, a nonprofit that supports brainy youth and their families. She offers the example of a four-year-old boy who sent a letter to the governor, via dictation to his mother, expressing his concern about bovine growth hormone.
Story, who earned a PhD in gifted education from the University of Connecticut at Storrs, has taught at Johnson State College and works as a consultant to schools and families with exceptionally intelligent children. She believes there should be a statewide mandate for gifted ed programs. She was one of the advocates who lobbied to get the definition of "gifted" passed into state law — an effort that took nine years, she notes. She sees the definition as a first step toward ensuring that all of the state's kids, including the brightest, have access to appropriate educational services.
"About 10 to 15 percent of Vermont students, or about 9000 children, need something other than what they are getting in regular classrooms," she says. "All children's needs should be taken care of."
Lucy Bogue, a parent of gifted children who serves on the board of the Green Mountain Center for Gifted Education, notes that highly functioning children who aren't challenged at school risk getting bored in the classroom, or even depressed as a result of insufficient intellectual stimulation.
Bogue's daughter dropped out of high school, but aced the SATs and now is attending Wellesley. Her son, frustrated by the lack of challenge in school, asked to be homeschooled, with the addition of college classes, she notes. He's now attending the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Frustrated parents of gifted children in Vermont often resort to homeschooling, according to Story and Bogue.
"I've had it said to me, 'All kids are gifted'," Bogue says. "It's okay to be an elite athlete, but to be really smart has something threatening about it."
In a state known for its egalitarianism, gifted programs may be viewed as elitist. But philosophical differences alone don't account for their absence here — gifted programs cost money that cash-strapped Vermont school districts lack.
It can be difficult to convince taxpayers to support services that benefit a minority of students, and Commissioner Vilaseca believes that truly gifted students are indeed a minority. He disagrees with Story's estimate that 10 percent of students fall into this category. "After working in schools for 30-odd years, I would say in my experience the number would be way, way smaller than that," he says. "I would put it at 1 to 2 percent of Vermont's student population."
Fiscal pressures make it unlikely that Vermont will create a special statewide program to educate these kids, he says.
"We have a situation that, for the last two years and the upcoming year, districts are asked to make a sizeable reduction," Vilaseca notes. "To consider adding [a state mandate] in this climate would be a real challenge."
In fact, the state is cutting, not strengthening, its support for gifted education. For years, the state employed an "enrichment coordinator," who helped schools develop lessons and programs that surpassed educational standards. That job is gone and won't be coming back, Vilaseca says, citing budget pressures.
Right now, he says, the Department of Education's primary focus is "to make sure that all students are meeting standards."
And it's not as if Vermont is doing a terrible job — the Green Mountain State has the second-highest high-school graduation rate of high-school graduates in the country, following top-ranked New Jersey, according to Education Week.
The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council recently ranked Vermont first in educational performance, based on improvements in low-income students' test scores over the past few years.
Vilaseca maintains that Vermont's students perform just as well as graduates from other states, including those from areas with gifted programs.
"Vermont has kids who were gifted who went to Harvard, Brown, MIT and West Point, so I haven't seen that our students are not being successful," the commissioner notes.
In general, Vilaseca agrees that Vermont schools need to be more flexible and individualized to meet the needs of all their students. But adding strategies for coping with gifted children remains something that's best addressed at the local level, he says.
"It's up to parents or community members to meet with the school board," Vilaseca notes.
Even though they don't have to, some Vermont communities do fund gifted education and enrichment programs — classes which are often open to a larger percentage of students. Vilaseca points to Georgia Elementary's enrichment program as an example; the commissioner previously served as the superintendent of Georgia's Franklin West Supervisory Union.
Nancy Mildrum, who runs Georgia's gifted and enrichment program, notes her program touches nearly all the school's students via souped-up classes such as "Brain Pilots," a special neuroscience class that all fifth and sixth graders attend. But the program also offers more selective gifted offerings geared toward the best students.
"We're not test-oriented," she explains. Her sunny classroom is filled with examples of her program's emphasis on engagement: Felt chessboards hang on the wall, while the Tower of Hanoi, a classic wooden logic puzzle, sits on a classroom table. This is the kind of instruction that has become passé in the age of No Child Left Behind.
The school district funds the enrichment program, which now employs one other full-time teacher, MJ Mitiguy, and a part-time teacher, Nancy Volatile-Wood. "We're here because the community wants us here," Mildrum points out.
That also seems to be the case in Cambridge, where Koier, of the Vermont Council for Gifted Education, runs a program that serves between 10 and 20 percent of the total elementary school population.
When the program first started in 1981, however, it was much more selective, serving just 3 percent of the students, she notes. During the program's second year, it expanded to include half the school's students.
"We were trying to strike a delicate balance," Koier explains, adding that she often fears for her program's survival. As it is now, she notes, many Vermont schools don't have the resources to take children beyond the nation's educational standards. "All of the energy is going to remediation," she says.
Other school districts that don't have specialized gifted or enrichment programs do find ways to serve gifted students, through "differentiation" and/or "acceleration" (see sidebar, "Meeting the Needs of a Gifted Child").
But because there's no mandate to provide those opportunities, there's no guarantee they'll exist in any given district. So it's a safe bet that kids in cash-strapped Winooski will continue to have fewer opportunities than students in Shelburne or Charlotte. In theory, a statewide mandate would democratize the system.
Carol Story hopes the annual New England Conference on Gifted and Talented Education, which comes to Burlington October 13 to 15, will convince more Vermonters they should at least be paying attention to this issue; in that spirit, the Vermont Council for Gifted Education is providing scholarships to teachers and parents who wish to attend.
The conference schedule includes workshops on "The Creative Odyssey," best practices for gifted and talented programs, and how to advocate for high-quality gifted education.