Bright kids, bright futures?

One in five kids is giftedand likely being shortchanged at school

VICTOR DWYER August 29 1994

Bright kids, bright futures?

One in five kids is giftedand likely being shortchanged at school

VICTOR DWYER August 29 1994

Bright kids, bright futures?


One in five kids is giftedand likely being shortchanged at school

Sipping a glass of milk and tucking into the first of two chocolate truffles, Alex Orwin looks for all the world like an average 11-year-old. But as the frecklefaced kid with the gap between his front teeth begins to talk, it quickly becomes clear that he is anything but ordinary. “I like to make a lot of jokes and get into silly moods,” he says, “but I also like doing math. I perform significantly above grade level.” That is putting it mildly.

Around the time he turned 4, Alex had taught himself to read by making his way through the Field Guide to North American Trees. By the time the Toronto student entered Grade 3, he was easily completing Grade 8 math projects. He is also a chess whiz, a Scrabble buff (“although not too many kids will do that with me”) and a composer of songs, having recently completed, Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a comical ode to a rare lung disease—and to the longest word in Alex’s dictionary. But while he is a brilliant student,

Alex has also struggled to find his place in an education system that is often ill-disposed and illequipped to nurture its gifted children—the best and brightest kids, whose superior intellectual, artistic and social abilities leave them bored and unchallenged in the regular classroom. “We never expected one-on-one instruction,” says Alex’s father, Clifford, a professor of political science. “But we also did not expect there to be reams of red tape every time we found a program that worked.”

In fact, Alex’s plight is typical—and so is his father’s deep frustration. Although in recent years researchers have doubled their estimates of the number of gifted—now believed to be 20 per cent of the children in public schools—classes geared to their needs are routinely given low priority. Many parents are giving up on the public school system altogether, turning to more costly, and exclusive, alternatives: the Orwins will pay $5,500 to enrol Alex at the semiprivate University of Toronto Schools this September. Others are waging fierce battles to preserve the few programs that do exist: one group recently demanded an audit of a B.C. school board in a successful effort to prove that funds had been diverted from gifted classes; another fought to win a one-year stay of execution for an established program in Montreal. In the process, they are also raising fundamental questions about whether Canadian schools are committed to giving all kids a fair shake. Where are principles of equal opportunity, they ask, when a child in Grade 2 reads at the Grade 5 level—but her Winnipeg school refuses to test her skills until Grade 3? If line-ups grow any longer for gifted classes in Toronto, what will happen to the 12-year-old who produced a historical novel inspired by field trips to a city archeological site? With de-streaming—the grouping of students of mixed abilities—becoming the latest fad, will the smartest suffer from a creeping political correctness that, say some, puts equity ahead of excellence? And as many other nations beef up their commitment to gifted students, what price will Canada pay for persistently defining children with special talents as children without special needs?


The students at the centre of concern are those who have the potential to shine by global standards. The 20-per-cent figure, broadly accepted since the late 1980s, replaces decades of conventional wisdom that put the total at no more than 10 per cent of all kids—those with an IQ of 125 or higher. By contrast, the new, expanded figure— which includes just over one million Canadian students in elementary and secondary schools— represents a recognition that “intelligence quotient” tests fail to measure a broad range of important talents. Now, researchers include as gifted not only traditional achievers, but also those who stand head and shoulders above their peers in such diverse areas as creative writing, abstract problem-solving and dispute mediation. ‘We think there are lots of genuinely exceptional children out there,” says Lannie Kanevsky, a professor of education at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “There is just very little commitment to doing anything about them.”

Convinced of the high costs of ignoring the gifted, a committed minority of Canadian educators is working hard to meet their needs. And although teaching styles differ greatly, most of those who work with such children employ an approach pioneered by American psychologist Joseph Renzulli. A vocal critic of IQ-based notions of intelligence, Renzulli insists that such tests reflect the values of a consumer society, rewarding those adept at regurgitating information. In his work, the University of Connecticut psychologist has issued a call to arms to locate and nurture “producers of knowledge and art—those who know how to confront and analyze their own thoughts, make appropriate use of advanced resources and methods of inquiry, and put these things together in a logical product.” As well, Renzulli and others argue that by reducing intelligence to a single number, standard IQ and achievement tests fail to detect children who are extremely strong in some areas—but weak in others. “The idiot savant is the extreme example,” says Kanevsky. “But all gifted kids have a range of talents.”

At the same time, Renzulli advocates a teaching style that combines field trips and workshops with an emphasis on developing higher skills in areas where the student shows particular strength, maturity and what he calls “task commitment.” According to many researchers, that combination of encouragement and challenge is crucial to nurturing the brightest young minds. “Gifted students are good at managing a lot of information and they are highly aware of where they want their thinking to take them,” says Kanevsky. As a result, she adds, those who teach such children “have to shift their role from that of the traditional teacher to more of a teacher-facilitator.” Toronto’s Joanne Elmer of Ryerson Public School teaches at a so-called part-time resource centre, which draws gifted Grade 7 and 8 students from regular schools one day each week. Broadly based on Renzulli’s method, Elmer’s classes were attended last year not only by the budding 12-year-old novelist, but also by a pupil who published three pieces of music and another who sold hand-made jewelry to the gift shop at the Royal Ontario Museum.

“Gifted kids do not respond to piles of rote learning,” says Elmer. “The important thing is just to make sure you give them a balance of direction and freedom—that you do not replace serious work with creative activities.”

But for parents and teachers on the front lines of gifted education, there is an even more pressing concern: finding, and preserving, gifted programs for their children. Although Ontario has the strongest legislation of any province, guaranteeing “that each school board provide special education programs and services for its gifted pupils,” critics say such a promise is hopelessly vague. The situation is most promising in the Toronto area, although long waiting lists are routine. The Toronto Board of Education, with 77,000 students, offers only 15 full-time classes at elementary schools scattered throughout the city, and three such programs at the secondary level. As well, there are 11 so-called pull-out elementary programs, similar to Elmer’s, which rotate students one day each week. Although those classes were originally assigned a maximum class size of 16, this fall the number will edge up to 25. Outside of Toronto, the offerings are even slimmer. In the Huron-Perth Roman Catholic Separate School Board, in southwestern Ontario, “a wide variety of programs” have been “basically wiped out in the past couple of years,” according to curriculum consultant Terry Craig. “We have decided, in general, to settle for a few one-day and afternoon pull-out programs,” he adds. “But even they are a dying breed.”

In many provinces, it is only the vigilance of parents that is keeping gifted programs alive. Last June, parents in west-end Montreal banded together to win a year’s reprieve for a 14-year-old program serving five schools. Several months earlier, the Gifted Children’s Association of British Columbia, a parent group, asked ministry officials to conduct an audit of the North Vancouver School District—and had their worst

"Gifted kids do not respond to piles of rote learning."

Joanne Elmer

suspicions confirmed. The district had collected $41,000 from the province for gifted programs, but was making no effort to identify gifted children—let alone tailor classes for them. Meanwhile, the Calgary Public School Board, with 96,000 students, has only one school, Queen Elizabeth Public, with a gifted stream, with only 250 students enrolled. In Nova Scotia, two of 22 school districts offer formal gifted programs. Says Norah Maier, a Toronto educator and past president of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children: “As a nation, we are at a low point.”

And Canada is slipping fast against the competition. Several European and Asian countries are devoting significant attention—and funds—to nurturing their gifted students (page 39). Some are even taking a leaf from Canada’s volume on the subject. Last November, Maier hosted a delegation of 30 Malaysian educators and politicians keen on viewing gifted classes in Ontario. “It is not a little ironic,” says Maier, “that cutbacks are turning back the clock here, just as others are making a point of capitalizing on what few insights we have gained.” g Canadian public schools appear to be g running headlong in the opposite direction—towards an increasingly uniform educational product. Starting last fall, | Ontario high schools began a three-year t process of de-streaming Grade 9 classes, eliminating a system that has long segregated students based on their academic abilities. This September, Alberta will begin offering a single high school diploma, partly in response to concerns that a 12-year experiment with “general” and “advanced” streams left some students feeling, in the ministry’s words, “second rate.” Critics of special programs for the gifted echo that sentiment, insisting that segregating students according to their perceived abilities risks creating a “Pygmalion effect”—superior programs inevitably producing superior graduates—while leaving other students with a second-rate education. “You certainly don’t want a structure,” says Paul Grayson, director of the Institute for Social Research at York University in Toronto, “where some kids are channelled into one-way, dead-end options.”

Educators of the gifted bristle at such talk, citing what they see as evidence of Canada’s failure to cultivate excellence: dismal scores by Canadian students on the most complex sections of international tests, graduate science faculties where a third of the spaces, on average, go to foreign students. Everyone, they note, pays a price for such a state of affairs. Among the critics is Ron Champion, a national co-ordinator of the Shad Valley Program, which runs summer courses for gifted teenagers at eight Canadian universities. “As a country,” says Champion, “we have to realize that even the weakest citizen benefits when we cultivate the strongest.”

But for parents of the gifted, the fallout is more immediate: bored, often poorly behaved children who run the risk of drifting academically. Toronto student Logan Fletcher, now 10, and a successful fouryear veteran of one of the few full-time gifted programs in his area, began baiting his teachers in kindergarten. In Grade 1, he was officially declared a sociopath by a psychologist. No one, it seems, had thought to test his intelligence. Says Logan’s father, Joe, who moved just outside the city to Mississauga in order to secure Logan a spot in a fulltime gifted classroom: “Logan was found to have an IQ of 187. Obviously, a teacher trying to run a class of 32 more-or-less regular fiveyear-olds gets easily frustrated—and easily threatened—by a child like him.” Bruce Shore, chairman of the department of educational counselling and psychology at Montreal’s McGill University, warns that dismissing the needs of students like Fletcher is a recipe for disaster. “It is like asking a star hurdler to jump a two-inch bar,” says Shore. “It’s an insult, and if he is asked to do it often enough, he will eventually just turn off.”

Still, while advocates of the gifted are clearly determined to see the needs of such children addressed, American author David Elkind has issued a cautionary note on the subject. In both his best-selling book The Hurried Child, as well as in The Ties That Stress, to be released next month, Elkind argues that many of today’s parents have begun pushing kids too hard and too early. “In our society,” Elkind told Maclean’s, “a parent has to be especially careful not to confuse the desire that their child be gifted with genuine giftedness.” But even Elkind cautions against dismissing parents who fear that exceptional talent is going to waste. “Certainly, there are gifted kids who are not challenged enough in regular classrooms, and you want to minimize that,” said Elkind. “Good parents should be concerned that their kids get a competitive edge—or at the very least that their strengths do not get squandered.”

Where gifted children can best maximize such strengths is a matter of much debate. Largely due to budget constraints, most schools addressing the needs of exceptionally bright children do so within the regular classroom—a situation that many experts argue is, in fact, for the best.

Teachers are able to pre-test students to determine their knowledge base—and then compact the regular curriculum for the smarter children. While such students can devote the balance of class time to more challenging work, being part of a normal classroom can give them a solid grounding in such basic skills as time management and social communication.

“Often, more able kids want to spend all their time thinking at the higher level,” says Don Green, a curriculum consultant in Calgary. “But sometimes they need to come back to earth. The average kid can help them do that” Clifford Orwin credits Alex’s years in regular classrooms with teaching him how to get along with other children. Recalls Orwin: “There was a time when Alex would say to slower kids,

‘You’re not finished that question yet?

Why not?’ To him, it just did not make sense. He had to learn to say, ‘Give it time, you will get it.’ ”

Still, along with the Orwins, many observers clearly remain skeptical about long-term integration of gifted children in the regular classroom. Michael Thomas, a retired consultant for gifted programs with the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, says teachers faced with ballooning class sizes and increasingly diverse student bodies inevitably give their brightest students short shrift. ‘Teachers claim over and over they will take care of the gifted,” says Thomas. “In the end, they often simply cannot.” As well, Thomas and many others are deeply suspicious of a growing trend to transform brighter students into teachers’ aides—engaging them in something educators call “peer teaching” of average and slow children. “What that really means,” says Thomas, “is gifted kids are put to work feeding their slower brethren, rather than getting fed.”

For Thomas and many others, the ideal solution is to provide the gifted with their own teachers and classrooms. “Not all their friends have to be gifted, but at the point where they are being taught, these kids have to know that it is OK to have a million questions, to want to read a lot, to be excited about learning,” says Margaret Walker, past president of the Ontario Association for Bright Children. ‘They have to feel,” she adds, “that it is OK to be a nerd.”

Even short-term association with other gifted students can provide an educational— and psychological—boost to such students.

This summer, 16-year-old Rhea MacDonald of Inverness, on Cape Breton Island, was one of 54 gifted teenagers chosen to take part in the Shad Valley Program at the campus of Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. The program, which brings together teenagers with a record of good marks, creativity and initiative, includes courses ranging from philosophy to computer science, and aims, in the words of co-ordinator Champion, “to tell gifted students that there are other people like them, who worry about what they worry about, who understand what they are interested in—and who are hungry, like them, for real challenges.” MacDonald’s 95-per-cent average at Inverness High School made her the top student in her Grade 11 class—but her school had no special programs for the gifted. “When I came here, I thought I would go on to work at a hospital in Inverness or maybe a rehab clinic,” says MacDonald.

“Now, I am thinking about Harvard. In Inverness, in my regular classroom, Harvard would have been out of the question.”

Clearly hoping to bring that kind of enthusiasm into their classrooms, some public schools are in fact making a special effort to attract gifted students. In 1988, the Montreal public board created Royal Vale, a so-called magnet school whose explicit aim is to help reverse a trend towards private school enrolment in that city. To accomplish that goal, Royal Vale has set aside 30 per cent of its spaces for gifted instruction. And each September, says teacher Cliff Buckland, children outside the gifted program “who show initiative and commitment” are encouraged to meet formally with parents, teachers and fellow students in an effort to gain admission to the advanced stream. The result: annual, week-long lineups for registration—and an

"Now I am thinking about Harvard, In my regular classroom, Harvard would have been out of the question."

Rhea MacDonald

apparent victory for public education.

But like full-time programs for the gifted, such offerings reflect the determination of local school boards—and remain the rare exception. That reality has boosted private school enrolment and the fortunes of tutoring companies, now a fixture on the academic scene (page 42). “Public schools that do not create learning programs for bright kids are at serious risk of telling those parents to go shop elsewhere,” says McGill’s Shore. “And when they do turn to private schools, parents are almost certain to find teachers and administrators comfortable with building on students’ strengths.” Among the most renowned of such institutions is the University of Toronto Schools, which offers classes from Grade 7 through high school. Partly funded by the province since its founding in 1910, it too has suffered from fiscal restraint, and will see that support « cease this school year. But although tuS ition has already climbed from $3,800 in § the early 1990s to $5,500, 950 students from 80 schools competed for its 78 entering spaces this year. That is 200 more than applied only two years ago—and principal AÍ Fleming credits the popularity to the school’s unabashed devotion to putting smart kids side by side. “Educationally, we are doing what is done in other areas every day,” he says. “In our national sport, we do not handicap good hockey players by putting them with ones who don’t have as many skills—not if we expect them to win, anyway.”

Across the country, the fully private, decadeold Choice Learning Centre in Richmond, B.C., uses standard achievement tests to choose its 103 students, ages 6 to 12. The school, where annual tuition is $6,000, compacts the provincial curriculum into 60 per cent of class time. During the balance of the day, students are put into classes of between she and 10, where they pursue areas of personal interest ranging from mathematics to drama to French. Founder Helène Giroux, a former public school teacher, started the school after hearing complaints for years from parents “infuriated with a system that says, ‘If I am 7 and you are 7, we must be the same intellectually and creatively.’ ” Adds Giroux: “Public schools do have to educate the I masses, but why can’t they try a little harder to 5 educate the very bright kids as well?”

I That note of exasperation should serve as a § warning to other educators. Ultimately, creat5 ing more public school programs for the brightest has to be seen not only as a matter of cultivating excellence, but also as an essential of educational equity. “Everybody sees with great clarity that slow learners deserve a unique approach to schooling,” notes Montreal’s Thomas. “But when it comes to gifted children, such principles just go out the window. Then, doling out what average kids get is somehow good enough. That just is not fair—the equal treatment of unequals is inequality.” And to be fair to all children, schools must give them the tools, and the opportunities, to be their best.