Measuring Worth

I had a casual conversation in the dentist office a couple of years ago with a woman in the waiting room. She was reading a book I recognized and we fell into talking. It turned out that we had come to similar conclusions about our town’s gifted program, and she was very eager to talk about it. She was especially interested in the fact that I agreed with her even though my children had been a part of that program – for a time, anyway. The whole concept felt wrong to both of us.

The book she was reading was Mindset, by Carol Dweck – which has become so well-known at this point that “growth mindset” has been reduced to a meme. (Here’s a link to Carol Dweck’s TED Talk.) Even Carol Dweck is worrying that it’s been twisted into something less than productive when bandied about in the context of school performance. (Here she revisits the ideas to clarify their use in schools). In any case, there’s a lot of truth in the ideas, and they made a big impression on me when I first read it in early 2007.  I think about it often. In any case, my new dentist office friend was finding it extremely relevant to her arguments about the gifted program.

She thought the town was sending the message that some kids are inherently different from others, and not just different, but actually better.

It pissed her off.

She didn’t just suspect this was the message, she had had conversations with people confirming it. I nodded, having experienced the same thing. The language used with these kids is specifically that they are “different”. They are “exceptional”. It feeds a fixed mindset on both sides. The “exceptional” children are led to believe their exceptionalism is something inherent to who they are; and the “normal” children are led to believe their LACK of exceptionalism is inherent to who they are. She also said that it was hard to get anyone to take her arguments seriously because they assumed she was resentful that her own child hadn’t been accepted into the program.

Which pretty much makes the point. It is a privilege to be accepted into the program, so there is the assumption of resentment from those who aren’t. If the program were truly an equalizer, it wouldn’t create this animosity.

There is real damage done to kids when you tell them that their abilities are inherent to who they are. One of the results in the children held up as having exceptional abilities is a crippling fear of proving it wrong and being found out. Failure, in this framework, doesn’t represent the first steps in acquiring new knowledge or building skill; instead, failure is a threat to identity. Carol Dweck seems to

Each of our children pent about a year in the program before opting out, but the schools are so steeped in this kind of thinking that it’s impossible to escape it. Taking my children out of the “superior” group may not have had the effect I wished. It may have just fed the same insecurity and a subsequent need to prove themselves.

Proving oneself is, after all, what the daily experience of school is about.

It’s a strange and toxic force being told how smart you are, or aren’t, and then being expected to constantly prove it. It’s wrong no matter what level of ability we categorize them into. Our kids have been indoctrinated to judge themselves in competition to everyone around them, on the basis of ability and achievement.

I know the motivations that drive gifted programs are mixed. I know that some parents are trying to rescue kids that are having trouble fitting into regular classrooms, but I also know that and others are looking for the stamp of superiority and extra opportunities it provides, generally with an eye toward elite college admissions and highly respected careers. In many cases the two motivations coexist.

One year I drove my daughter to visit a friend from school and lingered in the kitchen to get to know her mother. They lived in a very impressive house in a neighborhood full of equally impressive houses – which I admit put me off before the conversation even started. Then her mother confided in me that she was fed up with the school mixing different abilities in the same classroom. She thought our kids should be put in classrooms with “their own kind”, because the other children held them back. She couldn’t understand why the school insisted on mixing abilities in the classroom since everyone knew these kids would eventually be “mixing with their own kind” out in the real world…

She really used the words “their own kind” and waited for me to chime in with agreement.

I went cold, quietly disagreed, and started looking for an escape route.

This was a woman who had argued her child into the gifted program when the test scores hadn’t qualified her. The tests, she reminded me, hadn’t worked right. I don’t put too much weight on those test scores either, but my point is that this woman cared about that gifted status. I wasn’t surprised that this girl was eventually moved from the public school to attend a prestigious prep school. Presumably her parents judged the wealthy private school as more appropriate for “their kind”.

This same girl was behind the only significant bullying incident I ever directly witnessed – the kind parodied in bad TV shows. She was beautiful and popular and knew how to charm. She and her fawning underling executed an intense campaign to convince my daughter to ostracize someone they disliked from her birthday party. This wasn’t simple persuasion or friendly advice, it was an onslaught of intimidation. It was a power play barrage of menacing calls, emails, and threats of social retaliation. It was overwhelming and mean spirited. All I could do was encourage my daughter to stick to what she thought was right. She held her ground, but an oppressive tension remained over the whole event, and it bothered me when the two perpetrators showed up at the party all sparkly and giggly, dressed in matching outfits, clearly adored by every other adult in the room.

I have no doubt that the beautiful sparkly gifted one will end up in some powerfully successful position, completely confident in her superiority. After all, she’s one of the “smart” ones.


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