Private Schools and the Profoundly Gifted
The tour was going well. The head of the school had greeted me with coffee in his cozy office, and so far had shown me well-appointed, airy classrooms with comfortable furniture and an admirable teacher-student ratio. I had met and talked with friendly teachers and school staff, been given a copy of the school literary magazine, and been allowed to stroke the school cat. If all went well, my next step would be to apply for my sons admission to the school, and schedule a visit for the potential student himself.
Then it happened. En route from one classroom to another, the Head, who was conducting my tour, introduced me to a colleague in administration as a visiting potential parent with a special needs child: Mrs. S. has a son in 2nd grade whos reading at 12th-grade level.
The mood of the tour changed abruptly. The colleague turned away and positively sneered: Oh? Who says?
Flustered, the Head attempted to lighten things up, laughing: Oh, now, thats not very trusting and I, attempting in my turn to smooth over the exchange, attempted to acknowledge that pushy parents are not uncommon in a private school setting: I know, thats sort of a private school thing!
No, the colleague corrected me, leaning down and looking directly into my face so that his meaning could not possibly be misunderstood. Thats a PARENT thing.
Welcome to private school.
The private school described above charges tuition of around $13,000 a year. Some of this money is spent on an elaborate full-page newspaper advertisement every spring, boasting the schools 100% acceptance rate to college. A child reading 10 years out of grade level is a child a school like this should want.
Although the anti-gifted and anti-parent attitude demonstrated by this particular administrator at this particular school is extreme, and the frankness with which the attitude was expressed is atypical in my experience-the belief system underlying the attitude is, unfortunately, a common one. This may come as a surprise to parents new to the world of gifted education, where the anecdotal statement is frequently made that private school is a good choice for gifted children, particularly during the elementary school years.
But as Joan Witham has written in Roeper Review:
This opinion piece is being written because I believe that the image of private schools as necessarily an enhanced environment for the gifted is a pernicious stereotype that deserves to be challenged. For the profoundly gifted, I believe the stereotype to be profoundly more pernicious.
This piece is written by the mother of Simbuilder, a boy who is, at this writing, almost 9 years old. He demonstrated extreme mathematical precocity as a toddler and was identified as profoundly gifted when he was 6; initially demonstrating rather uneven development between math and verbal skills, his verbal ability surpassed even his mathematics ability by the age of 7. (For a good definition of profound giftedness, see What is Highly Gifted? Exceptionally Gifted? Profoundly Gifted? And What Does It Mean? <http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/highly_profoundly.htm> by Carolyn K.2). In addition to IQ scores, our son has repeatedly tested from 5 to 10 years out of age-for-grade level on individual achievement tests such as the Woodcock-Johnson. In June 2002 he was accepted as a Davidson Young Scholar (see Davidson Foundation <http://www.ditd.org>).
It is important to note here that within the category of profoundly gifted, every profoundly gifted child is a unique individual with an individual personality and individual needs. Our experience may not be yours, and our sons educational needs may not be your childs educational needs. As we say on the lists, YMMV: Your Mileage May Vary.
One way in which our mileage definitely varies: Our son at age 8 has actively refused to be grade-accelerated, radically or otherwise. Unlike the stereotypical PG child of the literature, Simbuilder is happiest with age-peers, not particularly comfortable with older children, and makes friends quite easily, and for these reasons he neither entered kindergarten early nor was ever grade-skipped.
For 5 years, pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade, Simbuilder was a student at a secular private school in a large city in the Northeast. This opinion piece is written based on our gradual discovery of Simbuilders profound giftedness during his experience at one private school that he attended. It is also based on our experience investigating other private schools in a total of 6 states: North Carolina, Michigan, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, New York and Indiana. These investigations took place over a 2-year period ending in April 2002. Only one of these private schools was a gifted school, i.e., one explicitly identified as a school for gifted children with formal entrance criteria. None of these private schools offered any gifted programs or offered their students participation in gifted programs available through the public school system, where these existed.
Our information-seeking process was always the same: We mailed copies of Simbuilders test and achievement scores, obtained as recently as 6 months from the time of correspondence, and reports from the objective third parties who conducted the testing, to appropriate personnel at the schools (private religious, private secular, and public) in which we were interested. A cover letter explained that we were potentially relocating to the area and were interested in what the school could do for a child functioning at our sons level. I also acknowledged in this cover letter that no-ones child could be completely represented by a piece of paper, or even a pile of pieces of paper, but that I hoped these pieces of paper could serve as a starting point for a conversation. In none of these cases was a formal application eventually made to the school; this meant that the school my son was currently attending was never contacted, nor did my son himself ever visit any of these schools, although I did participate in several pre-admission interviews at the schools own invitation.
Expectations of private schools
We are public-school educated adults in our forties who grew up in an era of academic tracking, but with little to no experience with gifted programs ourselves. Thus as parents, we were new not only to the concept of gifted education, but also to the world of private education. We found, however, that we had developed certain beliefs about what private schools could provide for our son, and that these beliefs tended to be shared with other people. Here are three reasons that some readers may share themselves.
Small class size. This is commonly cited as a reason that private schools work for children of all abilities; for example, one website, GreatSchools.net, states that Private schools are generally committed to providing small classes and individual attention to students. Many parents choose private schools for this reason. Small classes have been found to enhance learning to a measurable extent, particularly in the early elementary years (see for example the reports on Class Size Reduction, <http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/cs/>; a research summary Small Class Size Trumps Vouchers In Terms of Results, Costs, and Public Support by American Federation of Teachers at <http://www.aft.org/pdfs/teachers/vouchersvssmallclass0498.pdf>). Private schools frequently go one step further by citing the individualized, customized, or otherwise personalized attention available to students in small classes.
Anti-selection. Because private schools, whether secular or religious, are able to control for admission of students they dont want, private schools ought in theory be able to create classrooms that are more effective learning environments for those children the schools do want and who are, presumably, selected by the school for positive reasons. These reasons could, in theory, include giftedness, however that is defined.
Selection. Selection, takes place when criteria such as intelligence or achievement test scores are considered as part of the admissions process. This, again, in theory, could result in a class in which homogeneity-of intelligence or anything else-might be considered more likely to occur. This, again in theory, could result in an optimal learning environment for gifted children.
Our experience with private schools
In our extensive 6-state search, fully armed with reams of objective opinions and scores by professionals in profound giftedness, we found that only two schools-one the gifted school, another a school for children with learning disabilities--could provide our son with material appropriate to the level at which he was proven to be functioning. (A chart showing typical responses appears at the conclusion of this essay).
Schools varied greatly in the degree of candor with which they answered our request for information. The most common responses came in the form of buzzwords which we have learned to dread, which appear below with discussion:
It is typical for schools of all kinds to suggest that challenge or enrichment can provide a gifted child with the necessary education. The researcher Julian Stanley3 classified typical enrichment activities in schools in four principal types: busy work, irrelevant academic enrichment, cultural enrichment, and relevant academic enrichment. The irrelevant type is enrichment for the sake of saying you do enrichment; the child is presented with extra work having little or nothing to do with the identified areas of giftedness.
The private school our son attended specialized in irrelevant enrichment. As I noted above, our mileage varied: Simbuilder demonstrated extreme mathematical skill very early, doing mental multiplication and division at age 4, but showed very little interest in reading independently before the age of 7, at which point he advanced within 2 months to the 12th grade reading level that so amused the private school administrator in my opening anecdote. However, in September of 1st grade, he was barely reading.
But our private school had been given objective documentation that Simbuilders math skills were considerably out of grade level: he had scored near the top of 5th grade on the Woodcock-Johnson individual achievement tests the summer before 1st grade. So faced with this information, and an official school policy of doing nothing for gifted children before 3rd grade, the 1st grade teacher did her best to provide him with enrichment.
The enrichment material had nothing to do with the child. It appeared to have been drawn from a book of educational puzzles resembling nothing so much as the Analytical portion of the Graduate Record Examination. Whats more, it definitely required that the child be reading, or at least possess a more advanced vocabulary-completely inappropriate for a late reader like our mathematical son at age 6, and clearly useless as enrichment of his educational experience.
Similar enrichment was proposed to me by teachers and admissions personnel in every other state I researched, even a year later when Simbuilder had zoomed to the reading level of a senior in high school. The words enrichment and challenge were, in fact, used so frequently in private school settings with so much vagueness and absence of customization to the individual child-even in classrooms containing only 12 children-that I came to view the appearance of these words as a negative indicator of quality. Quite apart from implying an individualized education, enrichment or challenge materials had a generic character and a generic application: these materials in my view were given to all children whose parents complained about easy material or who finished their seatwork early (I was never sure which).
All of our children are gifted
Probably the most insidious and destructive phrase in education is one that parents of all gifted children learn to fear: All children are gifted (For an excellent summary of the situation, see the essay All children are gifted by Michael Thompson at <http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/all_children.htm>).
Parents of gifted children get used to hearing this, whatever their schooling situation: public, private, religious or homeschooled. The peculiar situation of a private school, however, is that it is fundamentally an institution that depends upon marketing itself as a value-added service worth paying money for, and thus whose product must then be smart children; or, at least, smarter children than parents otherwise have a right to expect. Thus in private schools the phrase All of our children are gifted carries some socioeconomic weight in the conversation.
Is it true that all students are gifted at a particular private school? It certainly may be. The answer to this question depends on a private schools ability to (1) identify and (2) select for criteria that may include IQ scores and achievement tests. Gifted schools, as I noted at the beginning of this essay, are different, since they are private schools that do select according to various criteria of giftedness.
What began to amuse me, after some months of research, was that even private schools that required no evidence of intellectual ability for admission were still insisting to me that all their students were gifted, when in fact they had no factual basis for saying so. This was the case with every private school I investigated in one Northeastern city: none required IQ scores or achievement tests for admission. In fact, only one school had any kind of academic (as opposed to behavioral) standard for kindergarten admission, and this was neither an IQ or achievement test; yet every school was purportedly filled with gifted children.
One possible outcome of the All of our children are gifted attitude, when it is held by school administrators and teachers alike, is that it becomes an excuse for the absence of gifted programming and individualized curricula that gifted children-and especially profoundly gifted children-desperately need. Because why, indeed, would a school need to provide out-of-grade material if all children in a grade were functioning out of grade level in the first place? A school proclaiming this attitude without a factual basis for holding it has effectively forestalled any argument on the part of concerned parents.
As with enrichment and challenge, I soon learned to be skeptical as soon as I heard this phrase. In my opinion, the selection and anti-selection features of private education eventually have an insidious effect: private schools begin to believe their own publicity. It is pure and simple self-justification for an admissions officer to proclaim that every child in every class is functioning at a level that is above average- a real Lake Wobegon effect.
So we have lots of kids like yours
Closely related to the All our children argument is the corollary argument that the school has seen lots of children like yours before, which bears the subtext that of course, having seen lots, the school knows exactly what to do with them.
Depending on the kind of gifted child you have, this statement should be taken with the appropriate dose of salt. The number of profoundly gifted children in the world is a debated statistic; the Davidson Institute for Profoundly Gifted Childrens Frequently Asked Questions page states:
Some researchers have found a larger number of profoundly gifted children than expected by this estimate, and particular concentrations in certain parts of the country. For example, in 1981 Halbert Robinson wrote of his Seattle study:
Depending on the location of the school, the makeup of the community, and other factors too numerous to mention, a particular private school may indeed have many moderately gifted children. The greater the degree of giftedness, however, the less likely you can expect it to be that any school may have had lots of children like yours. In the case of the profoundly gifted child, even though we know little about the degree of rarity in the general population, we know that they are rare. Families residing in Seattle may wish to modify this paragraph according to their particular situation!
Ultimately, though, the proportion of gifted children in a schools population is a red herring. Why? Because in the absence of an educational plan, the statement We have lots of children like yours is meaningless. Or, worse than meaningless: It suggests that the school has not one bored, underchallenged child working 5-10 years below grade level, but multiple bored, underchallenged children working 5-10 years below grade level.
Be specific, be specific, be specific. When you hear a private school admissions officer or teacher say challenge, ask what they mean. Are they referring to enrichment? Into which of Julian Stanleys four categories will this enrichment fall?
Examples drawn from real-life situations encountered by the teacher or administration will be most helpful. Visiting the classroom and/or examining curricular materials is best.
All of our children are gifted
Determine what basis the school has for making this assertion. The more evaluation criteria the school imposes, the better (assuming that you, as a parent, are in agreement with the use of the specific criterion in the first place). In my experience, one should be wary of two corollary sub-statements: We have lots of university faculty parents and (heard somewhat less often, but typically from other parents J): We have many wealthy parents. Neither condition is an automatic guarantee of intellectually gifted progeny and in fact may make giftedness more difficult for parents to talk about.
One article from Boston Magazine describes the situation in affluent suburban public schools, but it completely replicates my own experience in urban private schools:
And the situation is no better in Winchester, Massachusetts, another faculty bedroom suburb where parents of gifted children arent even sure what they are allowed to call them:
It is important, in my opinion, not to confuse environment with education. A school of any kind-public, private secular, or private religious-that has lots of kids who are smart, gifted, intellectually advanced, fast learners or just plain interesting to be around is obviously going to be a better school than one that does not possess these attractive qualities. This speaks to the schools environment, and it may be exactly right for your child depending on your childs needs and learning style as much as on your childs intellectual ability.
This environment is not, however, a guarantee of an appropriate education. For that, you have to ask other questions.
So we have lots of kids like yours
A statement from a private school that suggests they have experience with lots of children like yours should be considered suspect in the absence of two important pieces of information. Ask for them early and often:
In my opinion, the mere presence of #1 without a corresponding #2 constitutes a warning sign.
I have the following additional strategies to recommend for parents considering private school education for their gifted children.
As I discussed above, we were careful in our relocation search to provide as much objective, third-party information about our sons abilities as we could. We were asking for in-classroom subject acceleration, as opposed to grade acceleration. We were unable to obtain any meaningful accommodations from the school he attended based on this documentation (see chart at the conclusion of this essay). Based on the other schools we contacted, I cannot say we would have obtained any meaningful accommodations there either; in fact, in several cases such accommodation was explicitly ruled out (No subject acceleration until 6th grade) during the informal parent-interview process.
I still maintain that documentation was useful, because administrators tended to cut to the chase when faced with reports from objective third parties, whether those reports were delivered in person or through the mail. It simply made discussions easier when schools took me seriously from the beginning, and eliminated much of the pushy-parent dialogue we all encounter so frequently in our advocacy for our childrens education.
Talk to Other Parents
Schools that make promises should try to connect you with parents of children just like yours, given, of course, that such parents give permission to be so contacted. Take it as a positive sign that a school is willing to do this for you during the pre-interview process (i.e., before money has changed hands).
Ask the other parents as many questions as you can, without, again of course, violating the familys privacy. Hopefully, their answers will help you decide, first, if you are in fact dealing with similar children, and second, if this is a school that might work for you. The closer in age and ability your children are, the better kind of comparison you can make.
I connected with a number of other parents in the course of my researches and never found this time to be ill-spent. The most amusing case was another parent whom a school asked me to contact because they believed the other parents experiences had been entirely positive. Twenty minutes into our first cup of coffee, it developed that the reverse was true: the other mom did have a child very similar to mine, but was actively complaining about her sons school, which in her opinion had completely reneged on the educational experience promised when they had first approached the school with their similar child some years before. In fact, their experience had been so negative that they could not understand why I had been given their contact information for a recommendation!
This private school thus demonstrated to me not only that it had no resources for profoundly gifted children, but that it was completely out of touch with its parent base-neither point a selling one for a parent shopping for schools.
Finally, networking with other parents of gifted children can be very rewarding for all kinds of reasons, even if you never go near the school again.
Be Alert for Attitude
The anecdote with which I began this essay is a frightening one and, I hope, somewhat atypical in its intensity. Every parent dealing with gifted advocacy has similar stories; some of the most harrowing involving the exceptionally/profoundly gifted have been published by Miraca Gross in her Exceptionally Gifted Children (1993)6.
In my researches, I found that it paid to be conscious of such attitude on the part of the teaching staff. This was true even during the kindergarten selection process undertaken a few years before: one private school kindergarten teacher, told that our son was doing mental division at 4, was quick to inform me that We have a lot of parents who say that. (An interesting twist on the All our children are gifted line, but hardly helpful.)
I spoke to a math teacher at a K-12 private school to whom I was referred by the Head because she could answer my questions. This math teacher, who had clearly been told (warned?) that I was the parent of a profoundly gifted 6-year-old mathematician, began our telephone dialogue by stating firmly No calculus in seventh grade. Since we had been told a week before that our son would probably be ready for college-level mathematics at middle school age, this was something of a conversation stopper. However, it was data, and all data is useful data in compiling an overall picture of a private school.
Am I in general an opponent of private school education? No. I have a profoundly gifted sibling whose experience in an extremely competitive private school during the high school years was the most challenging education of her life before college. A private school with a small teacher-student ratio that does admit that gifted children exist, that does make attempts to customize curricula when necessary, and believes the word of parents carrying documentation, is a private school to consider-just as a public school should be with the same characteristics. Most importantly: If you like the school and your child does also, other parents with similar children can be expected to as well, and there may really be peers for your child to interact with.
Am I anti-teacher, based on my experiences? On the contrary, it was my sons teachers who made school bearable for him through age 8. Even when administrators balked at providing appropriate material, teachers typically went above and beyond to try and keep him interested in the classroom. The incident of irrelevant enrichment described above was unfortunate, but I always felt the teacher was trying her best and had my sons best interests at heart. It seemed to be school policies that most constrained the ability of teachers to do what my son desperately required.
Rather, I am issuing an appeal to parents that their decisions be considered decisions, no matter what they ultimately decide is best for their children. Educational choice based solely on internalized popular stereotypes about private school education, made without due investigation of what private schools can really provide to our gifted population, can only serve to perpetuate both the stereotypes and the institutional failings I have discussed above.
Sample Responses to Requests to Public and Private Schools:
What could you do for this child?
Appropriate personnel at all schools received the same packet containing: IQ and achievement test results, supporting documentation from educational psychologists, and a cover letter describing a child functioning at the profoundly gifted level
1Joan Witham. (1997). Public or private schools? A dilemma for gifted students? Roeper Review, 19, pp. 137-141.
2What is Highly Gifted? Exceptionally Gifted? Profoundly Gifted? And What Does It Mean? by Carolyn K. Available online: <http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/highly_profoundly.htm>.
3Julian C. Stanley. (1979). The study and facilitation of talent for mathematics. In A. H. Passow (Ed.), The gifted and talented: Their education and development (pp. 169-185). (Seventy-eighth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I, pp. 169-185). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
4Halbert B. Robinson. (1981). The uncommonly bright child. In M. Lewis & L.A. Rosenblum (Eds.), The Uncommon Child, pp. 57-81.) New York: Plenum Press. The entire article by Robinson is available online at <http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10022.aspx>).
5Beth LaDow. (1993). Accommodating fast learners in the Winchester [Massachusetts] schools. Advocates for Quality Education News, June 1999, volume 1, issue 4. Available online: <http://kidsboston.com/ladow.htm>.
6Miraca U.M. Gross. (1993). Exceptionally Gifted Children. New York: Routledge.