With learning labels, come responsibilties: carefully--and on an ongoing basis-- monitor student capabilities

With learning labels, come responsibilties:  carefully--and on an ongoing basis-- monitor student capabilities

Well, I found a new label today on the Racialicious blog: “Nerd of color.” Obviously, the author is referring to Raj on the Big Bang Theory. I like the show. I think they all do a great job stereotyping the “gifted” label.
Which brings me to my main point. We, in the world of education, are really quick to assign labels—gifted or otherwise—and that’s dangerous. We need evidence-based screening procedures. Even then, misidentification happens. Are all kids who are identified as gifted truly gifted? Absolutely not. One big problem is that there is no standard definition of gifted. Once a school district defines gifted and sets up a program, some students do slide through the cracks. That’s very tough on that child, given the rigorous curriculum. For that reason, there are exit options in many gifted programs, plus ongoing monitoring of student work and social and emotional attitudes and behaviors.

What if a student is missed? Not identified as “gifted,” though he should be. To me, the answer is simple. I agree with Susan Winebrenner that every interested student should have a chance to work on gifted curricula to see if it’s a good fit. I readily support a child who self advocates and is open to the challenge. In fact, some educators believe that schools should adopt gifted curriculum and teach it to all students. Again, I’m all for exposing every student to a thinking curriculum.

Now, let’s talk about students with learning disabilities. There are many gifted students who have learning disabilities, too. They are labeled as twice-exceptional: gifted and LD (2e). Sad to say, in a number of cases, those students are denied access to gifted education. Some teachers operate with a “deficit” mindset. Fix the problem, i.e., dysgraphia or executive functioning (many other diagnoses as well) and only then can the child move on to gifted programs. That's improper.  These children are deserving of challenges, too. The child’s academic focus must be a two-fold: challenges in areas of strengths and time spent on strategies to compensate for the learning deficit. Make sure both aspects are part of your child’s IEP or GEP.

Parents, teachers, and students all need to stay on top of things. This week in my doctoral program, we came across some disturbing evidence from researchers: “we have generally found children called LD—the ones on our classroom videotapes over the past 30 years--to be far more capable than claimed [by their classroom teachers].”* My suggestion--bring in specialists (gifted and LD) to observe students on a regular basis. Two sets of eyes are much better than one. Also, pay as much attention to the student work “process” as to the final student work "product,” especially if students are working in groups. Wrongly labeling (even wrongly evaluating) students promotes greater underachievement, creates profound social and emotional issues, and also reinforces racial and cultural stereotypes.

So much of teaching involves unmasking learning strengths. Label with care. In the end, school should be all about finding and nurturing capabilities. Think: “yes, they can."


*McDermott, Ray, Shelley Goldman and Harve Varenne.  2006.  The Cultural Work of Learning Disabilities.  Educational Researcher, vol. 35, pp. 12-17,

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