According to one definition, “Giftedness in a child is an ability significantly higher than other children of the same age.” So does District 97 have a 20- to 30-percent moderate to upper extreme giftedness rate? Of course not. I say this as the parent of a child who is receiving services through the gifted program at a Dist. 97 elementary school.

My child has also attended the
Northwestern Center for Talent Development, tested highly on the required tests, and been referred to other programs. Our experience with all of this has led us to believe that the proliferation of programs ready to service “gifted” children is really just the marketing and promotion of a service developed to address the pride and fears of parents.

We would all like to think that our children are above average. Yet it seems that the
Lake Wobegon effect is definitely at play here. Very few children are truly gifted. An 18-month-old who is reading is gifted. Toddlers who play a musical instrument with skill are gifted. Thirteen-year-olds who are accepted into college are gifted.

Many, like my child, are very bright and should be challenged at their respective abilities, as should all children. The gifted programs initiated by several local universities provide student enrichment opportunities, summer employment for teachers, and an additional revenue stream for the institutions. They have an eager customer pool in the form of parents stressed about whether their child will be accepted into a good college, receive much needed scholarship money and, ultimately, be competitive in this global economy.

So, what is Dist. 97’s role in all of this? As taxes and real estate prices increase,
Oak Park needs to be able to continue to attract families and businesses. One way to do this is to convince people that Oak Park schools are filled with exceptional students receiving exceptional services. In keeping with the times, it is no longer acceptable to just be good or even really good. We could, instead, promote differentiated learning that focuses on all children functioning at the best of his/her respective ability.

But that is more challenging and requires more training and skill development for teachers. We do not want to have the difficult discussions about limited resources and how to best distribute them. It is simpler to promote the exceptional abilities of 30 percent of the student population and attribute the lower performance to minority students. It appeases a very vocal segment of parents, provides good PR, and allows us to maintain the image of this bastion of social responsibility as we work at a snails pace to address “the Gap.”

 I have no doubt that there are minority students struggling in the system. There are also many non-minority students who are struggling. I question, however, whether the situation can be reduced to black and white or economics, particularly since so many of my fellow African-American Oak Park friends have children who are doing very well.

The District has much of the data needed to clarify all of this and we need to hold them responsible for providing accurate, transparent data from which real decisions can be made that benefit all of the district students. The first step is to drop the assumption that most Caucasian students are exceptional and most African-American students are failing. Then we can use more accurate data and best practices rather than expediency and pandering to determine good educational policy.

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