On the first day of his second freshman year in high school, Steven scored a 32 on the ACT, easily double our average student’s score. His writing was not only cogent, but elegant—simple sentences laid out in linear thought patterns, error free enough to know he had worked on it, semi-colon free enough to know that he wasn’t showing off. In socratic seminars, he found nuance between positions, easily jumping from one perspective to another to find the common ground in diverging opinions. He academically outpaced even our brightest students and many of the college students I tutored on the weekends.
At least, when he was present. He skipped a ton of school. Never quite the 15 days in a row threshold for dropping him from the roll, but he was easily absent half of the school days. He arrived late, fast food breakfast in hand, and left on a whim, always unexcused. He had transferred to our school from a rival charter high school in the area. He was held back his freshman year for disciplinary reasons, missed too many days, skipped too many detentions, etc. Our school is the more forgiving of the two and offered him a way to catch up and graduate on time with some extra work.
Steven never did any extra work. He crushed everything that we put in front of him, but never looked twice at make-up work from the days he missed. His grade reports were feast or famine, all A pluses and zeros interspersed. Honestly, I saw a lot of myself in him. I had skipped a ton of school and eventually dropped out of high school. I tried to build a better relationship with him, hoping to be the me I needed when I was him.
He was a Native American kid. Mom had grown up on a reservation—or “the res” as we call it— but fell into drugs when he was a toddler. He lived with his grandmother, who did what she could but didn’t understand him. She kept a roof over his head but was, in his estimation, too traditional and expected a type of compliance from him that mirrored the schools he had been escaping: home by such and such time, doing homework on the kitchen table, grounded for back talk. That wasn’t for him, he said. He felt lonely, he said. Isolated. Misunderstood.
I sat him down and asked directly. Do you know what it means when someone says “You’re gifted?” He didn’t. I pulled up an ACT to IQ conversion chart that placed him somewhere between 140 and 150 (not accounting for the quality of his education up to that point). I showed him a normal curve, explained standard deviations. He picked it up immediately and asked, “Is this why I feel so alone?”
I understand the argument for not labeling a student. I knew I was gifted from a young age, and that knowledge never had a single positive impact on me. But absent a label (and to be clear, I am no diagnostician) Steven knew he was different, but had no idea why. He just thought he was weird, awkward, struggled to make friends, easily irritated in classrooms that were the equivalent of a long wait at the DMV once he understood the point of the lesson.
Our relationship grew, and he was honest with me. He attended my classes more often than his others (though nothing like consistently). I gave him feedback well above his grade level and helped him improve his already sterling writing. He was never disrespectful but would often opt out of anything boring or cumbersome.
And then he moved out of grandma’s house. He was living with a friend, further from school. His already spotty attendance worsened. When he was at school, he often smelled of weed and was sent home (or just away since he wasn’t living at home). We would talk like people who used to know each other, and I had little influence on his behavior. I tried to help him get resources for a GED, but he never showed up. Eventually, he stopped coming altogether.
I cannot help but wonder how different his life would have been if he had been identified and served as the special thinker he was. His sense of school could have been one where he fit in, where classes were intriguing and went at his pace. He could have had access to scholarships and opportunities and a future unimaginable to him today. If he wanted to, he could have used that foothold to help his family on the res. He could have used his natural writing talent to illuminate a place that has gone all but forgotten in American Culture. Or not. It may have taken his whole effort just to stabilize and heal from the trauma of addiction and domestic abuse in his family. He deserves that chance.
In 2006, two Californian Economists, David Card and Laura Guiliano (from UC Berkley and Santa Cruz, respectively) followed a natural experiment in a large, diverse, unnamed school district. They watched as the district implemented a new policy for identifying gifted kids. First, the district shifted from recommendations to universal screening. The screener identified a group of kids for a free professional IQ test to see if they qualified for the gifted and talented programming. The universal screener gave a preliminary IQ score to these children, but there is no replacement for a one on one test. To make the cut for the individual test, students needed to score a 130. Unless they were part of the free and reduced lunch program. Then they only needed a 115.
So the new policy leveled the playing field in two ways, and the results were encouraging. Overall identification increased by two thirds. That is to say that 40 percent of the kids who ended up being identified as gifted would have not been previously identified. More strikingly, the population of gifted Hispanic children jumped 160 percent, and gifted African Americans jumped 80 percent. Poor kids who had scored beneath the previous threshold were able to demonstrate giftedness in the one on one setting.
In 2007, the recession led to budget cuts and the well of free IQ tests with licensed professionals ran dry. The enrollment numbers, unsurprisingly, reverted to old levels of inequity.
I feel certain that Steven’s particular gifts would have qualified him no matter the screening process. But in my district, Steven’s district, there are no dedicated gifted and talented programs. Only supplemental instruction inside larger schools, and even that is rare. As a student, I attended programs structured in both ways, pull-out and self-contained. While the instructional level of each can be appropriate, the implicit messages couldn’t be more different. In a pull-out supplemental program, I was physically and symbolically seperated from my peers and told I was different. In a self-contained program, I was surrounded by students who were weird in the same way I was. And isn’t that all any of us really wants?
Anyway, supplemental programs don’t really exist in high schools. There are honors classes and advanced placement opportunities, and Steven took part in them. But schools often want to bump their numbers for AP enrollment by giving every willing student a shot, and even those classes move at the pace of their slowest student.
With a proper gifted education from a young age, teachers would have been working with a different Steven altogether. A Steven who had confidence in place of his secret questions about his normalcy. A Steven whose eyes didn’t water when I helped him understand that most of what people misunderstood about him amounted to developmentally appropriate behavior for a kid in his IQ range. A Steven who, rather than loving learning and hating schooling, could imagine a place for himself in the world of education.
Regardless of the Steven in front of them, there were adults whose job it was to help him. Yet they ended up turning him off education–and, likely, public institutions of all types–for good. This mistake is statistically uncommon, not because it happens rarely, but because there are so few true geniuses to fail in this way. It all comes down to a lack. A lack of training, lack of understanding, lack of funding. Often a lack of empathy. That smart kid is more kid than smart. Not needing help with the work is not the same as not needing help at all.
Equity is not equality. Treating different people in the same way is often inherently unjust. These kids are different. You can’t see it, but they can. They can feel it, every moment of their lives. Steven emailed me earlier this year. The grammar and syntax were uncharacteristically frenzied. He was still bouncing from place to place. He had failed out of his third freshman year due to attendance, was doing drugs—not the fun ones, he said. He had just crested from a deep depression. He ended his message with this: “It’s hard and idk what to do man. I’m just trying to be me again or even better than that. Is it too late for me?”
When I see a child’s gifts so completely neglected, I cannot help but wonder if it was too late from the beginning.