The sorry state of gifted education

Today I went to a parent meeting on gifted education at my son’s school.

We learned about what school is doing for the gifted and talented students. Then the parents were asked to participate in a survey. The main question is: “Do you think your kids are challenged and their needs are met and supported at school?”

Many parents think our kids are not challenged enough and the learning pace is too slow.

Personally I agree with that.

Four years ago I wrote an article titled the sorry state of gifted education. I don’t think things have changed a lot or fast enough since then.

If I compare the G&T education or education in general in the US and in China, there is a huge difference. They are at two opposite ends of the scale. 

In China, students are grouped based on their abilities in schools, in grade levels and in classes. They can get into better schools and better classes if they have better scores. From better schools they have a better chance to get into better colleges. The competition is fierce. So students, parents, teachers and schools all work hard to get better grades, to get a better education, to get a good reputation, and to get ahead. Students are overly challenged by their parents and teachers, and are pretty stressed out.

Many kids in China start taking private lessons in various subjects at an early age even before they start school. Their school year and school day are longer. They have to do school homework for several hours every day. It’s common in China that kids have to do homework for several hours every day till late at night. 

Here is an example to show how busy kids in China are. I don’t think this is common even in China, but it’s something I witnessed while I was visiting my parents in China last summer.

One of my cousins has a daughter in high school. Every day my cousin drives to school to bring her daughter home cooked meal for lunch. Then late afternoon she drives to school to pick her daughter up. The girl eats her dinner in the car to save time. So once she gets home, she can focus on doing her homework for several hours. No time is wasted on eating dinner at home.

For Americans, this may sound like crazy, because here we are living in a totally different culture.

My kids don’t have much homework to do. When I ask them: “Do you have homework today?” Most times their response is either: “No” or “Yes, but I have already finished it in school.”

What an easy school life they have here.

I wish there is a middle ground between these two sides of spectrum. American schools need to be more challenging, especially for the G&T kids, while in China, they need to loose up a little bit and give kids some room for breathing.

Below is an article I wrote for my Woodbury Bulletin column in 2007.

The sorry state of gifted education

Recently I became interested in learning about gifted education. What I have read so far was surprising, partly because I didn’t grow up here and am not familiar with America’s education system. I feel dismayed by what Jan & Bob Davidson called “the sorry state of gifted education.”

According to their book “Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds,” America spends 143 times more on special education than gifted education.

Two reasons cause this situation. 

First, America is a country that prides itself on being an equalitarian nation. Our school teaches to the middle. Teachers tend to adapt instruction to the average ability of their classes. 

Emphasis is on special education to raise the bar for those on the lower end of the achievement ladder. The fact that gifted children on the higher end of the ladder also have special needs is often ignored. 

Second, America has also become an anti-intellectual nation. If you walk into any American high school, the trophies displayed in the hall case are more likely to be related to athletic competitions. We build better stadiums while libraries have to be closed or cut hours. 

The result is universities and businesses have shortage of scientists and highly skilled workers. Many of them are now imported from abroad. 

I believe every child should receive an appropriate education and be challenged to the extent of his ability. Every child should be taught at his ability and pace. Equality should really mean equal opportunity to learn and to excel according to everyone’s ability. 

Two things that have happened this school year are very encouraging to me. 

At the School District 833 level, thanks to the great effort of Marcia Dolezal, District’s Gifted & Talented Coordinator for K-6, and the support of School Board, a GT program called Gateway was launched for the school year 2006-07 at the Royal Oaks Elementary School. 

Approximately 45 students in grades 3-6 from the top 1 percent of classes throughout the District participate in the program. 3-4 graders are grouped in one classroom and 5-6 graders are grouped in another classroom. 

At the Liberty Ridge Elementary School level, we have a new enrichment teacher Tina Van Erp who demonstrates a passion for gifted education. In November 2006 she started a parent community group for parents with gifted children at Liberty Ridge. The purpose of the monthly meeting is to share information and support each other.    

I am glad that our District, School Board and schools have recognized the importance of gifted education and are doing something to better serve the special needs of the gifted students. 

In comparison to other school districts in Minnesota, our District has really done a good job providing gifted education. In addition to the new Gateway Program, there is the Cluster Classroom Program that exists at all District 833 elementary schools in grades 3-6.    

But still more can be done. 

A successful gifted program should include a variety of elements. 

Ability grouping 

The new Gateway program is an example of ability grouping. Highly gifted students are grouped together in the self-contained classes within the school. But only a very small group of students can benefit from it. 

Stillwater District provides ability grouping for reading. Students in the same grade are divided into several reading groups according to their levels. Each teacher has a group of students with the same reading level. Can we do something like this in our schools? 


What gifted students truly need is the accelerated curriculum, not just a few hours a week of enrichment activities that happens in some schools. 

Acceleration includes such practices as early entrance into kindergarten and grade skipping. Students may be accelerated in one discipline or across disciplines. 

I wish our District would make it easier for early entrance to kindergarten. If a child demonstrates he is gifted, he should be eligible for early entrance. It should be the school’s responsibility to test and evaluate the child for eligibility for a small fee. 

Acceleration allows the gifted students to learn and progress at an appropriate pace and depth which is compatible with their ability. Acceleration allows them to develop advanced skills in reading, math, writing, etc. 

If a 1st grader needs 2nd grade work to be adequately challenged, the school should make it happen. As long as the student meets the criteria and passes standards for a certain level, he should be able to move to the next level. He should not have to relearn what he already knows. 

Differentiated instruction 

It would be nice for the teachers to provide differentiated instruction. But I think it’s hard for one teacher to meet the needs of over 20 students in her class whose abilities and levels are miles apart. For this reason, I personally prefer ability grouping and acceleration. 

Early start of gifted education 

Many children show their giftedness before they enter kindergarten. The identification process should start as early as possible. Schools should screen students for giftedness and lower the age of identification to include kindergarten. Gifted education shouldn’t begin until 3rd grade, as it is now in our District. 


Recognize that tests are not the only mean to identify gifted children. Individual giftedness and certain talents may not be revealed by general intelligence tests. Some children do not exhibit extreme intellectual giftedness on a group intelligence test, but they demonstrate exceptional achievement and superior performance in special areas of their interests and talents. 

Schools should have the flexibility to meet all children’s needs. 

American’s education should be reformed to offer gifted children an appropriate education. It should challenge the gifted and talented to make the most of their abilities, to provide them the opportunity to develop to their maximum potential. The society should demonstrate through actions that we recognize and reward excellence. 

My interest in learning about gifted education comes from my concern for my 1st grade daughter. She said many times: “I hate school. School is very boring, because it is too easy.”

If my daughter brings home math work with 100% correct all the time, it’s not really a good thing. It can mean it’s too easy for her and she is not learning and being challenged. 

Both my daughter’s teacher and her school are doing their best to help meeting her needs. I hope our District and schools in general can do more for students like her. We don’t want to see smart students become underachievers. 

The gifted students deserve a meaningful, challenging and rewarding school learning experience just as the special needs children. They deserve the same kind of support and protection for an appropriate education that special needs children are entitled to. 

Until the gifted education can get more attention and support, until every child can be challenged to the extent of his ability, America can’t claim it’s leaving no child behind.

Efe Agbamu – Minnesota’s Secondary Principal of the Year

Efe Agbamu, principal of Park High School in Cottage Grove, resident of Oakdale and a fellow church member of Spirit of Life Bible Church in Woodbury, has been awarded the 2011 “Minnesota’s Secondary Principal of the Year,”  an honor given by the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. Agbamu will now compete to become the national secondary principal of the year. That winner will be named in September.

According to the Star Tribune article “Park High School principal wins state award” on January 30, 2011, “The award for middle and high school principals recognized Agbamu for her ability to achieve academic and community goals, for improving teaching and learning and encouraging a positive school environment for staff and students. Agbamu, who has been at the school for four years, instituted an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at the school in 2009. IB programs generally involve more challenging courses and make students internationally competitive.”

Establishing the International Baccalaureate program was Agbamu’s greatest achievement at Park High School. It is a program that is benchmarked against international standards. It is taught around the world.

The Minnesota Department of Education describes the International Baccalaureate education as a “superior education.”

With the IB program, students are taking much more challenging classes. This year, the number of students who take AP and honors classes at Park has almost doubled the number from last year.

For more info about IB at Park High School, click here.

Agbamu is well educated herself and has three degrees – one from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, a doctorate degree from Hamline University and the superintendent’s license from Minnesota State University Mankato.

Agbamu moved to the United States from her native Nigeria in 1992. She is married with three children and lives in Oakdale.

Middle school challenge

Lake Middle School had open house at 4-6 pm. I went with my kids after work.

Andy didn’t want to go at all. He said he had already been to Back to School kick off last Thursday, “Why do I have to go again? It’s a waste of time.”

I had to talk him into going, so we could meet his new teachers.

We listened to a brief presentation by a group of his core subject teachers. I still don’t remember who is who, but at least I have met them.

I filled out the emergency card and Andy bought a Lake t-shirt and shorts for his gym class.

That’s all we did.

After three months of break, Andy is not looking forward to school. I would be very excited to going back to school and learn new things, but he is not. That’s a concern.

I do hope that after he gets back to the routine of school life in a few days, he will like school and have a wonderful and successful school year ahead of him.

I think the middle school (or high school) environment in the US can be challenging for some young kids. They no longer have a home room where they take the same classes with the same group of students all the time, as it is in elementary schools. Now each student has his own schedule. He goes to different classes, his classmates are different in each subject class.

While there are advantages in individualizing every student’s schedule, I think there are also some disadvantages. One of them is lack of bonding between students.

From elementary school all the way through college in China, I had fixed classrooms with classroom teachers and the same classmates for each class. 

Even at college, most of my lessons at that time were in small classes with about 20 students. Over the four years of studying together and living in the same dorm together, we got to know each other really well and built a strong bond. We stay in touch long after graduation.

When I went to universities in Germany and the US, I had to select and take classes by myself. I lived off the campus and was a come-and-go student. I didn’t get to know any classmates who were different from class to class.    

Having no relationship with any classmates or teachers at either universities I went to in Germany and the US, I don’t feel any strong connection with either institutions.

When I think of my middle school and college in China, I feel a stronger connection, because I had a closer relationship with some classmates and teachers. Better connecting and bonding with people lead to closer association and bonding with institutions.

Our middle schools did try to create a more intimate environment by dividing students in each grade into two smaller houses, so they don’t feel totally lost and alone. It’s good to see some familiar faces wherever you go.

That’s the comment I heard a couple of time today. “Oh, good, our kids are in the same house. At least they know someone.”

More school days

Lately several people have asked me casually: “Are your kids ready for going back to school?” 

My response is: “I am more than ready for them to go back to school.” 

We spent seven weeks in China this summer. When we came back in mid July, we still have almost eight weeks to go before school starts on Sept. 7. 

My kids have been staying home with grandparents, sleeping in almost every day, playing, reading, doing some homework. They are watching more TV than ever before.  

For me, three month summer break is a loooong break without school. It’s too long. It’s getting boring for them (or maybe not, because my daughter said she likes to be home). But honestly, I am getting tired of them wasting time in watching more TV, playing video games and fighting with each other.  

More importantly, I want them to spend more time at school learning. That’s why I want a longer school year (read my Woodbury Bulletin column 9/5/2007).

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French fries caused controversy

Judy Spooner’s article in this week’s Woodbury Bulletin – What does future hold for French fries in school cafeteria? – has brought quite a few comments from readers on the Bulletin’s website.

The comments fall in two groups. One group favors healthy choices. The other group favors freedom of choice. They think people should mind their own business instead of trying to tell everyone else how to live their lives.

So far the result of the online poll (Do you think District 833 should drop French fries from all its school cafeterias?”) indicates that the majority of people think that parents and teachers shouldn’t be so uptight about school lunch.

Knowing how hard it is to get my two kids eat healthy food at home, I am in favor of limiting unhealthy choices in school cafeterias.

Families who like French fries have plenty of choices on their own. There are so many fast food restaurants in this country that are more than happy to satisfy their desire for French fries any day and anytime.

In an ideal world where everyone is responsible and makes good choices, we wouldn’t need any laws, rules and limits.

If we can’t make good choices, then setting limits is a good thing in my mind.

Actually I appreciate the few parents who care enough about their own kids and other kids to request soda vending machines to be removed from schools and unhealthy foods to be limited and removed.

I didn’t know that French fries could cause such a heated discussion. It just shows that Americans love French fries and freedom. Taking these two away, it’s guaranteed to get rejection and protest.

Let your voices be heard. Share your opinions by leaving a comment or doing the poll on the Bulletin’s website.