What’s Wrong With Pursuing Gifted Education for Our Kids?

While having dinner with a family who lives in Manhattan, the parents told me about their daughter’s saga of testing for kindergarten admission into New York’s notoriously selective Hunter Elementary School. The parents are two of the brightest people I know, and their four-year-old daughter is fluent in at least three languages so far (Mandarin, French, and English). Her test results placed her in the impressive 98th percentile. And yet, she hadn’t made it past the first round; only kids who scored in the 99th percentile and above advanced.

My friends took it in good stride, shrugging off the results. “I look on the bright side,” said Jennifer. “At least she scored in the 98th percentile! I just wasn’t willing to do all the test prep that everyone else does.”

Test preparation has become the norm for many Manhattan families wishing to give their children that extra boost needed to gain admission into these very competitive public school programs. The New York Times recently reported that, despite education administrators’ efforts to downplay the impact of test preparation, an impact clearly seems to exist. The well-prepared child is one whose parents have the resources to afford the many tutoring services that have emerged to meet the demand of today’s anxious parents.

Thinking about the situation of my well-educated and intelligent friends and their precocious daughter, I have to wonder what hope there is for kids from families that are not as well-resourced. Pundits and politicians have dissected the increasing “opportunity gap” that exists between the upper and lower classes, with conservatives and liberals both pointing fingers at the other’s flawed plans to bring more parity to our society. Unfortunately, policies can only go so far. What we’re seeing in our culture is not just an opportunity gap, but a moral and spiritual one as well.

Part of what Christian families can bring to the conversation is an awareness of this disparity and a willingness to stand against cultural norms to carve out a new pathway for themselves and their kids. I’ve been heartened to read more stories lately of Christian parents who are taking an approach to their children’s education that is clearly not based upon an individualistic desire to see their own kids succeed, but instead, seeks to lift the quality of education for all of the children in their community.

Christianity Today’s April 2012 cover story, “The New School Choice Agenda,” featured a group of young adult couples who chose to live together in a low-income community in Richmond, Virginia. As these couples began to have children, they faced a choice of what to do for their kids, education-wise. The local public school, with 88 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, was not the typical educational choice that well-educated Christian parents make for their kids. But as father Corey Widmer asked in the article, “What would it communicate to our neighbors if we said, ‘We’re moving into your neighborhood, but we don’t consider your schools and public institutions good enough for our families’?”

Unfortunately, stories like this are not yet the norm. Too often even Christian families take an individualistic approach to our educational choices. We concern ourselves with just our own children because the culture has surrounded us with the message that being good parents means we’re doing the best we can to give our children every advantage. The government may desire that no child is “left behind” but the modern American family typically cares that just theirs are not.

But Jesus did not instruct us to “Love God, then love your family, then your neighbor.” It’s good to remind ourselves that walking the narrow path means we make choices that go against the cultural flow, even if it may not seem like the wisest way in the world’s eyes.

How does this sound for a radical approach to social justice and equality: Christians embracing opportunities not just to mold their kids into star performers, but to use the resources at their disposal to help ensure that no children in their neighborhoods and communities are left behind. Sounds like an approach that both George W. Bush and Jesus could support.

About Helen Lee

Helen writes, mothers, homeschools, and attempts to stay on top of what is going on in the world, and usually not in that order. She is a longtime Christian journalist, starting with a stint in the mid-90s at Christianity Today, and her work has earned three Higher Goals awards from the Evangelical Press Association in reporting and devotional writing. She lives in the Chicagoland area with her three sons and her husband Brian, a classical pianist and professor at Moody Bible Institute. You can find out more about Helen at her website (www.helenleeauthor.com) and follow her on Twitter @helenleeauthor.

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah Anderson

    Thank you tackling this subject as it’s one that my husband and I routinely visit. Our children attend a local public elementary, in part, to support and strengthen Christ’s presence in our community–and I’ve often thought that I wouldn’t send them to more elite schools out of the principles of equity and community. But just the other day, I was wrestling with this question: what if God desired an elite education for my child? Would I turn it down because it didn’t fit my paradigm?

    It seems to me that there is an equally legitimate argument to be made that by pursuing educational excellence, we enable our children to be leaders in society and thus more likely to bring about change for their neighbors in the future. I’m not arguing against the idea of living in community and working together for the flourishing of all children, but simply that I’m having to wrestle with my own “reverse elitism.” Perhaps an elite education doesn’t have to be inconsistent with the ideas love and sacrifice if we teach our children to use their “educational wealth” in service of God and others.

    Thanks again for your insight.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    Helen, thanks for this thoughtful article.

    My son will enter kindergarten next year, and my wife and I are really struggling with this question. While I applaud your desire to see entire communities uplifted, I feel as though from a Biblical standpoint I bear a higher protective responsibility to my family than to my community.

    Coupled with this is the problem of kids being so impressionable… how am I, “training up a child in the way he should go,” when he is spending 30+ hours per week at a school that I know is not providing him with a Christ-centered view of the world?

    Looking back, I deeply appreciate the approach my parents took. They placed us in a small Christian school where the teachers cared deeply about the kids and were excellent models of faith and character. My parents could have afforded to send me to a Catholic School or private school with far better academic credentials, but instead they sent me to a place whose primary concern was my spiritual development.

    When I entered high school, I took ownership of my faith. I asked to go to a public school so that I could be a witness for Christ. It was a good fit because I was emotionally and spiritually prepared for an environment that enacted a consistent pressure to conform to a more secular way of thinking. Had I faced that pressure as a more impressionable elementary student, I don’t know what the result would have been.

    Participation in community is important, and if there’s a way to do that well then that’s terrific. But at the same time, I want to be cautious about not sacrificing my responsibility for my child’s moral and spiritual development in the name of a concept that is not articulated or emphasized nearly so well in Scripture.

    I say all this not as someone who has it all figured out… different parents face different choices and we aren’t cetain of ours yet. Financially, public school may be our only option, which is the case for a lot of parents. But however we decide, I do want to make sure we are rightly addressing our responsibilities… and in the right order.

  • http://www.fidesviva.com Nathan DeFalco

    This is a pretty irresponsible post. I’m struggling to understand why you would write something like this. To suggest that I’m somehow stuck up or not fulfilling the Great Commission if I move into a low income area and don’t send my kids to the local public school is a slap in the face. There’s no doubt in my mind that a vast percentage of parents would skip the public school scene in favor of a better private school if they felt like they could do it and still pay their bills. So, it’s not like some cherished cultural rite that we’re trampling on if we don’t partake.

    As a Christian should we eat at the local bar, too? Should we pick the worst movie theater in the seediest part of town to go watch movies? How about the worst grocery store with the cheapest food and worst reputation in town? Should we shop there as well? No? Then why trust a government-run school with a decidedly secular agenda to help you raise your kids? Isn’t that vastly more important? It absolutely does trump any “missional” reason you could give as to why we should send our kids to public school.

    LET ME SAY THIS LOUD AND CLEAR: WE NEED TO STOP PRETENDING OUR KIDS ARE MISSIONARIES AND SEND THEM TO THESE SCHOOLS TO BE A PRESENCE FOR CHRIST AND START THINKING OF BETTER WAYS OF DOING THE WORK OURSELVES! There are so many ways we can be a help to our neighbors that it should not have to include sending our kids to public school to accomplish them.

    “But Jesus did not instruct us to “Love God, then love your family, then your neighbor.” Who is our closest neighbor? Our kids. Besides, Paul thought it was pretty important to manager your household well. So, important you should question your pastoral ministry if you’re not doing it. Deuteronomy six would also like a word with you. And doesn’t your profile say you homeschool your kids? Huh?? Please explain how that doesn’t make your entire post hypocritical.

    Here are my reasons why you should send your kid to public school:

    1. You literally cannot afford a private school or homeschool. Not as in, “we want to take that extra vacation this year so Junior, you’re going to public school.”
    2. There are no good private schools in your area and it is medically impossible (meaning one parent cannot teach at home) to homeschool.
    3. Like Ben said, you’re kid has expressed ownership in his/her faith and wants to be a witness in public school. But, there’s a lot that goes into that decision.

    As a former public school teacher coming from a family of nine public school teachers (if you include my wife’s family), those are the only reasons why I see it as necessary to send your kid to public school. I’d be happy to be corrected if there are more.

    Both my kids attend a Christian school, but just today I met with the principal of a local public middle school to see how our church can help meet their needs. She was very happy to meet with me and did not see it as problematic that my kids went to a Christian school. SEE? IT CAN BE DONE.

    This article also fails to address a bigger problem here. And that is should we expect children so young to know so much so fast? Are there life experiences this child is being denied because she spends so much time in test prep? Our upper class society seems to have it backwards: They demand too much from children when they are young but not enough when they become teenagers. That to me is the real lesson to learn here. Not “They should have sent their kids to a public school to be a witness (in kindergarten) and mingle with the common folk.”

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I liked this article, Helen. One of my longer abiding concerns regarding homeschooling is its focus on individualism. If the families who care about education and community abandon the readily available centers of education and community, then those who remain will have a great resource stripped from them.

    Do I think it’s necessary for parents to keep their kids in public schools? No I don’t. Do I think it good that they do so? Yes I do.

    @Nathan: Why can’t there be multiple lessons here? I happen to like the lesson you extrapolate (the lesson of misplaced demand), but I also like Helen’s (the responsibility we bear toward the communities we participate in).

    Also, you seem a little volatile. Your comparisons are not particularly apt (or really all that comparative). I’m not actually convinced that you understood the article (not that convincing me is your goal). I think in your zeal to support the liberty for parents to seek the most individually pragmatic educational choices for their children (and defend your own choice in that direction), you rushed to judge what you imagined the article to be saying.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    This is an interesting question. If Christians don’t send their kids to the local public schools, is that putting themselves above everyone else who doesn’t have that opportunity? Is that judging those schools as “not good enough”? On the other hand, what if the schools actually ARE “not good enough”, and kids (especially gifted kids) feel unhappy and frustrated and not challenged- if parents have an opportunity to put their kid somewhere the kid will flourish and be happy, isn’t it completely foolish to not take that opportunity? Maybe the parents want to show love and solidarity with their neighbors, but sacrificing their child’s education for that… it’s not really theirs to sacrifice.

    Soooo… I don’t know. I don’t have kids, so I’m just kind of speculating. But this is definitely something to keep talking about.

  • http://scott-schultz.blogspot.com/ Scott

    As someone who was pulled into gifted classes in 5th grade, bussed to a gifted magnet for middle school, and bussed to a College Prep school for high school, I feel a little marginalized by this article (all of these, btw, were public schools). I am extremely grateful for the educational opportunities I was afforded (all based on my own academic merit), and would love for my own child to have those same opportunities. I’m not sure this constitutes “individualism” – at least, not unless you can demonstrate that there’s something inherently “collectivist” about education…

  • http://www.helenleeauthor.com Helen Lee

    Some great pushback here. A few clarifications. I am not trying to say that all Christians should choose one form of schooling over another, or one type of community to live in, or anything like that. I am trying to encourage an awareness of our choices as parents, and how often we tend to just flow with the general cultural flow instead of being discerning and honest about why we are choosing a particular route. And every family is different. In my case, our family was living in a well-resourced community with excellent schools. It didn’t even occur to me to choose otherwise; this was what it mean to be a “good parent,” to pursue every opportunity for my own children’s advancement. God has used homeschooling as a way of helping us break free from the typical parental rat race and has given me opportunities to try to encourage parents to be more discerning about their own choices. That is my/our particular call and I don’t presume to know what is best for each and every Christian family out there. But I do think that our culture here in the U.S. is all skewed towards lauding superstars and that that’s a problem. I do think the disparity of educational resources that often benefit those who have resources to begin with is also a justice issue that Christians should be aware of and seek to rectify. None of this means I am encouraging neglect of one’s children. But in my opinion, Christians have leaned more towards idolizing family/children rather than the reverse, and I wanted to use this post to at least raise some issues along those lines. Appreciate all the thoughtful and passionate responses!

  • John Turner

    From your description, it appears to me that Manhattan has a gifted program that is not run in the most productive way. Test scores should be only one measure in evaluating giftedness. If what the Manhattan program results in is vertical acceleration (simply speeding ahead with academic learning) rather than true enhancement of giftedness, then I would argue that this approach to gifted education is actually hindering its cause.

    Excellent gifted programs do not need to be I.Q. and academic achievement segregated, but need to provide horizontal enrichment (encouraging creativity, artistic expression, independent investigation, personal research, interdisciplinary approaches, logic, rhetoric, etc.) for those who are ready to receive it. Without removing the students from a socially and culturally integrated school, students who would benefit from supplemental horizontal enrichment can be identified and encouraged to stretch themselves. If they are the sort who can master traditional academic skills quickly, then the tedious, repetitious drills assigned to them should be reduced in quantity for them while they are given opportunity and encouragement to spread their wings a bit. A combination of excellent classroom teachers, a few staff specialists in gifted education, and a system-wide commitment to a well-designed gifted program would accomplish far more than than vertical acceleration.

    Years ago, our daughter spent seven years in three public schools in Little Rock where she with her white skin was distinctly a racial minority. She was thus prepared to operate in socially and culturally diverse settings. There were just enough advocates of true gifted approaches scattered through the three schools she attended that she had some wonderful educational experiences in the seven years she spent in that system. A principal in one school and a gifted-and-talented coordinator in another school encouraged select parents to train as advocates of their schools’ horizontal enrichment goals. I was one of those parents. Two of the three schools our daughter attended were magnet schools in neighborhoods that were considered shaky. The school system would have had great difficulty attempting to find white students and middle class African American students whose parents would have kept them in the public schools had they been forced to attend those schools, but had no trouble attracting white students and middle class African American students to those schools with the excellent horizontal enrichment opportunities.

    When we moved to Indianapolis and bought a house in a school district with an excellent academic reputation, we were disappointed with its vertical acceleration approach to gifted education. Some excellent teachers here and there and some extra-curricular activities partially compensated for the system’s deficiency in giftedness training, but Little Rock did the overall better job by far.

    I entered the experience pre-committed to public schools. I came out with reservations to that commitment. Given the mixed quality of public education in general, and particularly the unfriendly spiritual and moral climate that has emerged in many public schools, I believe that school choice, private schooling, and home schooling options should remain on the table for Christian families. But I also celebrate the kind of commitment to public education shown by the Richmond parents who were described in Christianity Today. We do not all have to do it the same way.

  • http://www.tkylebryant.com Kyle

    I have struggled with these ideas recently, too. I don’t have kids, but I do love education and I care about my community. That said, I think sometimes we misplace the mission field in our communities. If we think of school as a training ground rather than a mission field, it becomes clear that Christian parents should give their children a Christ-centered education if at all possible. The mission field is your literal neighborhood; children should be trained as missionaries in school, and then they should walk alongside their covenant family on mission in their local neighborhood.

    Aside from that, I would have a hard time sending my kids to public school for their heads to be filled with secular theology all day, in the name of mission. You wouldn’t send your kid on a mission trip to the Middle East without training them first. Why send them into the mission field of your community without training them as well? That is what education is for—training for the Great Commission (as opposed to being part of the Great Commission). I realize not everyone may view it this way, however, and I respect that.

  • http://mamaof2greatkids.ca Aimee

    Great blog post, Helen!

    As a parent of two kids who’ve both been identified as gifted, your thoughts resonate with me a lot. Both my kids qualified to attend “elite gifted school” with the public school system starting in Grade 4. We declined both times. They are now in Grade 10 and Grade 7, both doing very well. {Side note: I’m Canadian. Our public school system might be slightly different than that of the US.}

    We kept both of them at our neighbourhood public school, “a school for regular kids” {not my own words, just a description used by everyone here}. We encountered many parents who were bewildered by our decision, not understanding why we would say no to such a valuable opportunity. Honestly, we struggled quite a bit & wrestled with thoughts of, “Are we doing what’s best for our child?”… a lot of thought & prayers went into our first decision with our daughter, then the same three years after with our son.

    Both times, we came to the same decision & have had tremendous peace about it. Hubby and I feel very strongly that having our kids learn to relate to all kinds of people is far more valuable than having an elite education. At the local school, they are able to interact with friends from all walks of life, with all sorts of learning styles & abilities, some gifted, others with learning disabilities. In contrast, kids at the “gifted school” tend to come from more well-off families, all have high IQs, all relate & learn the same way, and all expect to be treated “special” fostering an attitude of entitlement. That is not what we want for our kids.

    Being at the local school also means less school work, which translated to more time for us as a family to get out into the community to serve “the least of these brothers and sisters” of ours… regular sandwich runs for the homeless, serving dinner to at-risk youth, writing letters to our sponsor children, etc…

    Being at the local school also means that enriching our gifted children’s education fell on us, the parents. Hubby and I both have had the opportunity to dialogue with the school principal about providing enrichment to a group of students, including our own children, right there at the local school. For a few years now, we have run enrichment programs such as Destination Imagination & the Robotics Club at the school, giving an opportunity to children who normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity, to be involved in these enrichment activities. This has proved to be a great way of getting to know those people who are right here in our own community.

    All in all, we’ve felt that this has truly been a good decision. Yes, as Christians, we need to think outside the general cultural flow… to really discern what it is that God wants for our family!

  • http://godsgal4ever.blogspot.com Alyssa

    Amen to everything in this article! :)

    The comment above (Aimee) is my mom, and I just want to reiterate, as a “kid” (so, someone from the other side, since it seems only parents have said anything) here, everything she said.

    I’m in grade 10 now, so I’m almost all the way through (YAY!!! – haha), and for me personally, I’ve never ever regretted not attending “elite” school. That decision, like my mom said above, has given me the opportunity to do so much more in and outside of school. Outside of an “elite” school, I’ve learned valuable lessons apart academics, and – let’s be honest – knowing how to relate to all kinds of people is far more valuable than knowing the quadratic formula inside out and backwards (although I’ve learned that too.).

    Let me just say this: Jesus spent his life away from the elite. He spent it in what would be the equivalent of seedy movie theatres, local bars, shady grocery stores and – gasp – your average public school [;)]. And if we’re trying to live a life as close to His as possible, you tell me where we should be hanging out.

  • Rebecca Kim

    Thanks, Helen, for getting the discussion going. I think it is a complex one that each parent needs to wrestle through with God and the specific situation they are in. For some, homeschooling is the right answer…for another, a Christian school….for some, public education is the best route. I do agree that we are called to be missional in our communities and not idolize our children and their education. I disagree that that always means sending them to the local public school. I want my kids to be equipped to be able to carry out the calling God has on their lives….that might be a missionary doctor in Africa or the next President or a teacher in the public schools. For me…after trying the public schools for 4 months….I have chosen to put my kids in Christian school. This is the place that I feel God is best equipping them right now. This may not be forever but right now I LOVE what my kids are learning, who they are becoming, and the mentors/teachers they have to follow.


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