Want to see human competitiveness running wild? Announce a new program for gifted children in schools from kindergartens to senior high and watch parents fight to get their kids into it. They know that their little Johnny or Julia will get the best teachers and facilities, individual attention and a leg up on admission to a top university.
But for principals and teachers, so-called gifted and honors and magnet programs can be hot potatoes. How do you measure giftedness? Who gets in to honors programs? And - more controversially - who does not?
This issue boiled to the surface in December, when the school board in Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy jurisdiction bordering Washington, D.C., announced it was thinking of doing away with the gifted label as possibly discriminatory, because the lion's share of kids in honors classes are white or Asian. Far fewer are Hispanic or African-American.
This ignited a firestorm. Some parents agreed it was about time to erase arbitrary and unfair labels. Others said it would be one more example of political correctness that would dumb down the curriculum at the expense of high achievers. The latter group of parents argued that bright kids need and deserve extra benefits and attention. Should there be no all-star teams in basketball, they ask, because blacks and Hispanics tend to excel at that sport, and Asians and whites might feel excluded?
Educators point out that the gifted label is not always a ticket to happiness. Some kids hate it, they say, since it stereotypes them as brains or geeks or nerds. In an effort to avoid labeling, some schools have begun what's called differentiated instruction, in which teachers try to build something different and special into every lesson for super-smart, average and struggling students alike. As you can imagine, that's not easy.
Feedback on whether to keep or discard the gifted label is pouring into the Montgomery County education board. Lots and lots and lots of it.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.