OPINION: The Mythology of the Highly Capable

by Lola E. Peters

1988. His name was Tim. He graduated from Harvard at 16 and was working on his Masters. The law firm hired him to create a team and manage the transition from a mainframe system to desktop computing. Six months into his tenure everyone hated him, even the staff he had hired. Sure of his technical prowess and bolstered by decades of being the smartest person in the room, he was condescending to everyone. In his eyes, his solutions were always right, regardless of the actual outcomes. The human frailties and foibles of his colleagues and coworkers were liabilities to be fought against and conquered.

We sat in his bare office, uncluttered by any sign of personalization. I was the messenger: the emperor’s clothes were, at best, ill fitting. I tried to explain how the elderly senior partners of the firm were from an era where typing was done by secretaries, not by anyone with power; how the secretaries weren’t hired for their technical skills and were unprepared to diagnose why their computer’s connection to the printer wasn’t working.

He repeatedly insisted on his rightness. He knew what was best because he had an engineering degree from Harvard and was one of the few people in the country who understood desktop computer systems. What he clearly didn’t understand, had never needed to understand: people.

What did Tim’s parents think they were doing as they shuttled him off to more and more exclusive programs where he only interacted with other geniuses? Did it occur to them he would need skills beyond the narrow band of his strengths? Did they ever think to put him in projects where he needed other people’s knowledge, experience, or skill in order to succeed? What did they think would happen when he stepped outside the sheltered boundaries of his academic experience? How were they, and the schools he attended, preparing him for life?

I think of Tim every time the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC) discussion arises with Seattle’s School District. An elite group of parents have convinced themselves their children are more special than others because they’ve shown the ability to test well. Historically, Seattle schools have played to that narrative and created sheltered learning coves for these children, providing them with high quality learning resources.

When I was a volunteer with Technology Access Foundation (TAF) in 2004, dozens of young people came into the program who were not deemed HCC qualified. Within weeks of their entrance into TAF, I watched 4th and 5th-grade children solve college-level physics problems and work in teams to identify and overcome complex technological challenges. They created electrical grids to understand the off/on nature of computing, or calculated the time traveled to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving using different routes, some with roadblocks. These participants were not cherry-picked through any testing program. They simply showed up with their parents, signed a form committing to being present and active, and enrolled. They were ordinary kids from the neighborhood.

Unlike HCC, TAF students entered with a wide variety of skill levels, knowledge, and experience. They learned to work together and use their instructors as resources rather than know-it-all authorities. They learned to ask questions and develop critical thinking skills; to do their own research, trust their own answers, and be able to present and defend them; to compensate for one another’s weaknesses and celebrate each other’s strengths; to be accountable to one another and use healthy methods to hold one another, and TAF, accountable. Competition was a learning opportunity rather than an end in itself.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that 2.4% of HCC students are of African descent while they comprise between 85-90% of TAF students. TAF’s results speak for themselves: a 98% high school graduation rate followed by 98% college graduation.

In the 30 years since my conversation with Tim, I’ve worked with dozens of other men and women anointed as intellectually superior in their youth. Many have faced a moment much like the one I had with Tim. Some, like Tim, get fired and become embittered and defiant about the experience, blaming others’ incompetence. Others learn from the moment or ask for help to learn or develop additional skills they were denied in their incomplete education.

If the worst criticism Dr. Denise Juneau faces as Superintendent of Seattle’s schools is her lack of enthusiasm for HCC, then Seattle has done well to hire her because she isn’t spending valuable resources imbuing a few students with the illusion they’re special, she’s preparing all students to flourish in the real world.


Lola_Peters_2016_Ishisaka-5372v3Lola E. Peters writes poetry to cleanse her soul and essays to clear her mind. Her commitment to creating a just and equitable world forms the underpinning to her writing. Her poems have been published in multiple anthologies as well as her own two collections: “Taboos” and “The Book of David: A Coming of Age Tale.” In addition, she published a collection of essays, “The Truth About White People,” and has written commentary and edited for several online journals and newspapers, including Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, and The Seattle Star.

 

 

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to COD Newsroom

4 thoughts on “OPINION: The Mythology of the Highly Capable”

  1. The thing you overlook in this article, Lola, is the background of class, meritocracy, and escalating inequality. MIddle class parents don’t want their kids to fall behind, viewing top universities as tickets to good middle class jobs, in an era of increasing competition, due to the shrinking middle class.

    So this is a much deeper societal problem, one that is not at all suprising to historians like Peter Turchin who study the rise and fall of regimes and empires, even civilizations. Many of us UUs are praying for Bernie, but with the specter of “ecological overshoot” looming ever larger, I’ve concluded that more upheaval is ahead. Perhaps, as one recent article has suggested, our principal educational goal should be kindness and compassion, not money-making.

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  2. A lot to unpack here.

    First and foremost, nationally and in all states, there are students recognized – by law – as highly capable. (So states use the term “gifted” but Washington State uses the term “highly capable.) And, of course, there are highly capable students in every racial category as well as in gender categories.

    Second, parents make educational choices for all kinds of reasons. Research has shown the value of a cohort for highly capable students because they tend to have socio-emotional needs as well as academic needs. As well, there are students in these programs who come from single-family homes, well-off and free-and-reduced lunch, etc. To believe that these programs serve only one type of student would be a wrong statement.

    This:
    An elite group of parents have convinced themselves their children are more special than others because they’ve shown the ability to test well. Historically, Seattle schools have played to that narrative and created sheltered learning coves for these children, providing them with high quality learning resources.”

    The state gives districts money to serve highly capable students (including bus dollars so highly capable kids pay their own way for that service) and, in turn, allows district to decide how they want to serve these students. Seattle Schools created the program, its requirements for entry, locations, etc. Parents had nothing to do with that.

    I would say that it is not possible for that many students to qualify for the program on “the ability to test well.” There is a knowledge base needed to actually test well.

    The curriculum for HCC students is the exact curriculum in General Education classes. There are no extra resources for HCC and only some of the teachers have had any extra training to work with these students.

    HCC in grades 1-5 are housed in three buildings; two stand-alones (one of them on the same campus with another 1-5 where students from each school interact with each other) and one building is a regular K-5 with HCC in it.

    For middle school, there are no standalone schools and HCC only has one separate class. All other classes are shared with General Education students including math.

    In high school, there is no HCC classes at all. Instead, any student in the building can access Honors classes or, depending on the school, AP courses or IB courses. For example, at Rainier Beach High School, every student must take two IB classes. There are a couple of HCC pathway high schools but that’s because those schools have the most AP and IB courses.

    The elephant in the room, of course, is that 2.4% of HCC students are of African descent while they comprise between 85-90% of TAF students. TAF’s results speak for themselves: a 98% high school graduation rate followed by 98% college graduation.

    There’s another elephant in the room. Why did the district pick Washington Middle School when it is majority white and TAF, by choice, serves mostly minority students. The district could have chosen at least three other locations with majority minority populations and yet they didn’t.

    As for Superintendent Juneau, you could ask her how come her Strategic Plan focus on African-American boys does not include any Black boys not born in the U.S.? I know this because the racial designation page that the district sends out every year, well, this year there is one box for “Asian” and one box for “Hispanic/Latino” and yet there are several boxes to designate “Black.” Why would the district drill down in order to only find out which students are American-born black boys? Well, it will be a much smaller group of boys so to get to the goal stated, it’s easier when it’s fewer kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know TAF’s work and I think they have built a great model. Problem is I don’t think that how it works has been well explained to either teachers (who voted against bringing it in) or parents.

      TAF has rigor but HCC is set up to be accelerated and go in-depth; I don’t know how fast it moves.

      One other issue that hasn’t been made clear is how TAF’s STEM program will align with SPS’ other STEM programs at Boren K-8 and Cleveland High School.

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