CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. And it's time for our weekly parenting roundtable. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents to get a little common sense and some savvy advice. Today, we're talking about labeling school children according to their abilities, their strengths and their weaknesses. Schools have long used IQ tests and standardized tests of many varieties to group kids and teach each kid according to his or her abilities.
Sounds like a good idea in theory but sometimes the label is wrong, and that tag of gifted or disabled can follow students until they graduate high school. Here to talk more about this is Jessica Lahey. She's a middle school teacher and a mom of two. She recently wrote a story about IQ testing for The Atlantic. Scott Barry Kaufman is a psychologist and author of "Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined." And Isaura Gonzalez is a psychologist who treats public school children and a mom of four. Welcome to all of you.
SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: Thank you for having us.
ISAURA GONZALEZ: Thank you.
JESSICA LAHEY: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Jessica, how soon do we start labeling kids? What age are these kids?
LAHEY: Well, it depends on whether you're talking about labels that we give them outright or the labels that they perceive we give them. It really does start as early as kindergarten and sometimes even preschool. And in some of the more aggressive markets for preschool and kindergarten, it's happening at the minute they start testing in.
HEADLEE: I can't imagine that the school started out saying, hey, we're going to slap a label on kids, ha-ha-ha-ha, right. I mean, the intention is to do something constructive and helpful for the kids.
LAHEY: Absolutely, and it makes it easier for teachers if you put kids in reading groups based on ability, it makes it so that all the other kids have the appropriate level of challenge. The problem comes when we start gauging our expectations based on those classifications. As I'm sure Scott is going to get to, those expectations can have a huge effect on the ability that the kid has to strive for something more.
HEADLEE: And Scott, as Jessica just mentioned, you're a good example of when this does go wrong. You have a Ph.D. from Yale but in elementary school you were labeled seriously learning disabled. How did that happen?
KAUFMAN: I don't know if that was the official label.
HEADLEE: Oh, did we add the seriously?
KAUFMAN: No, I mean, people have said that to me, you know, informally, you know. And that's certainly how I felt in terms of expectations. I always was asked to sit in - I had an auditory learning disability, which was like a - it was called central auditory processing disorder 'cause I had lots of fluid in my ears the first couple of years of my life, and it was hard for me to process information. So they always made me sit at the front of the classroom and they would talk really slowly to me, and it was very clear what they expected out of me. It really affected my performance in school.
HEADLEE: But, as Jessica mentioned, did that effect their expectations of you as well?
KAUFMAN: It absolutely did. I mean, the teachers have these labels, they know which students in their class are part of the gifted program, which students are part of special education. Teachers have that information and there's research showing that they really do - that it really does influence the way they teach students.
HEADLEE: Well, let me take this to you then, Isaura, because you treat a lot of students who're flagged by public schools as being academically gifted or maybe having behavioral issues. How does that work? How does the labeling actually occur?
GONZALEZ: There's a different process that occurs when a child is flagged. So either the referral comes from parent-oriented or parent-initiated. So the parent says, you know, I see my son or my daughter struggling and they go to the school or they come to a psychologist such as myself - I'm actually a clinical psychologist and Dr. Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist, so we do things a little differently. And what happens is that we're asked to evaluate the situation.
You know, why is this child falling behind or bored? And a lot of times the referrals that I get, you know, interestingly enough, I'll get - there's behavioral problems. And there's behavioral problems for both the gifted and the special learners. So sometimes, you will get referrals like that and what begins to happen then is the child study team becomes involved, where there is a team of professionals - a social worker, a psychologist, an academic learner or an educational specialist - sometimes it's a teacher - occupational therapists, speech therapists are all part of this team.
And their role in the school system is to evaluate. I'm not sure if Dr. Kaufman - that's what he had originally gone through, but that's the role of the team and the team is to figure out, how can we service this child so that they do not fall behind, so that they are getting the best services and the best academic help that they can possibly get.
HEADLEE: However, as I understand, you've done some research that has shown that black and Latino students have a particular problem, sometimes, with being mislabeled.
GONZALEZ: The research that I did was my dissertation and it was actually measuring intelligence in Spanish-speaking individuals, Spanish-speaking bilinguals to be more specific. And you do see that there is a need for not only cultural sensitivity, but also linguistic sensitivity. And if you begin to look at just our country in general, in the public school system and all different types of educational formats, you begin to realize that not every one person learns the same, as Dr. Kaufman was saying. I see a lot of children with central auditory processing disorder myself, and individuals don't know what it looks like. Teachers don't know what it looks like.
And unfortunately, I think some psychologists don't even know what it looks like, because unless you've had that experience, unless you've seen a child with a speech impediment or even a mild speech delay, you can't pick that up. And then instantly what's told is that they're inferior to the other children. So a lot of African-American, as well as Latino children, are labeled as inferior when sometimes it's that, at home, they don't have any more of the language - the English language - that they're getting in the school system.
HEADLEE: Right. If you're just joining us, we're talking about using intelligence tests to group kids. I'm joined by psychologist Isaura Gonzalez, who you just heard. Also educator Scott Barry Kaufman and writer Jessica Lahey. Jessica, there are reasons to do these tests though. I mean, I'm thinking particularly of my son. I insisted that he be tested. He's gifted. Many people think gifted means intelligent, but there's a whole lot of social problems that go along with being gifted as well.
And as far as my kid was concerned, I wanted him to be tested, I wanted the school to recognize that he needed special learning and special attention. Aren't there ways in which this labeling - maybe the labeling itself can be a good thing but it's implemented badly?
LAHEY: It absolutely can be a good thing. The advances that we've made in being able to classify children in terms of what their needs are is incredibly helpful. As a teacher, I teach middle school, as a teacher, that has been a great gift. The problem has been that when I get a lot of information that my expectations should be low of this student coming in, it's really hard to roll that back as I'm teaching that student.
These expectations get kind of, you know, communicated to teachers before they ever get their hands on the student. My preference tends to be to get information about how to help them move forward, but inevitably, teachers tend to get information about what they can't do. I'd rather know what the kid can do and help move that forward. And kids know when we don't expect much of them, and there's a lot of research that shows that when you put the bar higher, the kids will rise to that level.
And I think because we're so concerned with kids' self-esteem, we're so concerned with making sure that kids don't feel bad about their performance, that we don't set the bar high enough because we don't want them to get sad, we don't want them to go home and feel like they can't accomplish anything. So there's this incredibly delicate dance that teachers do between having high expectations and helping the kids that sincerely need help to rise up to the level that they can - you know, where they can really operate at their highest level.
HEADLEE: Well, Scott, this is an issue that you understand on multiple levels. And I hate to bring this back - I hate to, in any way, imply that this is about teachers not doing what they're supposed to. That's not really what the problem here - is it?
KAUFMAN: You know, the issue is more systemic than that - than just a teachers thing. I think it's a schoolwide culture issue and the way that we treat all these labels as separate, mutually exclusive categories. You know, you have special education over here, you have gifted education over here, I mean, there's lots of concepts that - you know, such like twice exceptional learners and individuals who may have a learning disability, but I think everyone in the system, you know, educator from every part of this - and parents, educators, the students themselves need to recognize that it's not mutually exclusive. You can have a specific learning disability and still be extraordinarily bright.
HEADLEE: Isaura, should a parent be worried? I mean, if a parent gets a notice from their teacher or principle that their kid is going to be tested, what can that parent do to prevent something from going wrong, to prevent the kid from being mislabeled or labeled and then have low expectations of their student?
GONZALEZ: Well, I think the first thing that I try to teach all parents that come through my office is education. Educating yourself and knowing everything that there is to know about what the services are. They cannot test your child without your permission. So that's important for any parent to know. They can't just pull your child out because they think they need special services or they're gifted or that the academic placement isn't correct for them. So they must have your permission.
If you feel that you don't have enough knowledge, then my recommendation is find individuals such as myself, such as Dr. Kaufman, who've had experience, who can guide you through the process. So one of the things that I would know is, what are we looking for? What are the deficits? Are they just going to test psychologically, because I believe with Dr. Kaufman in the book, and the article that Jessica had written, was based just on IQ. But there are also achievement tests. What is it exactly that they're going to be looking for? I think that's crucial.
HEADLEE: Well, you are a mother of four, are you not?
HEADLEE: Would you ever prevent the school system from testing your kids?
GONZALEZ: Celeste, it's interesting, because I had my four children, as well, tested and mine all, ironically we're having this discussion, were tested all gifted. And, you know, there's a lot of difficulties that begin to occur when you begin to have, kind of, in front of you, where do we go from here. So I would not stop my child - I'm a psychologist and I know that it's important for educational as well as self-improvement and moving forward for the child academically, as well as psychologically, to be able to have an idea.
What I don't think is correct, and Dr. Kaufman and I had this conversation before we went on air, is how this is then transmitted onto the child. It's not the child's issue. It should be the adults and the professionals and educators - everyone together to be putting a picture so that they can help the child. The child doesn't necessarily - my children don't know they're gifted, I don't give them that label.
HEADLEE: Well, what about you, Jessica, you have two kids, right?
HEADLEE: Would you ever prevent them from being tested?
LAHEY: Well, we just actually had this conversation as well. You know, my kids have their own way, and both of them are - they're very different from each other and the expectations that we tend to have of kids tend to be shaped by the academic environment that we're in. And there's this classic image of the smart kid, and it happens that particular image comes from the sort of typical kid, and the kid that we're looking for to get all A's and the kid that we're looking for to go to an Ivy League school. And there's all kind of intelligences and that's what's so great about Scott's book, "Ungifted," is that he talks about the different kinds of intelligences, and this certainly isn't a new topic.
I just don't - I wouldn't hesitate to have my kids tested if I felt like there was a problem going on, but I think there's a lot of information that is - sometimes having a lot of information is great as a teacher, but as a parent sometimes I'd like to just trust in the fact that the kids are going to find their way in the world a little bit more than we allow them to.
HEADLEE: You know, Scott, often - again, I'm only speaking as a mother, I think, often the problem is is that people don't really understand what those labels are. Maybe school systems don't always entirely understand what those labels mean or are able to interpret test results.
For example, we keep mentioning gifted, which is just one of the many ways in which a kid can be labeled, but gifted doesn't necessarily mean smart. It also comes with a whole host, as I said, of social issues and specific learning challenges as well. Maybe the problem is how we interpret these test results.
KAUFMAN: I think that's a pretty good point, and I think it's also important that we recognize that giftedness - that's a label. We, as a society, choose what cognitive skills, what human characteristics we want to put under that label of giftedness. Different cultures might define giftedness and intelligence, and they do, in different ways. You know, some cultures define it as lifelong learning and persevering amongst obstacles. We live in a society where we're obsessed with standardized test performance.
KAUFMAN: So those who are good at standardized test performance, those are the gifted kids. But there's no objective, you know, 10 Commandments from above saying this shall be what we call gifted - the gifted mind and this is the ungifted mind, you know.
HEADLEE: To a certain extent, Scott, I have to ask you, even though you were labeled at some point as having learning issues, even though, as you say, there were low expectations of you, you're a psychologist - I mean, you went to Yale. You have a Ph.D. from Yale. I mean, it all turned out OK for you.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, and I think - so part of the issue is I've had to go through the back door over and over and over again because I'm just not good at standardized tests. And I sort of feel like I've, just like, climbed this huge mountain and gone to the other side and see all of these people on the other side of the mountain that are being blocked by this arbitrary system where we're limiting their potential based on these test scores, opposed to using those scores to help them. And it really frustrates me.
HEADLEE: Isaura, would your - I mean, I asked you if you had a problem with testing your kids, you said they all tested as gifted, would you have had a different view of testing if they'd come back as learning disabled?
GONZALEZ: No. I mean, you know, if you look - I'm a psychologist and I'm a clinician and I do testing all the time and I think the point that you've also been speaking about is interpreting. And I think you have to interpret. You can't interpret just the score, you have to interpret what do you see. A lot of times, if you're a good clinician, you will easily pick up central auditory processing disorder. You will pick up attention deficit disorder. So you will see intra-scatter amongst the subtests that you see. So it's not just about the score, it's also about their performance.
GONZALEZ: Also children fatigue easily, you know. Some of these testings take three to four hours. I don't know about you, but sometimes I have trouble sitting for three or four minutes, you know...
HEADLEE: ...Yeah. And there's also the issue - I'm sorry to interrupt you - but before we go, Jessica, there's also the issue that if you tested a certain way in first and second grade you may be a completely different student by the time you reach high school.
LAHEY: Oh, absolutely. Every time we meet to talk about a student and we realize the testing we're looking at is three years old, we kind of, you know, discount it a little bit. I did want to mention one quick thing and I'm really glad Isaura has decided not to tell her children about their giftedness simply because, as Scott knows, attaching any label to a kid, including the label of gifted, has the tendency to get them into, what Carol Dweck calls, this fixed mindset and sets the kid up to not want to mess with that label.
So they're going to be a lot less likely to try things that are hard for them because they don't want to bust that label. So God forbid they fail at something because then they're not going to be called gifted anymore. I think it's best to just let kids - praise kids for their efforts, not praise kids for their inherent talents and intelligences.
HEADLEE: That's Jessica Lahey, writer and mom of two. She joined us from member station KUER in Salt Lake City. Also we spoke with Isaura Gonzalez, a psychologist in private practice and mother of four. Scott Barry Kaufman is a psychologist and author of the book "Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined." Both of them joined us from our New York studios. Thanks to all three of you.
KAUFMAN: Thank you.
LAHEY: Thank you.
GONZALEZ: Thank you.
HEADLEE: That is our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You have been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we will talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.