The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

Editorial: Challenging a flawed system

The Opinions Staff provides its take on LMSD’s gifted programs.

The pinnacle of elitism is exclusion based on a notion of inherent exceptionalism. The pinnacle of elitism is nation-wide gifted programs. Challenge and Academic Seminar are Lower Merion’s local lens into the destructive system. From elementary studies on Phineas Gage, to bridge building contests, to additional college essay writing support provided to our oldest super-geniuses, LMSD has long been plagued with a false sense of superiority through Challenge. The fallacy of intellectual ability as an inherent trait has been shoved down students’ throats since the second grade qualifying test. The selection process for Challenge follows a cryptic cross between IQ measurement–an innately flawed test–and “other factors” that leave the program’s admission utterly subjective and, all in all, hard to formulate a cohesive argument against. However, the program’s function within our community isn’t one invisible to controversy.

The true issue we take with Academic Seminar, or Challenge, doesn’t lie in its function, students, or teachers. It is in the basic ideology. Academic Seminar and other nationwide “gifted” programs rest on the concept that individuals with natural-born intelligence must be separated from the general public to offer them additional resources and opportunities. That is the crux of the issue. 

It is first and foremost harmful to recognize some individuals as inherently intellectually superior to others. This is not to say some students don’t have certain levels of neurological development in areas of their brain pertinent to school work or test taking and it is not to neglect genetic influence in its entirety. It is to say that these simplistic understandings of test taking undermine extensive research into the influence of one’s environment on their brain development. If one student was born into a high socioeconomic family and has had Kumon tutoring and encouragement to read from a young age, there is no disputing that their perceived “intelligence” would be deemed higher than a student who was not offered those same opportunities. How then can we lay claim that the wealthier, more advanced student should be the one to receive additional support and lesson plans. The same can be said for any student within the program. Why should a student already proficient in a given field–in second grade we might add–be given further support when another is struggling.

Conceptually, the LM community understands the importance of equity. Every year, the county votes in favor of equity oriented policies, disappointed with the state of Pennsylvania’s education disparities. We read New York Times articles and listen to WHYY episodes on racial segregation and the lack of fair treatment of marginalized groups. We defend affirmative action at the Thanksgiving dinner table and claim to be better than our private-school neighbors. But when it comes to our own children, our own communities and our own education systems, the real practicality of our so-called action is revealed. 

Gifted programs not only propagate inequalities between students on the basis of ability, but also on the grounds of class and racial identity. Studies from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and The Hechinger Report, both concluded extreme departure from the general demographics of several schools and their gifted programs. Students who score in the top 20% of test takers are far less likely to be sought out for gifted programs if they are Black or Hispanic. This is even more concerning in systems like that of LM where students are only able to enter the program after second grade if their parents or educators request for them to apply.

The divides in class and race shouldn’t surprise us. The fundamental basis for programs like Challenge is separating the intellectually elite from others. As is evident, this isn’t on the basis of natural intelligence but rather the environment of the students. Lack of access is a cycle. LM pervades it.

Perhaps most shocking about these programs is that they are not a choice for LMSD. Chapter 16 of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Code stipulates that gifted programs such as Challenge and Academic Seminar are a requirement for Pennsylvania school districts. These wedges shoving the student body apart, exacerbating pre existing inequalities are systemic and enforced.

Challenge and Chapter 16 of the code are two examples of prevailing cultural flaws. Our commonly agreed upon understanding of intelligence and performative take on equity work is damaging. The first sentence of the LMSD Equity Policy reads, “The Lower Merion School District is committed to providing a safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environment for all people.” Challenge, the so-called “gifted” program, does the opposite; alienating students who aren’t deemed worthy and creating a sense of otherness. We cannot expect to stop the cycle of inequality between students while perpetuating it.


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