|Why Do So Many Smart Children With ADD Fail In Our Public Schools?
by Thom Hartmann
It not surprising that it would take Forbes, the magazine that, for years, had as its slogan "Capitalist Tool," to point out that the way money is spent in the field of education is truly bizarre.
In their November 21, 1994 issue, an article by Peter Brimelow asks the question: "Would any management worth a damn put most of its dollars into its weakest divisions and starve the promising ones of capital?"
The next sentence answers the question: "Not and live for long."
Yet, as the article goes on to show in eloquent detail, that is exactly what is happening with funding for our brightest and most gifted children in the US educational system. According to the Department of Education, state and local spending on gifted and talented children is less than two cents per hundred dollars spent. And federal funding is never more than one tenth of one percent.
According to the Department of Education, federal spending on education in 1993 was allocated:
49.8% to "Disadvantaged" ($6.9 billion)
30.13% to "Other" including bilingual, vocational, &
impact aid ($4.1 billion)
20.0% to "Handicapped" ($2.8 billion)
00.07% to "Gifted" ($.0096 billion)
What makes this so very distressing is the number of children who are labeled as ADD but who are also gifted or above-average intelligence.
James T. Webb and Diane Latimer ("ADHD and Children Who Are Gifted, ERIC Digest #522) list the entire diagnostic criteria for ADHD in the DSM-IIIR, and then follow it with: "Almost all of these behaviors, however, might be found in bright, talented, creative, gifted children."
The specific behavioral characteristics associated with giftedness that Webb identifies are:
1. Poor attention, boredom, daydreaming in specific situations.
2. Low tolerance for persistence on tasks that seem irrelevant.
3. Judgment lags behind development of intellect.
4. Intensity may lead to power struggles with authorities.
5. High activity level; may need less sleep.
6. Questions rules, customs and traditions.
Compare those with Russell Barkley's 1990 list of behaviors associated with ADHD from his "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook for Diagnosis and Treatment," as summarized by Webb, et al:
1. Poorly sustained attention in almost all situations.
2. Diminished persistence on tasks not having immediate consequences.
3. Impulsivity, poor delay of gratification.
4. Impaired adherence to commands to regulate or inhibit behavior in social contexts.
5. More active, restless than normal children.
6. Difficulty adhering to rules and regulations.
Which brings us back to our schools. There's often only a subtle distinction between giftedness and ADD, and gifted kids are often misdiagnosed as having ADD/ADHD. Rarely, however, are ADD kids diagnosed as being gifted...and, even worse, children who are both gifted and ADD are almost always merely diagnosed as having ADD and their giftedness is ignored.
Therapist Lamar Waldron is fond of pointing out that people will almost always frame problems in terms of the tools or experience they can offer as solutions. Drug addiction, for example, is viewed by a physician as a medical problem, while a police officer sees an inmate. Since over 80% of our national school expenditures for special education are for handicapped, slower, less functional, retarded, or learning disabled children, and less than one percent is for gifted children, it should be of no surprise to anybody that the standard school response to a gifted ADD child is to treat the ADD and ignore the giftedness. Adding insult to injury, many gifted ADD children find themselves, as a result of their ADD diagnosis, in a slower-than-normal classroom environment, since they've been identified as having a "learning disability."
Webbs, et al, point out that in a typical classroom, a gifted child may spend one-fourth to one-half of their entire time simply waiting for others to catch up, and that: "Such children often respond to non-challenging or slow-moving classroom situations by 'off-task' behavior, disruptions, or other attempts at self-amusement. This use of extra time is often the cause of the referral for an ADHD evaluation."
And, in a rather depressing conclusion, they say, "Do not be surprised if the professional [to whom you're referred for the ADHD evaluation] has little training in recognizing the characteristics of gifted/talented children."
Bright children with ADD are often not identified as having ADD until the fourth- through ninth-grade levels. This is because they can usually maintain grade-level work with a minimum amount of effort, and don't "crash and burn" until they hit a grade level or classroom where a high level of performance is required. By this time, however, they've developed a lifetime of skills to just get by...and have missed learning critical study-habit skills, usually absorbed by normal children in the middle elementary years. The result is that the child's old strategies don't work, and there are no fallback strategies to call upon.
This explains, in part, both the proliferation and the success of the study skill classes that so many private tutoring institutions are offering, and are popping up like dandelions in middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. They teach children in junior and senior high school the basic study skills that their peers acquired in elementary school, but they missed because they didn't need them at that time.
The unfortunate part of this is that in addition to not learning basic organizational strategies and study skills because of a lack of challenge in elementary school, these children -- who are most in need of these skills to make it through boring, mandatory classes, or when they hit challenging, demanding classes -- have also missed out on the early-years opportunity to integrate these skills seamlessly into their personality. Even when they learn how to organize their materials, how to study, etc., these skills are not yet habits: they're not supported by years of practice and reinforcement, and are so far from second-nature that they seem counterintuitive to the child.
And so we see a consistent uneveness in the ability of these kids to keep it together in school. They attend the study skills class, and their grades shoot up...for a month or two. Then they crash and burn and need another dose of technique reminders.
All largely because in elementary school their abilities weren't recognized...because the schools weren't looking for bright or gifted children...because the schools don't have specific programs for them even if they were to have identified them.
Our schools' response to this situation has been to encourage the use of medication and support groups: essentially pointing the finger of blame at the victims, instead of acknowledging an incompetent educational system.
In fact the primary problem, for these bright children, is often primarily in the structure of the schools: with less than 1% of total federal and state moneys spent on education going to programs for gifted children, it's small wonder that so many psychologists and psychiatrists are marveling at the high number of very bright children being referred to them for ADD diagnoses from the public schools.
Further evidence of this can be seen from the results that private schools can obtain when given children who have failed in the public schools. There is no doubt that medication can produce a huge difference in a child's performance in a public school setting. Many private schools, however, obtain similar results by using smaller classes, instruction that moves at a pace commensurate to the child's ability to learn, and teaching in an active, visual, hands-on fashion consistent with an ADD child's learning style.
This is not meant to suggest we should discard medication: for many children, regardless of school setting, it's clearly useful. It does demonstrate, however, that medication alone should not be the focus of our attention as parents.
During the "Ritalin scare" of 1993, when stocks of the drug were depleted nationwide, parents across the country were petitioning government agencies and calling their congresspersons and senators to demand that Ritalin be reclassified as a Class III controlled substance, easing up on its currently being lumped into the Class II category along with pharmaceutical cocaine and morphine.
How many of those parents, however, ever bothered to call or write to demand that our schools challenge our children to learn? How many asked that funding for the brightest children be increased from .07% to some higher number?
The vast majority of parents reading this in The ADDed Line or on CompuServe are probably parents of children who are both ADD and of above-average intelligence. There's a self-selection process that's hard to avoid: those parents who can afford to subscribe to a newsletter or an online service tend to be higher in income, and usually that means they're higher in intelligence, than the average. Such parents tend to produce above-average-intelligence offspring.
Over and over again on the ADD Forum on CompuServe we see parents complaining that their ADD-diagnosed children are acting-out in school more out of boredom than anything else. "My son reads five grade-levels above his class," one parent commented. "He spends most of his time in class trying to sit quietly while the teacher is holding the hands of the slower students. It's no wonder he gets bored and fidgets."
The teacher's prescription, of course, was to medicate this woman's son. While that would have helped him sit in his seat for the entire class-day, and would have thereby increased his grade scores, it would have done nothing to address the fact that he was ready to learn more than the teacher was able or willing to offer.
There was a brief window during the late 1950's and early 1960's when America was shocked by the Soviet Union's successful launch of the world's first artificial satellite: Sputnik. As a result, numerous programs for gifted children were instituted in elementary and secondary schools across the country, and there was a refreshing new emphasis on experimenting with new teaching styles, and teaching more of the hard sciences at early ages.
Unfortunately, the Vietnam War brought an end to virtually all of those programs, as national resources were siphoned away from education and moved toward the military. The cost of a single B-2 bomber aircraft is greater than the entire national expenditure on programs for gifted children from 1970 to 1993 COMBINED.
Again, as this is not a diatribe against medication, I'm not suggesting either that we should stop funding the military. The point is that our values seem to have become scrambled over the past three decades. Private schools and home schooling are exploding in popularity because they're filling a huge void left by public schools: educational opportunity for gifted children.
As Brimelow points out in Forbes: "So the problem appears to be a classic one in economics: Resources are limited -- where should they be allocated to get the best return?"
It's time, in this writer's humble opinion, to begin the task of moving the massive ship of the educational establishment back toward programs directed toward our best and brightest students. When children are challenged and interested, their ability to learn is dramatically increased, as we see from private-school statistics nationwide.
Our nation's, as well as our children's future depends on it.