Gifted Education Series, Part 3: A Possible Alternative

In my last two posts, I discussed the arguments of both those for and against gifted programs in public schools. This last post in this series will explore my personal, conflicted views on this topic as well as offer a possible alternative that some are suggesting instead of the traditional gifted programs.

Personally, I still find myself torn in this debate. I myself benefitted greatly by being in Honors classes as far back as I can remember. While these weren’t a part of a specially titled “gifted” program per say, they had generally the same goal. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without these differentiated classes, but a large part of me wants to say that there’s a chance I wouldn’t. Would I still have succeeded as well as I have if I hadn’t been pushed as hard as I was in middle and high school? Would I have been asked to teach other students who were lagging behind instead of moving forward with the curriculum? Would I have been bored in undifferentiated classes and therefore lost my interest in learning and love of going to school? The answer to all of these questions is simply, maybe. But also maybe not.

I do however clearly see the negatives of these types of programs as well. Coming from a very racially and fairly economically non-diverse area, I personally did not see the kind of perpetuated segregation in my school that results from them in others, but after having done research on this topic, it is clear that this is the unfortunate case more often than not. In that regard, I agree with those against them that they should not be in place.

There is one alternative to gifted programs that is being seriously considered in NYC and, if successful, could serve as a model for other schools around the country. Incoming New York Education Commissioner Carmen Fariña signaled at a town hall meeting that the city may dial back separate gifted programs in favor of personalized and more challenging curriculum for all kids in every class. All students should have an appropriate education. The question is how best to do so without reverting to a Jim Crow society where “separate but equal” was promised but not practiced. They are calling her school-wide enrichment model the “differentiated classroom.”

The premise of this program is a way of blending kids rather than isolating them, as well as stretching limited classroom resources. They argue that with the right structure (and that is the key part to me) one teacher can accelerate learning for the highly gifted in an integrated classroom without separating them from others or slighting those who lag behind. They want to give “gifted education for all” through academic enrichment tailored to each student’s strengths. Ms. Fariña said she was eager to bring strategies used in gifted programs, including project-based learning, to schools across the city. She said bright children outside gifted programs could be served by other means, including clubs, lunchtime programs, and science, technology, engineering, and math enrichment—“There’s a lot of other ways to reach the needs of these kids,” she said.

In an ideal differentiated classroom, curriculum is tailored to student’s skills, small group work is common, and so is individualized work. Students who move faster are given enrichment materials or pushed forward, while the teacher gives extra help to those lagging behind. The key to this program is that it will be planned as part of the curriculum coming from the school district and not just left up to the teacher to do by themselves. Fariña’s vision for New York is to give every child personalized and challenging opportunities, and she thinks the differentiated classroom can do it. They hope that this differentiated classroom will help eliminate the intense and difficult battle of getting children into gifted programs at such a young age.

This will not be easy to pull off however, and will at the very least require that teachers have more resources and smaller class sizes to do it properly. Skeptics say that if these needs are not met that gifted children will still be left to drift. Many still do not believe that a differentiated classroom can address the needs of students of all skill levels without leaving an exhausted teacher to focus on the middle segment. If not done correctly, and teachers hold up the entire class for the sake of one or a few students, every child’s learning will suffer.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide on which side of this heated debate you fall and if you think the “differentiated classroom” could be a useful alternative to please both sides. Personally, I think it has potential, but will need a lot of strong planning and resources to be executed correctly and have a positive impact on all students. Its success will remain to be seen.

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