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.

Gifted Education Series, Part 2: Against Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

In my previous post in this series, I looked at what some of the advocates of gifted education say about the benefits of these programs. Here, I will examine what those who are against them have to say.

It is not easy to measure giftedness in the first place. Intelligence tests and achievement tests are often culturally biased and may “reflect ethnicity, socioeconomic status, exposure and experiences rather than true giftedness.” Some children just might not be good at taking tests or may be gifted in ways that tests cannot measure well—like creative thinking. When you can’t even rightly identify those students who should be placed in gifted programs, should you have them?

There are several criticisms of gifted programs, the main one being that it promotes segregation in the classroom along racial and socioeconomic lines. Many say that the practice of separating the top 2% of the population from everyone else clearly falls under the definition of segregation, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “an action or state of setting someone or something apart from other people or things.” Instead of white-only water fountains, there are smart-only schools or schools within schools. If, under the mandate of equal protection, the Supreme Court struck down the idea of schools separating children based on skin color, it seems logical to assume that this should be the case for IQ as well since this is another “immutable” trait. Providing equality of opportunity also applies to publically-funded gifted programs that receive extra money and prestige.

An example of this segregation comes from New York City’s gifted and talented programs, which have a long history of exacerbating socioeconomic and racial segregation within city schools. As of 2011, roughly 70% of all New York City public school students were black and Latino, but more than 70% of kindergartners in gifted programs were white or Asian. Even if a school has nominal diversity in itself, this is undermined by segregation in the gifted program. Schools may look diverse, but the general education classrooms look very different from the gifted classrooms in terms of racial/ethnic and economic background. In one specific New York City school, 63% of the students are black or Hispanic and 33% are white or Asian. In the gifted classrooms, 62% are white or Asian. These disparities are most apparent at the lower grades.

Socioeconomic status advantages also give better-off preschoolers a testing advantage that is compounded by gifted programs. These very young children have to cram for high-stakes exams in order to get into these gifted programs. Their parents push them and might even hire test prep services to make sure their children do well. Many educators find that this practice does not sit well with them. This flawed system reinforces racial separation, negative stereotypes about class and race, and contributes to disparities in achievement. Gifted admissions standards favor middle and upper class children and create castes within schools where some children are enriched and accelerated while others are getting the bare-bones version of the material.

When looking at the gifted classrooms, one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way children are selected into these programs. These programs create a cycle in which students start out ahead get even further advantages from the city’s schools over their years of schooling. The number of black and Hispanic students who make it into specialized high schools in NYC has declined significantly over recent decades. Some say that if the objective is diversity, this system can never work.

Parents argue that it’s more economics than race, even though this goes hand and hand in many cities. If you were upper income and well educated, you would want your child to have a more enriched education. But when you think about it, not only are the black and Hispanic children being denied more intense education and enrichment, but those white students who are in separate gifted programs are being denied the cognitive and social benefits that socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms are shown to offer.

In concordance with this thinking, the NYC schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, actually completely eliminated the gifted program at the school where she was previously the principal. Many parents of the gifted students at her school were outraged, but she calmed them by promising school-wide improvement in instruction [6]. Many are urging NYC schools to take this approach that betters the whole school and incorporates mixed-ability classrooms instead of perpetuating these segregated classrooms by continuing separate gifted programs. This will be explored further in the last post in this series.

Gifted Education Series, Part 1: For Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

Gifted education in public schools has been a highly polarizing topic of discussion, especially recently. Both sides make some compelling arguments and, in my opinion, it is hard to declare a firm winner in this debate. In this blog series I will explore this subject from both sides, as well as offer a possible alternative, and leave it up to you to decide where you land.

Many of those who are for gifted education in public schools see it as a new take on the “old American conflict between equality and opportunity.” If the goal is to make sure no child is left behind, then schools should also be helping others to get ahead. Some say that “it makes sense to at least create a haven where these kids can develop their gifts, rather than asking them to be patient in classrooms that are not geared to developing their talents.” It’s also worth noting that the students with special gifts may be those most likely to one day develop miraculous cures, produce inspiring works, invent technological marvels, and improve the lives of all Americans, so they should be pushed forward in order to get on with those future impressive tasks.

Over the last 15 years, schools have been so focused on raising the performance of the lowest achieving kids that those who move faster are taken for granted. These poorly performing students get extra help in a number of ways, but those who are advanced do not usually receive any special services, despite the fact that schools are there for all children to achieve. Gifted students can be likely to fall through the cracks if they don’t get instruction tailored to their abilities and can struggle academically or even drop out. Ann Sheldon, the executive director of the Ohio Association for Gifted Children, says that, “Because they meet the (academic) threshold, districts can ignore them.”

Many say that in order for gifted students to grow to their full potential they need to be developed and nurtured within the school system. If not pushed, gifted underachievers may decide they will only do the minimum requirements and choose easy work even though they are capable of much more. Some get bored from the easy work, some don’t develop study and organizational skills because they don’t have to, and others don’t want to look gifted because it isn’t “cool.”

Some argue that gifted students will get by on their own without any special help from the school. They say they come from wealthy families who can meet their children’s needs on their own. Gifted students require special services and programs to ensure the growth rather than the loss of their outstanding abilities. Some of the kids worst served are “at-risk, low-income kids with a lot of talent but who are stuck in schools that are doing everything they can to get kids over a minimal bar.” These poorer gifted kids will never get the advantages at home that wealthier kids have. If the school cannot push them forward, they will get lost in the flow.

One mother in Georgia, whose child attends a school where there is no gifted program, had local school officials refuse to let her son skip a grade despite his very high IQ test scores. She had to fight with teachers and administrators in order for her child to have adequately challenging work. A similar story happened in Texas where an assistant principal told a mother that “she does not support accelerating students and that [her] only option is to send [her] daughter to private school.” For many families this is just not an option for financial or other reasons and to them, public schools should be able to provide their children with an education equal to their needs, as they do with underachieving students. The average IQ score is 100 and many people argue that the further away from that mean a child is, the greater they have a need for special education, regardless of whether they fall to the left side or right side [6].

Parents who can afford to send their children to private school are doing so, however. The No Child Left Behind act is causing many families to flee public schools because it is pushing teachers to focus so much on bringing students to minimum proficiency that gifted students are forgotten about. This “benign neglect” causes them to lose interest in learning because school becomes “an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.” If public schools want to keep these students, they need to provide for them.

School board support of gifted programs, especially in large, diverse cities, shows parents that their kids can thrive if they remain in the city. For example, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s ambitious plan to attract 10,000 new families to Baltimore over the next 10 years depends in large part on convincing young families that its schools can offer an excellent education to their children. Gifted programs are a means of keeping middle and upper class families in the public school system.

Another refuted argument against gifted programs is that teachers can implement small changes into a gifted child’s assignments to further his/her thinking. Asking one teacher within a classroom of around 30 kids to differentiate their assignments and keep track of just one or a few students with gifted ability is asking a lot. Anyone who has watched a teacher labor to “differentiate” instruction in a classroom that encompasses both math prodigies and English language learners knows it’s unreasonable to expect most teachers to do this well, so they argue that separate programs are a necessity.

Those against also suggest that parents look into educational opportunities outside of school such as academic clubs, private tutoring, or other forms of private study that are less costly than private school, but are still engaging and effective. This seems far from practical. Even if parents can afford these extra services for their children, again, why should they be required to do so when schools exist for a reason? Would it not make more sense to just have special programs available within their child’s school that they already attend?

I find it hard to argue with parents who only want the best possible education for their children. Why shouldn’t public schools provide this for them? Stay tuned for my next post about those who are against gifted programs in public schools!

Nomadic Schools in Yakutia (Russia)

Being simultaneously an Asian, Sakha (Yakut), and a citizen of Russia, I face unhidden interest about my homeland and my origin. Influenced by centuries-long stereotypes about Russia, many people do not know how diverse Russia is. It’s almost my daily, unpaid duty to reveal the diversity of Russia to others. When my international friends talk about my country, they use terms “Russia”, “Russians”, “Russian language”, “Russian culture”, imagining one notion instead of many. For instance, not many people use the country’s official name – the Russian Federation. However, only Federation embraces multinational, multicultural, and multilingual Russia. The Russian Constitution starts with: “We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation, united by a common fate on our land, establishing human rights and freedoms, civic peace and accord, preserving the historically established state unity…” However, this diversity often remain invisible.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia) is a unique and special in every way. First of all, Yakutia is the largest federal subject of Russia by its territory and covers three time zones (1/5 of Russian territory, the Sakha Republic territory equal to five times of France territory). Yakutia is a home to several indigenous ethnic groups of Siberian north with their traditional lifestyle, culture, and education.

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from wikipedia.org

According to 2010 Census results, 403 nomadic families with 782 children live in the Sakha Republic. Reindeer husbandry is the main occupancy of nomadic families. In addition to traditional family education, there are 13 nomadic schools covering 180 children.

In extreme conditions of the Russian north, nomadic schools are designed to follow reindeer migration routes and provide access to education for children of native Siberians. For reindeer winter routes nomadic schools have buildings, for summer routes they use tents. These schools are supplied with compact computer, chemistry, physics, and biology labs. The curriculum includes classes of native language, Russian, national history, national culture, traditional ways of hunting, fishing, reindeer husbandry, environment protection, etc. Learning of the native language is one of the important goals since all languages of northern peoples are included in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages. UNESCO and local government play key roles in nomadic schools development.

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from ysia.ru

A teacher of the nomadic school is required to speak a native language, to be able to teach several subjects for children of various ages, to know traditional nomadic way of life, and be ready to face severe life of the Arctic. In 2006, the Yakutia Teacher Training Institute has introduced a special two-year program (with an option of distant education) to train teachers of natural sciences and mathematics.

Some northern children of Russia attend boarding schools in towns away from their families and traditional way of life. Children have access to the radio, television, and, in some places, to Internet. Not all of these children would like to return and continue traditions. Some of them dream to live in town, to get a university degree, to travel, etc.

Today, an International Arctic School project is being developed by a group of experts from Yakutia and it is undergoing a process of discussion. The international arctic school is expected to provide a university level degree with international standards to students of arctic regions. It is proposed to build an environment-friendly school in close proximity to the native populations.

Notwithstanding many positive outcomes, Russia’s indigenous people continue to face serious issues, including transport, healthcare, etc. I believe that all native indigenous people of the north should be granted a special status; laws and programs shaping this status should be designed together with representatives of Evenk, Even, Chukchi, Dolgan, Yukagir and others to ensure their survival and development in the future.

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from news.iltumen.ru

 


http://insch.ru/stati/article_post/efimova-d.g.

http://www.wunrn.com/news/2009/05_09/05_18_09/051809_nomadic_files/Nomadic%20Schools%20in%20Siberia-Following%20the%20Reindeer.pdf

http://www.nlib.sakha.ru/knigakan/tematicheskie-kollektsii/kochevaya-shkola.html

http://sakha.gov.ru/node/133389

Preaching Preschool

During last Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” Of course, Obama’s emphasis on early education is not new but rather a reiteration of Obama’s previous push for more funding to provide pre-kindergarten education for every four-year-old in America.

Research stands behind the importance of pre-k education. Investments in early education are believed to raise long-term skill levels, increase graduation rates, create jobs, reduce the stress on low-income parents and reduce crime and poverty. I spoke with a current early childhood professional who concurs, stating that preschool provides a space where kids “learn how to learn.” Before the structured academics that children receive from their educational journeys, preschool teaches kids how to behave in school, get into a routine, and socialize with others. Learning how to be one child in a group full of fifteen, twenty or twenty five others is not an easy thing to learn, and must be introduced to children at an early age.

Over the past year, many states across the country expanded or created preschool programs, including Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, and Alabama. Republican Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan believes that this policy move is important because preschool is “a human need and an economic need,” and proceeded to increase spending by $65 million last year. Additionally, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor in New York City on the promise of universal prekindergarten education for all city residents. In a recent interview with Jon Stewart, de Blasio spoke of his five-year, $2.6 billion dollar plan to provide full day pre-k for every child in the city.

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Bill de Blasio was elected on a promise of universal prekindergarten. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Based on research and recent state legislation, it seems that the country is in general agreement that preschool for children is necessary for the further development and success of the nation. However, this is not such a beautiful picture in Washington D.C. In Congress, Republicans have opposed Obama’s $75 billion investment in preschool, stating that the policy is too top-down and should instead be the responsibility of local communities and state governments. I think that Republicans in general are resistant to new social programs that Obama proposes, using this as an example to generate opposition. Mandatory pre-k education seems to be a bipartisan cause, but remains divided in our nation’s capital. I find it ironic that Republican and Democratic centered governments alike are on board for preschool policy changes, but that this issue cannot come to fruition in Washington. The way I see it, members of Congress simply want to continue to disagree with social policies, regardless of the good that they imply.

Of course, an issue as such always comes back to a question of funding. The New York Times sites many ways that states are planning to cover preschool, ranging from sales tax increases to legalizing marijuana to casino revenue. However, it remains unclear how to pay for universal access to preschool education. Could it be that politicians are simply preaching preschool to attract voters? In particular, these policy changes would attract the working class and women, which are demographics that many politicians need to charm. Is this a policy move, or more of a political power move?

Growing up in what I consider to be a privileged community, preschool education is taken for granted. It is a given that parents will pay for their kids to go to preschool so that they can work, as it was unusual for my friends to have stay at home parents. Part of the reason that this issue is so highly debated in Washington is because high-income districts can afford preschool funding while lower-income districts would have a harder time enforcing this type of policy. Given the importance of preschool education, it is my hope that funding will move toward city/state/local authorities rather than fall on the responsibility of private incomes, with a focus in problem solving for those lower income areas. I think that the United States has been criticized enough for our faulty education system. This should be one step that policy makers need to put on their priority list – a seemingly simple step that can set up great future success for a nation.

While this is a hot issue right now in national news, it has major global implications. If the United States is a global leader, the policy decisions that we make will be under close surveillance by the rest of the world. Whether this preschool policy shift will bring more success to the U.S. is yet to be determined, but it does have the potential to change some negative perceptions of our education system. I do think that these changes will come from more state and local authorities, as those in Washington continuously seek power over policy. I will forever be a firm believer in preschool education, and hope to see it promoted and enforced by these more localized authorities in the next few years.