Dreaming big: Diane Ravitch can talk educational policy form, but walking it out is a different story

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The audience packed tightly into Lehigh University’s Baker Hall on Tuesday February 10th in anticipation of hearing Diane Ravitch’s controversial approach to stifle our government’s current efforts towards school reform. Ravitch presented her argument through a witty self-debate that vehemently defended the American public school system and fought against any interventions that posed to threaten it such as privatization, choice/voucher systems, and the establishment of charter schools. Her reasoning was compelling: transforming education into a for-profit, business-like industry turns students into commodities, encourages efficiency and money over student innovation, and attempts to, in her eyes, inaccurately quantify the abstract character of intellect through the use of standardized measures. She also argued that permitting school choice through voucher systems would not result in academic competition between schools that would increase quality of education, but rather leave schools’ disparities and children’s education largely unchanged. This would be likely due to the lack of knowledge and/or interest from low socioeconomic families in changing their children’s schools, the inaccessibility of transportation for the students across towns, the lack of seating available in better schools, and the insignificant amount of vouchers available compared to the extensive needs of many districts.

Ravitch also considered charter schools a major threat to the success of the public education system, pointing out that not only do charter schools students not perform any better than regular public school students on assessments, they have also deviated from their original missions of helping the neediest students to becoming specialized academies that are in many cases operating as an industry and luring away the most motivated students through their attractive, creative programs. In this way, charter schools continue to foster segregation among students by collecting money from states for their newly specialized programs for specialized students, leaving public schools to suffer with the most challenging and expensive heterogeneous student body, including the learning disabled and non-native English speaking children- and to do this under increasingly restrictive funds.

While these arguments are neither epiphanous nor unfamiliar to educators, Ravitch was able to make her position unique by the sheer scope of her perspective. While teachers struggle every day in the classroom to find better, more effective ways to improve their students’ education, Ravitch acknowledged that this struggle is futile on the individual level because the issues hindering academic success remain much bigger than the classroom. Zooming out past a classroom, a school building, a district, and even a state, she posited that the real sources of our current academic system’s failure lay in macro-level influences such as self-interested business powers, misled government policy, and major inadequacies in social services contributing to a lack of academic resources, poor mother and child healthcare, and persisting poverty. Ravitch not only challenges, but places blame on these dominating, powerful overhead forces like private corporations and the federal government that she herself once worked for.

The way Ravitch uses language is her most powerful tool. She purposely chose to present her speech with a dramatic, igniting vocabulary, claiming that she wants to ‘destroy’ the current education reform, that we are ‘failing’ to defend our public schools, we are inhumanely using ‘fear’ and ‘punishment’ to incentivize better assessment scores, that business elites have ‘no place’ in public education, and that for-profit charter schools should be ‘banned by law’. It is this fearless, defiant attitude that separates Ravitch from the masses that agree with her, but it is also the quality that has her labeled as a radical.

She insists that the problems that current education reforms are designed to attack, such as low test scores, are not the true problems at all, but rather the negative consequences of much larger underlying causes such as under-resourced schools, under-trained teachers, poor social services, poverty, and poor health. And while I absolutely agree that these struggles inhibit student’s performance as well as their wellbeing, Ravitch’s suggestion to address these great forces are just as grand as their scale. Ravitch is absolutely correct that a poor, malnourished child attending an under-resourced school is going to face overwhelming barriers to academic success and benefit little from privatization, voucher systems, or charter schools. However, how exactly she plans to eradicate global crises such as poverty and hunger and persuade the federal government to significantly increase funding to public education and improve social services, I have no idea. The importance of addressing these crises is immense, and I do not think anyone is willing to dispute that. However, I would like to ask Diane Ravitch how she plans to practically overcome these barriers to educational equality and success, and if stifling current governmental reforms is just the place to start.

One for all, or all for some? Re-examining the limitations of gifted education in the public school system.

I am a product of a supplemental “gifted education” curriculum in a public school system. Up until taking this curriculum course, I did not reflect deeply on what that actually meant not only to myself but to the larger system I belonged to. Discussing the topic of gifted education in class prompted me to think more purposefully about the meaning behind the word “gifted” and how these types of programs may unwittingly foster inequality not only within the school setting but in society at large. The issues that gifted education pose are bi-fold and, at times, overlapping: sociocultural and academic.

A classmate in the field was recently discussing the extreme difference between low-income and high-income areas where she has taught. She mentioned that, while the average percentage of ‘gifted’ students in a school is ~ 3%, in some high-income areas it can be as high as ~ 50%. This poses a serious concern – it is inconceivable that this difference can be chalked up to actual differences in capacity. More likely, it is a combination of culturally perceived differences and how much exposure a child has to intellectually stimulating materials (i.e.  books, tutoring, etc.). Another classmate referred to this phenomenon as “economic giftedness.” This issue is mirrored in the under-representation of racial and ethnic minority students in gifted programs. Ford (2008) discusses this issue through what she calls the “deficit thinking” that occurs in the public school system:

“With deficit thinking, differences in someone who is culturally, racially or ethnically diverse are interpreted negatively as if the individual and/or characteristics are abnormal, substandard, or otherwise inferior. For example, a student who speaks nonstandard English and is making good grades in school may not be referred to screening and identification if the teacher neither understands nor appreciates nonstandard English.” (Ford, 374)

Ford also points out that academic aptitude exists across racial, ethnic and economic divides. It is illogical, then, that there is such a dearth in minority, low-income students receiving the label of ‘gifted.’ This problematic situation demands that policy makers and curriculum designers address how to provide gifted education programs that are both excellent and equitable.

There is another issue plaguing gifted education that straddles the border between cultural and academic. This is how we (collectively) define the term ‘gifted.’ The type of gifted education that Ravitch and Ford discuss is typically centered on scholastically advanced students, as measured by a standardized IQ (intelligence quotient) test. Winner (1996) discusses the potential ethnocentrism of gifted education by highlighting the differences between ‘western’ definitions of ‘giftedness’ and those of other cultures. Specifically, she discusses how the Pueblo “have no word for giftedness” and instead believe that “special abilities should not be used as a basis for evaluating one person over others. For this group, a special gift is meaningful only if it is used in a way that benefits the community” (Winner, 4). In other words, individualistic western culture values individual success over community well-being and rewards competition rather than collaboration. As such, gifted education can reproduce a number of inequalities, creating a divisive environment within the school (an example of the kind of ‘hidden curriculum’ also discussed by Ravitch).

Further issues with gifted education that warrant discussion are the curriculum and assessment of such programs. In my experience, many ‘gifted education’ programs are project-based and have an emphasis on divergent thinking. This is in contrast to the rote memorization being pushed in ‘normal’ classrooms. We must question why the methods being employed to teach the ‘best’ students are not made available to other students who may benefit from similar approaches. Additionally, some states employ ‘merit pay’ for teachers, judging their performance on students’ scores. In this scenario, teachers of gifted students would, theoretically, receive higher pay than those of ‘average’ or ‘below-average’ students. However, in one of her blog posts Ravitch blasts this ‘myth’ stating that when a “students’ scores are already at the top… they have nowhere to go, so the teacher will get a low rating.”

While students who excel at school should, in my opinion, receive an education capable of stimulating them and encouraging their talents, I also believe that this benefit should not be reserved for those who score the highest on standardized tests. It is high time that we (both culturally and in terms of educational policy) recognize non-standard forms of ‘giftedness,’ encourage critical thinking and creativity and, most importantly, rid ourselves of the ‘deficit’ mindset that is denying so many capable children the opportunity to excel, solely because they do not fit the societal and/or academic standard.

Sources:

Winner, E. (1996). Gifted children: Myths and realities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ravitch, D. With VAM: All Teachers of the Gifted Are “Bad” Teachers. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from  http://dianeravitch.net/

Ford, D. (2008). Recruiting and retaining gifted students from diverse ethnic, cultural and language groups. In J.A. Banks & C.A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and Perspectives, (371-392). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

What Do We Know?

Is the debate finally over? Have we at last reached a tipping point of such obvious connection that even the most stalwart critic of the US public education system has to wonder what they have been fussing about all this time? Doubtful at best, though even the most cursory glance at who is achieving and who is failing in public education should be enough to cause the proverbial light to pop on above anybody’s head.

After centuries of examining how people learn, making myriad discoveries along the way, and painstakingly crafting a deep and dynamic pedagogic identity, the US has abdicated its responsibility to provide intellectual advancement to a vast swath of its citizenry by making a single measure of capacity the final arbiter of student and teacher capability. And the nation does this knowing full well that students of limited means have always been at the bottom of the mountain looking up when it comes to building their futures and bridging the gap between themselves and those who began further toward the crest. The students at the bottom are staying at the bottom because the test has become the latest means to judge them, and ensures that this judgment comes with the attendant needle-holed curriculum that concerns itself with the end result, leaving other broad-based educational entry points like art, music, physical education, science, history, geography, world civilization and culture to wither and die on the vine for poor students while their peers up the incline have continued access within their system or from personal resources.

It’s become so simple. When teaching for the test is teaching for your life, you can bet teachers, pushed along at times by administrators, will do what it takes to reach the land of benchmarks for student proficiency. This is where we are. The values of an education and the abilities of students and teachers are increasingly boiled down to a test – a test on two subjects, language and math. Important pieces of knowledge to say the least, yet certainly not the last measures of what humans might need to know to live a full and expansive life, especially if the testing is confined to a moribund multiple choice regurgitation of facts having little to do with examining the intricacies and challenges of the limited days we all have on this earth.

These test results, rather than existing as a rational piece in the educational puzzle of informing administrators, government and the public on the relative identifications of needs to be addressed, and then provided resources to do so, are then used to punish. Our education system has succumbed to the pressures of a mythology, a fantasy creation where the good guys do well, bad guys get punished and if you happen to land in the company of the latter, it’s your own fault. We’ve begun believing that the education system should mirror the criminal justice system and equate the failures of an entire social model with easy finger-pointing, blaming and shaming those students at the lowest end of the economic equation and their teachers, people who work in a profession where almost half walk away before five years because of stress, burnout, ridicule and career prospects tied to the idea that it is they who can fix what an entire society has broken.

The results of testing, perhaps to the chagrin of those who would assess student failure in poor districts and from low-income and poverty-based households as an indication of both personal shortcomings and a massive failure on the part of public school teachers, have provided deep data and now complete insight to the core where we truly see the challenge. The challenge lies squarely in reversing the expansion of poverty and wealth inequality, especially as it stands for children and families of color across the country.

Though educational success is a complex subject, we know that, by and large, poorer children make slower progress and achieve lower academic outcomes than children progressively up the income and asset scale.

With that, we already know what the problems are, both in the US and around the globe. We know that, according to a 2014 Oxfam study, 80 human beings hold the same amount of wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people. We know that by 2016 the wealthiest 1% in the world will have more wealth than the other 99%.

We know that incomes for people of color in the US have continued to lag behind for decades as the Pew Research Center evidence supports with this median household comparison from the years 1967-2012:

  • Asians (1987-2012): $62,309 — $68,636
  • Whites (1972-2012): $50,644 — $57,003
  • Hispanics (1972-2012): $37,681 — $39,005
  • Blacks (1967-2012): $25,996 — $33,321

We know that of the more than 72 million children under age 18 years in the United States:

  • 44%, 31.8 million, live in low-income families (Less than 200% of poverty income)
  • 22%, 15.8 million, live in poor families (100% or less than poverty income)
  • 31% of White children, 11.7 million, live in low-income families
  • 31% of Asian children, 1.1 million, live in low-income families
  • 65% of Black children, 6.4 million, live in low-income families
  • 63% of Hispanic children, 11.0 million, live in low-income families

We know that the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports the White-Black gap and the White-Hispanic gap in 4th and 8th grade math and reading assessments looks like this:

The White-Black Gap

  • Mathematics: 26 point difference in 4th grade; 31 point difference in 8th grade.
  • Reading: 27 point difference in 4th grade; 26 point difference in 8th grade.

The White-Hispanic Gap

  • Mathematics: 21 point difference in 4th grade; 26 point difference in 8th grade.
  • Reading: 25 point difference in 4th grade; 24 point difference in 8th grade.

We know that in the international testing arena, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years and the correlation to lack of poverty and high achievement is unerringly strong. The scores of 2012 from a disaggregation by Daniel Wydo:

  • Science literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 556. 1st place.
  • Reading literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 559. 1st place.
  • Math literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 540. 5th place.

We know that there is discussion about the top students in the US still lagging behind powerhouse OECD nations, yet there remains a huge gap at the bottom end in the US where the scores of low-income Americans are extraordinarily abysmal with many not reaching the lowest levels on the international math examination where we see 18% below Level 1 and only 28% at Level 1 from schools with 75% or more of the students receiving free or reduced lunches.

We know that students of color are disproportionately represented as unprepared for college-level work as illustrated by 2013 ACT results in testing on ability in the subjects of English, reading, math, and science:

  • Asian students ready in all four subjects: 43%
  • White students ready in all four subjects: 33%
  • Hispanic students ready in all four subjects: 14%
  • Black students ready in all four subjects: 5%

We know that youth from households in the highest income quartile complete college at a rate of 77% while those from the lowest quartile do so at the astonishingly low rate of 9%.

We know that in 2012, almost 31% of the American population had earned a bachelor degree, including nearly 52% of Asians, but only 14.5% of Hispanics, 21.4% of Blacks, and 34.5% of Whites.

We know that high-achieving lower-income students drop out of high school or do not graduate on time at a rate twice that of their higher-income peers – 8% versus 4%.

We know that median weekly pay rises by educational attainment with people completing less than high school earning $472 per week; with a high school diploma $651 per week; with some college $727 per week; with a bachelor’s degree $1108 per week.

Education is often positioned as the cure for all ailing a society, and there is no disagreement that it serves as a catalyst for human growth. For all the worth it provides, it is not enough to continue viewing education as only a one-way pipeline. As with any system, its outcomes or end results are only as good as what is introduced into its processes. Today, the task is not only creating a better system that has the capability to elevate all students, but also developing a more just surrounding social-economic framework in which more equally-benefited students can enter it in the first place.

We know this is all connected, and we know that this cycle which segregates opportunity and progress, sans intervention, will stagnate and sentence additional generations to further intellectual, educational and economic degradation.

Is the debate finally over? It should be.

Thoughts in Anticipation of Diane Ravitch’s Visit to Lehigh

Diane Ravitch Speaks at Lehigh on her Books, Experiences, and Opinions involving Educationhqdefault

There is so much pressure for change that it actually hinders change. The requirements outlined in the curriculum and standardization are tools for measurement, results, and comparing different demographics. However, the emphasis on the results of those tests has been so great that the curriculum no longer promotes education quality and creativity.

I am writing this blog in anticipation of Diane Ravitch’s visit to Lehigh University. After reading some of her work including chapters from her book, Diane Ravitch was the Assistant Secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration. She was involved in the process of creating and implementing the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The act proposed that all states have to ensure that all students would meet the national standards through testing. By raising the bar each year, the goal of NCLB was to ensure that all students were passing by 2014 (last year!). 14 years ago the proposal sounded great and possible; however, here we are one year after the expected year of success and nothing has changed in education. Let’s ignore the name of it and just focus on what it proposed.

The first issue, as with many educational reforms, is that it sounds so perfect that it is almost impossible to argue against it. Especially with a name such as “No Child Left Behind”, anyone who attempts to critique it sounds inhumane. After all, who would want to leave any children behind? There were some good amendments in the law, but the bad ones outweigh the good. For instance, there is no time or funding for the tutoring that is mandatory for children that are below standards. Teachers do not have time to focus on helping the students that are behind because they have to ensure the entire class is following the curriculum. Teachers have to choose between spending extra time with students who are behind or spend that time moving everyone else forward by following the curriculum. Both choices are not possible. In either case, the teacher is not meeting a standard.

Another issue is that the law allows for each state to set its own educational standards to meet. Some states’ standards are so low that nearly everyone can pass them to ensure they receive their state funding. Although the school may be technically passing, that does not mean that all of the students are on a proficient learning level for their grade. Teachers have to teach to meet these low standards which hinder the quality of education. On the other hand, states that actually have high standards for their schools are at risk for having more schools that do not pass. A failing school does not receive federal funding or state funding. As a result, the school does not have the funds to purchase resources or programs needed to help these failing students, which attributes to budget cuts such as firing teaching, cutting programs, and increasing the class size. Either way, the children the law claims will not get left behind, are indeed getting left behind

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch quotes Donald T. Campbell who states that “the more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In other words, the more value placed on standardization and testing to make decisions such as enrollment, classification, and acceptance the more corrupt that system becomes. Standardized tests are used for benchmarking and comparing students, but they have lost their innocence.

There are now teachers teaching to the test or cheating rather than teaching their students information to prepare them to learn, understand, and succeed. Now looking at the Act, without the context and innocence of its name, the amendments seem nearly impossible. This is the problem with curriculum, standardization, and educational reform in society. There is more focus on creating a proposal that sounds good than actually taking time to make sure it IS good. As Diane Ravitch stated, “there are no fads, no shortcuts, no utopias, no silver bullets” in terms of reforms for fixing educational issues. Teachers have to follow a state or national schedule of teaching rather than teaching based on need. Students learn through at different speeds, styles and have different interests so why teach all kids of various cultures, states, social classes, backgrounds, intellect, and who are so simply different through the same methods?

Questions for Diane Ravitch:
• What made you decide to get so actively involved in educational reform through speaking out on your experiences and writing so many informative books?
• With so much emphasis on testing and standards, what do you think would be a good way to measure progress?
• It seems like a major reason reforms do not end up being successful is due to the high demand for fast progress. Quick fixes clearly do not work, but how should an administrator propose and manage an idea that is longer term and avoid the pressure or force of being fired?
• How do you propose a shift in standardization back to being more of a tool for measurement and less of an emphasis in teaching to the test?
• Race to the Top is yet another education law that sounds appealing and optimistic, what are your thoughts on it? What do you think it will take for it to be successful?

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. NY: Basic Books.

2014 in review: Thank you to all of the contributors to the blog!

Here is a 2014 annual report for our blog! Many thanks to everyone who contributed – both the bloggers and all of our readers to shared their feedback and comments! Enjoy and here is to another productive year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

(Re)Examining Privatization and Public Education in Eastern Europe and Eurasia

The latest issue of European Education addresses a heatedly debated topic of privatization of public education in post-socialist Eastern Europe and Eurasia. This region is of particular interest because of the rapid transition from central to market economies, and the lack of subsequent systematic research on privatization in education either in the global literature on education or the regionally focused literature on privatization and its extension into marketization and public–private partnerships. This special issue aims to bridge this gap by stimulating further research and debate about the effects of privatization on education across the former socialist region. Drawing on case studies from Romania, Ukraine, Russia, and Tajikistan, the articles in this issue raise questions about the incentives and potential for structural discrimination that are created as private funds for education are directed into school systems through a variety of mechanisms that include school choice, private schools, parent payments to public schools, not-for-profit private providers, and supplementary tutoring courses.

If you would like to read the entire paper or any other content from our journal, you can find out more about subscriptions here. We will also be featuring video interviews with the authors about their articles published in this special issue!

Table of Contents

Editorial Introduction: (Re)Examining Privatization and Public Education in Eastern Europe and Eurasia

Kate Lapham, Daniel Pop, and Iveta Silova

Private Pre-University Education in Romania: Mixing Control with Lack of Strategy

Cristina Stănuş

Reworking of School Principals’ Roles in the Context of Educational Privatization: A view from Ukraine

Serhiy Kovalchuk and Svitlana Shchudlo

Parental Choices in the Primary and Secondary School Market in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Christopher Whitsel

The “Language Barrier” in Private Online Tutoring: From an Innocuous Concept to a Neoliberal Marketing Tool

Olga Kozar

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!