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.

Snow Days, not Snooze Days

I dread the day when I have to explain to my children what a snow day was. I picture myself saying, “Believe it or not, snow days happened pretty regularly. We would get a call in the morning that school was canceled and jump with excitement knowing that we had a free day to relax, drink hot chocolate, watch movies and play in the snow.” Though in coming to college I thought that snow days were a joy of the past, I was surprised to learn that almost every year at Lehigh, school had shut down for at least one day due to some kind of inclement weather. This year, this trend has culminated in four total shut downs due to snow so far. Ironically, as I sit in my room catching up on piles of work on the fourth snow day of the year, I can’t help but think about how these days affect education policy, and wonder how the use of technology and online teaching will change “snow days” forever.

The entire country has been greatly affected by inclement weather this winter, with many schools around the country losing upwards of 10 days due to snow. As this has never happened before, many states began to take action, holding virtual classroom sessions, uploading digital lesson plans, and requiring students to complete online assignments to stay on track. Some teachers have become even more creative, developing hash-tags and using video chats and Google hangouts to host virtual presentations. This year in Illinois, a state that was hit extremely hard this winter, teachers and students are holding virtual discussions, using technology to their advantage. Similar trends are occurring in Ohio, as policy has changed to say that districts can make up as many as three snow days per year through online lessons. In fact, about 150 Ohio schools have created what they call “Blizzard Bags,” which prepare academic sessions for inclement weather that students can complete through technology at home. Many districts are content with this decision because it prevents days from being removed from summer vacation at the end of the school year.

Part of the reason that schools are so intent on continuing learning and not missing a day is due to funding and standardized testing requirements. In many states, aid is based on actual attendance, and states can lose funding for every day that they fall short on these attendance standards. Dick Flanary, the deputy executive director for programs and services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that “day-to-day school attendance won’t typically affect a school’s finances…but it can lead to cuts if test scores sink, if students or teachers miss a chance to shine or if schools can’t fulfill a grant obligation based on instructional time.” The argument seems simple: that if students are snowed out of school, their learning will be jeopardized.

At first glance, “e-learning” or “tele-school” seems like an ideal option. Students will have the ability to learn from anywhere, not just inside of a school building. But can there ever be a substitute for a teacher? Will these “e-days” just lead to further discussions of online learning as an alternative for traditional learning? And will the pressure to perform on testing to secure funding remain the most prominent argument for these anti-snow days?

Beyond these questions, I think that this discussion brings up many questions of equality and access that many school districts would have to confront to enact such policies in the future. If schools are mandating that students complete assignments online, that means that they must have technology available at home. While it is true that some districts provide technology to every student, this is certainly not the norm. Ironically, I believe it is those more impoverished and underprivileged areas where not every student has access to technology that could benefit from increased learning days the most. Even if students are granted technology from the district, it does not mean that they will have Internet access at home, and would probably have to find an Internet café or similar alternative during the snowstorm. One of the main reasons for canceling school is so that students and teachers will stay safe. This would be compromised if requiring students to trek out in the snow to find Internet so that they could complete assignments – it appears kind of counter-intuitive.

It seems that there is increased pressure to not miss a day of school, which inevitably brings up tough questions of funding, equity, and equal access to technologies. I sincerely hope that policy makers realize that learning does not always have to happen in a classroom. Sometimes the best learning happens on those days spent in your pajamas, baking cookies, watching movies and taking a break from school-stresses.

Is the Gaokao Doing its Best to Help Education in China?

As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural, northwest China, I taught English at a university that was known for having low-level students. In my first writing class, I had the students warm up by free writing for five minutes about a given topic. One of the topics was “their biggest regret.” All but one of the students in my 30-student class revealed that not studying harder for the gaokao, the Chinese college entrance exam, and getting into such a terrible university was the thing they regretted most.

Was this really their fault though? Like most other countries, China struggles with some form of inequality. Ask your traveling Chinese friends where they are from. It’s probably somewhere you’ve heard of, Beijing or Shanghai. Most of my students have never left their province. They would never dream of asking their parents for that much money. And also like most other countries, this inequality can be heavily reflected in the education system.

In China, education is compulsory until the 9th grade. Then students can decide to test into senior high school to prepare for college. Starting around age 12, children in China begin to spend most of their time at school. They study from the early morning hours to very late in the evening with small breaks for lunch and dinner. Most of them spend this part of their life studying for the infamous gaokao. This exam is administered once a year and takes place over 2-3 days. Students are tested in Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language. They also have to option of taking a science or an art section. If the student does not like his or her score, they have the option of repeating their senior year and then the exam. Before the gaokao students choose three universities, based on their anticipated results, to receive their scores. The last one or two are usually safety schools. The student will know which university they will attend once they receive their scores as each university has a cut-off score. In theory, it is the only thing a university looks at when considering a potential student and it will eliminate the inequality when they select students.

The results of this exam will dictate their future. Many of my students talked to me about their last year of senior high school, just before college. They spent the entire year studying only for the exam, in class and out, yet they still felt they did poorly. This article from the New York Times article tells the stories of a few individuals around their time of the exam, as does BBC’s video Gaokao Fever.

Close to 10 million students take the gaokao each year, and of those, around 75% are admitted into colleges. This is pretty high considering it is the only thing that will admit them to school. There is a huge drop-out after compulsory middle school. Some provinces estimate up to 40% of their students do not continue with their education after grade 9.

The gaokao not only determines the student’s school, but also their major, which depends on their scores in each section. Once a major has been given, it is very difficult to change and happened to only two or three of the 500+ English majors I taught. This may be changing though, and varied throughout the country. In a conversation with a college English teacher from another area of China, she said, “My school has given students more freedom to [change majors]. Nearly everyone can in the first college year, but only a small portion of students have done that. I don’t know if it is because it’s a common practice in universities now or just because we have a new school president who’s very liberal.” I think what’s most interesting about this is the students do not wish to change their major. This may indicate that the gaokao is doing what it is supposed to do, putting students in majors that fit them best, at least with this particular university.

It’s hard to say whether creative thinking or accumulation of facts is the better education philosophy when most of us have only grown up with one or the other, but even the policy makers in China are starting to change their idea as the economy grows and they face the challenge of keeping up with the rest of the world. Is that because the west has the money and power? Or do the Chinese really see a need for change?

You and Hu (2013) examine the recent policy changes that have been taking place. Where should the reforms start, in the national curriculum or within college admissions? The policy makers of China see the need to diversify their education system while the educators look to tradition for guidance. Like all other countries, China is struggling with the rapid developments of economy and preservation of its culture. A high school teacher recently revealed some of her struggles asking, “How teachers are supposed to integrate western teaching methods when they are busy preparing the students for the gaokao?”

If the universities do begin to diversify their selection process, guanxi, the very cultural relationship factor, may very well impede the harder working students. The gaokao is designed for equity. If the policy makers open the college application process up to resumes and interviews, it may be much easier for families with power and money to pull strings and get their children into top universities.

If a new “quality education” does make its way out of these policy reforms, what will the system look like? And how long will it take?

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