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.

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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!