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.

Confronting our Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance describes an intense emotional stress reaction experienced after an individual recognizes that they hold two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time (Festinger, 1957). This discomfort happens when realizing the logic that two things that oppose each cannot both be true. Cognitive dissonance can occur when an individual learns new information that conflicts with already held beliefs or when they perform a contradictory action to their belief. When people realize that their internal consistency is challenged, they get extremely distressed and will either do things or change their cognitions to bring that consistency back.

A simple example of cognitive dissonance is one that many of us have probably experienced. I have often told myself, “It’s time to eat healthier.” I make a pact with myself that I will cut some unhealthy foods from my diet. However, then a craving for frozen yogurt comes around, and before I know it, I’m on the way to get myself some froyo. I add all of the delicious candy toppings, and my attitude and my head tells me that my kind of frozen yogurt is unhealthy. I feel dissonance between my attitudes and my behaviors of eating it. Yet, I justify my decision to eat this unhealthy food and reduce my cognitive dissonance because “hey – at least it’s not ice cream.”

Cognitive dissonance occurs with my frozen yogurt consumption, as well as serious and systemic issues. It informs how we, as humans, deal with these things.

I think that humans are, at the core, inherently good. Cognitive dissonance exists in large proportions because if we were always aware of how unjust society is, we would be sad and angry all of the time. To deal with some of the horrors of the real world, we resolve our dissonance by making excuses, trying to rationalize, or ignoring injustice. With that being said, no progress could ever happen if we let our cognitive dissonance rule. The purpose of these three blogs is to address and challenge our cognitive dissonance in order to raise awareness to the important issues that plague our world.

One of the ways cognitive dissonance helps humans rationalize injustice is through the idea of meritocracy. The myth of meritocracy is the notion that people work for what they have, and successful people have worked for it and earned it. Thus, people in poverty and people who have not been successful didn’t work hard enough. This ties into the idea that anyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make a good life, if they try hard enough.

Although effort is incredibly important, this concept devalues the importance of systemic influences and blames victims of inequities. An individual is impacted by their overarching multilevel systems, and often, issues are stimulated by problems in the system, rather than in the individual.

In examining the myth of meritocracy and its role in cognitive dissonance, I will discuss the experience of homeless families. Typically, when someone thinks about the homeless, they automatically think of an adult man who has done something to deserve his homeless status. People in cities walk past homeless people thinking they are crazy, are on drugs, or are lazy. People’s cognitive dissonance leads them to think that the homeless person has done something to deserve their situation. Yet, people’s dissonant perception of homelessness and the myth of meritocracy are often wrong.

Although a majority of homeless people are adult men (67.5%), homeless families compose 1/3 of the homeless population in the United States (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). These homeless families typically consist of a mother in her late twenties with two children. In Pennsylvania, there are approximately 43,000 homeless children (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). Homeless children are more likely than other students to have mental health, physical health, and academic concerns.

Often, these homeless families are victims of circumstances that have led to their homelessness, due to systemic factors like unemployment, poverty, lack of affordable housing, and domestic violence incidents. The homeless family is just like any other family, struggling to support themselves, trying to help their children succeed in school, and caring about each other. When systemic influences put people in a compromising position, it seems impossible to get out of it. An example can be thought of in an experience of a mother who is fleeing, with her children, from an abusive partner. In this kind of emergency, this family needs to escape immediately. Often, this mother will have nowhere to go, and must stay in a shelter. Her income is dramatically lower, due to the absence of her partner, and she must work alone to support her children. In the crowded and loud shelter, she tries to maintain a normal life while balancing her lengthy job. She wonders how she can best support her children when the world has served her an unfair and grim situation.

Yet, when she begs for money on the subway, all people see is a woman trying to scam them to get money to buy drugs.

Our cognitive dissonance does not allow us to see the full picture, makes us jump to conclusions, and doesn’t allow us to think about the serious issues that impact our society. How can a school-aged child who is homeless and seeking shelter be successful at school? How can a single mother provide for her two children on one low-wage salary? How can we walk past a homeless person on the street and make judgments about their life? And, most importantly, how can I, as someone who is concerned about trying to justify my frozen yogurt consumption, stand idly by? I cannot – and therefore, by addressing and confronting my cognitive dissonance, I will fight against trying to rationalize injustice and will attempt to help others confront their cognitive dissonance as well.

 

 

References

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

National Center on Family Homelessness. (2008). The characteristics and needs of families experiencing homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.familyhomelessness.org/media/147.pdf

Cognitive Dissonance and No Child Left Behind

Students thrive in a school environment where they are able to interact with their teachers, have more individualized learning plans catered to their skills and needs, and feel safe in the school community. My best learning experiences were in community-based classes that fostered analytical thinking and asked me to challenge what I was being taught. However, we live in a nation where schooling is typically not like that. To better understand the experience in schools, I interviewed my friend who is a preschool teacher with experiences in classrooms of pre-K, kindergarten, and second-grade. She describes that, “the only time that I have had free reign to be creative with my teaching was as a preschool teacher, where there was no pressure to teach to a test because tests don’t exist at that level. Students any older than that are always preparing for some sort of test, whether that is a simple quiz, a unit test, or a state exam. The fact that schooling is so based around exams limits your freedoms as a teacher.”

We know that all students would benefit from a great education that is catered around individual needs, but not all students receive it, due to social, political, and economic factors. Our current policies on schooling are not helping to achieve the goal of quality education for all.

The wording of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pulls at the heartstrings, and it feels bad saying that you might disagree with “not leaving a child behind.” The act can be interpreted as a large-scale form of cognitive dissonance, an attempt to rationalize and forget why schools are failing.

The act aims to increase teacher accountability, raise standards of teaching, and ensure that students across the country are learning similarly well. It places an incredible emphasis on achievement testing, basing success of teachers and schools on students’ test scores. School funding, teacher salary, and school maintenance is all based on how students perform on tests. This places immense pressure on all people involved in schools.

Children feel pressure because they know that their teacher might get fired if they don’t score well on their test. On No Child Left Behind, this teacher says, “in theory it’s a good idea, but it was executed poorly. It’s important that all children have the opportunity to go to school and learn to the best of their ability, but it’s unfair that they’re expected to take all of these exams. There are the anxious test takers that freeze up when it comes time for an exam. It’s not right to do to the kids.”

Teachers feel like they need to base their entire curriculums around the test content, because their jobs and the students’ welfare is at stake. This teacher says, “in a large classroom setting, it’s difficult to cater to everyone’s needs because there are time pressures. The curriculums tell you specifically what questions to ask and how to teach it. In some cases, you’re pretty much given a script to read from, and that leaves no room for creativity at all.”

Administrators fear the test results because they dictate whether their schools will continue as usual or the government will take over. This act has instilled a sense of fear and tension within schools that are supposed to be safe havens.

The No Child Left Behind Act seems like an attempt at an easy fix to a system that needs be prioritized more by the federal government. It puts the education system into simple terms: if you score better, you get more funding. That ignores the systemic impacts on schools and students. It is easier for students in wealthy communities to score better on tests because those students do not have some of the same concerns as students in poorer communities.

In a case study example of schools in West Tallahatchie, Mississippi, as seen in the documentary “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” LaLee’s grandchildren spent their days trying to find fresh water, taking care of their family, and seeking out school supplies that they could not afford (Dickson, Frömke, & Maysles, 2001). How could a child who is looking for fresh water have time to do their homework? They do not have the same opportunities to succeed and are at a disadvantage in school. These children should be bolstered by the government. Their schools should be given more funding to help support the children who need it the most. No Child Left Behind does the opposite. It rewards the schools that are achieving the highest, which are typically not attended by students in poverty. It punishes schools that are struggling and could use help most.

This act feeds into the myth of meritocracy, essentially saying that lower achieving schools have not worked hard enough, and therefore should not be the recipients of more funding. What the act does not consider is the extreme hardships faced by students in poverty, and the systemic reasons why students are not achieving as high as their counterparts.

A system that only rewards schools based on achievement testing actually sustains an inequitable schooling environment around the country. When high stakes testing is the most important thing, it devalues the concept of the whole student and undercuts the quality and creativity of education. However, with a name like No Child Left Behind and an attitude that is trying to rationalize why some schools fail, this policy allows people to lessen their cognitive dissonance and forget about the schools that struggle the most. This policy allows people to make sense of the fact that some students are achieving much lower than others, and that is not ok. The education system in our country should work to support children who need help, not punish them.

 

References

Dickson, D., Frömke, S., & Maysles, A. (Directors) (2001). LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton. United States: HBO.

No Child Left Behind, Retrieved from: http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml