Thursday, August 14, 2014
Long ago when I was writing about education, and the idea of separation of church and state, someone made an interesting point to me. What people got most up in arms about, he said, were the core school hours of 9 to 3. Outside that, people were a lot less doctrinaire. So people might be absolutely against vouchers that would send kids to religious schools at taxpayer expense from 9 to 3. But they were far more willing to subsidize an after-school program run by a church. Districts happily provided busing, snacks, workbooks, etc. Some even paid some chunk of the cost. That was all fine. So were summer programs, before school programs, weekend programs, etc. It was the hours of 9 to 3 that required lines in the sand. (Or 8 to 2, or whenever the local schools held core classes). I thought of that as I read a story about the Clarkdale-Jerome school in Arizona starting an after-school gifted program. The school didn't have anything for gifted kids. One of the teachers earned an endorsement in gifted education. So they decided to start an after school program to serve kids' needs. From the perspective of those of us who think gifted kids have educational differences that deserve to be accommodated, this story can invite some smacks on the forehead. Why after school? Why not decide that we're not doing anything for gifted kids now, so let's identify them and see if some acceleration might be in order? Or maybe we decide to do self-contained multi-grade classes for these kids. Or even a twice a week pull-out. But something during the school day, when kids are supposed to be doing the bulk of their learning. Gifted kids should be challenged to the extent of their abilities in an environment with their intellectual peers. But viewed from the perspective of "core hours" vs. other hours, this makes some sort of sense. Gifted education is a controversial thing. So it needs to be done outside of school hours, just like letting a religious group run an after school program. I'm not sure how this will play out from a practical perspective. On one hand, many families of young kids have two working parents (or a single working parent) and hence need to do something with the kids after school anyway. A gifted program probably beats a lot of after school options. Unfortunately, it might also pit gifted education against art, music, sports, etc., which plenty of kids would also like to do. It's nice to do something for gifted kids, as opposed to nothing for them. But the decision to use an after-school solution says loads about how gifted education is often viewed.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
The concept of Advanced Placement classes and tests is a good one. Some high school students are ready for college-level work. However, there's little that's standardized across high schools. Advanced level classes with standardized syllabi and exams can give high school students a way to show colleges what they know, and hopefully place out of entry-level classes as well. However, this ideal isn't always achieved in practice. An article in the Deseret News looks at some colleges shying away from accepting high scores on AP exams as evidence that a student has done the equivalent of college level work. Some let students get elective credit, but not credit for the classes themselves (which might help you graduate early if you major in that particular subject). There are various ways to look at this. Cynical sorts might note that colleges often get paid by the credit hour, so not giving credit for courses is one way to ensure students don't get too much of a break on tuition. But there are other factors at play too. For starters, different universities have different expectations, even in entry-level courses. I earned a 5 on the AP Chemistry exam my senior year of high school, so Princeton allowed me to place into organic chemistry. Let's just say it was not my most shining academic moment of college. There are various reasons for that (I took it as a "freshman seminar" which meant instead of 3 1-hour lectures, I got 1 3-hour lecture -- which I just couldn't focus for) but it's also quite possible that Princeton's general chemistry class was more advanced than the AP version. Likewise, my 5 on the BC Calculus exam allowed me to place into a math class that was over my head. I passed it and orgo, but I'm pretty sure I was not as well prepared as I could be. Second, it's really hard to standardize. The exam helps on this quite a bit. A school can call a class "AP Physics" but if most students score 1s or 2s on the exam, then it's pretty clear it's not covering what it's supposed to cover, and colleges will not view those students as prepared. There is some accountability, though I'm not sure how many schools do anything about it. Nonetheless, it's possible that a student in a generally poor quality class could score a 3 or possibly even a 4 on a fluke (or if he/she crammed before with some independent study). Over time, if colleges see enough of this, it starts to water down the AP concept. The Deseret News story covers some of this. As more and more students have AP classes on their transcripts, it becomes less of a marker for selective colleges. Though I do think that the advice one person gives in the article -- that getting a low grade can be a black mark, and may not be worth it -- must be taken with a grain of salt. If you're applying to selective colleges, you need to be taking the most rigorous classes your high school offers -- and getting good grades in them. This is not a question of choosing one or the other. Have your children gotten credit for AP exams?
Friday, July 11, 2014
The best approaches to gifted education are self-contained classes and acceleration. But given that neither approach seems to win popularity contests with education authorities, what other approaches might work? In the Humboldt Unified School District (in Arizona) elementary schools had been using a pull-out approach. This usually means that kids identified as gifted are pulled out of their classrooms once or twice a week for a short period of time for accelerated or enriched material. According to a recent article in the Prescott Valley Tribune, Lake Valley Elementary School will be moving to a cluster model. The students identified as gifted in a particular grade will be placed together -- or "clustered" -- in a classroom (with other kids). Is this a better approach? It's not perfect. You could "cluster" 2-3 grades worth of gifted kids in their own self-contained classroom and do better by these children. Even in a class with a cluster, such kids won't be the norm, and classes are almost always taught to the middle. So the kids will be bored. But clustering has its benefits. For starters, kids like to learn in an environment with their intellectual peers. Having at least a few other kids in your classroom with similar readiness levels can make more engaging interactions possible. Second, a cluster allows for more ability grouping as these kids can be easily grouped together for math or reading instruction, or for projects. If kids have to switch classrooms, that's one more barrier to ability grouping happening. Many teachers find it tough to find time to differentiate for advanced students. Having 6-8 such children in your classroom might make you more likely to find time, vs. viewing it as something that's nice to do, but not a top priority. In addition, since only one teacher will have the cluster at a grade level, schools can concentrate training on that one teacher. Since funds are always low for such things, it's better not to need to spread it around. Does your school district use clusters? Does it work, or at least does it work better than other approaches?
Friday, June 27, 2014
It's summer and I seem to have more time available to read. Partly that's because I'm taking some vacation time, and partly that's because I don't feel like working as much when I can sit on the porch reading! I'd like to add some new parenting blogs, websites, and maybe magazines to the mix. What have you found interesting and useful? What do you read daily, or at least weekly? What useful ideas have you gotten from these resources? They don't have to be focused on gifted kids, though they can be. Please share your favorites in the comments so others can check them out too.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
I have no particular fondness for pull-out gifted programs. They're of limited duration -- an hour a week, or 45 minutes twice a week. They are often the result of a district's desire to do something to meet a state requirement of serving gifted students without actually devoting many resources to it. One teacher can wind up covering a vast number of students, often at vast numbers of schools, which is cheaper than having a teacher teaching a self-contained class. But at least pull-out programs are visibly there. Something is happening. It's a step above the idea of simply attempting to differentiate in the regular classroom and hoping that happens. Indeed, an interesting question could be this: If your individual education plan for gifted kids is to serve them in the regular classroom, do you actually have a gifted program? I was pondering this while reading a story about a controversy in the Norwalk City Schools (in Ohio). An article in the Norwalk Reflector noted that -- contrary to rumors! -- the district was not ending its gifted program (known as ABLE). It was changing how it was delivered. According to an official, "This means students will not be pulled from the classroom, but serviced in the classroom with a differentiated curriculum that will provide additional assignments and projects with alternatives based on a student's individual needs. Students will continue to have W.E.P.s (written education plans) and assessments of their progress provided to parents." In other words, we'll try to individualize work in the classroom. Which is hopefully what teachers are doing for all kids anyway. Some parents were calling this a subterfuge. If you scroll down to the first comment on the article, you see this assertion: "Despite what the school board may be saying, the reality is that, after the levy was passed, they made a last-minute decision to eliminate a teaching position. One fourth grade teacher was leaving, and rather than replace that teacher, they chose to reassign the gifted intervention specialist to fill that position. That is an undeniable fact. They ARE ending the ABLE program. They may try to cover the situation up by saying that gifted education will be 'delivered differently', but who is going to oversee their curriculums and make sure that the needs of these children are met when the school will not be employing anyone to do so?" The truth is, differentiating in a classroom is incredibly hard. It's hard even for excellent teachers with tons of experience. Even if you do manage to provide some challenge, you don't hit the other half of what gifted kids need, which is the chance to learn in an environment with their intellectual peers. Gifted education is never going to be the top priority for many districts. Many of us have wondered if creating state mandates or even national mandates for identifying and serving gifted kids will push districts to offer better programming. But the problem is that when districts don't want to do something, they can come up with a way not to. Officially, this district in Ohio still has a gifted program. It is identifying and serving gifted kids. That it probably won't happen in practice -- that it is set up to fail to give kids what they need -- is just a detail.
Wednesday, June 04, 2014
Long time Gifted Exchange readers know I write about time management for lots of places. As I've looked at the data and research, I've been fascinated to see that, for all adults claim to be overworked, most people aren't. The average number of hours worked per year has fallen by about 200 hours since 1950 (for Americans). Some of sociologist John Robinson's studies, looking at "extreme" work weeks, have found that people claiming 75-hour workweeks are often overestimating by 25 hours or so. So I'm always a bit skeptical of stories about how American school children are overworked, or under too much pressure, too. Most children don't have that much homework, and most aren't in that many activities either. Looking back on much of my own school career, I know I could have worked much harder than I did, and I would have been a lot happier if I'd had to. So I enjoyed reading Jay Mathews column on how "Kids Can Learn the Rewards of Pressure." After writing about the usual worry of extra-curriculars crowding out academics, Mathews heard from a number of parents pointing out that, guess what? Kids can handle a lot. Indeed, kids who learn the time management skills and discipline required to balance school work with extra-curricular activities sometimes do better in school. There's less time to get in trouble, and they have to be more organized. As with adults, I think it's important to look at total numbers. A week has 168 hours. If children are in school or on the bus around 35 hours per week, and have 10 hours of homework per week (more than most), and sleep 10 hours per night (which my kids barely do!) that leaves 53 hours for other things. That's enough time to devote a few hours to a handful of activities as well. And since activities can sometimes stretch the brain and challenge kids in ways that school doesn't, it's nice to have this mix. What activities do your kids devote time to? Does it help or hurt their school work?
Friday, May 30, 2014
New York City has long built gifted education into the structure of its schools. A few entrance-by-exam schools (Hunter, Stuyvesant) have long offered gifted kids the chance at an education that challenges them to the extent of their abilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers. The system is far from perfect, but at least gifted education exists in a way that hasn't been easy to get rid of. Since I left New York City three years ago, I've been paying somewhat less attention to the schools. But it turns out the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has an interesting track record and thoughts on gifted education. Namely, "As principal of P.S. 6, Fariña famously eliminated the school's gifted and talented program," a recent article in Capital New York noted, "initially alarming parents who wanted their children in high-level classes but who were, according to a parent at the time, eventually reassured by Fariña." Why did she do that? According to the article, "Fariña has not spoken in detail about her philosophy on gifted and talented, but on Monday alluded to the issue of inequality within schools that caused her to toss out the gifted program at P.S. 6 in the first place. 'How do you tell a child that he is gifted but his brother or sister isn't?' she asked." Since people tell one child that he/she qualifies for special education services, while another child in the same family does not fairly frequently, if gifted education were viewed as what it is -- an intervention for children who need it -- this would seem fairly straightforward. But many educators do not view gifted education this way, Fariña included, it seems. The meeting discussed in this article was held in Manhattan District 2. This is widely perceived as a "good" district with "good" schools. It's in a relatively wealthy part of the city that includes the Upper East Side and midtown. When "a suit-clad father of a district 2 student complained to Fariña that his daughter didn't test into a gifted and talented program, Fariña was not overly sympathetic. 'If you're in district 2, the feeling is that every school is one that's gifted and talented,' she said." Note this quick mental jump. Programs for gifted kids are basically just "good" schools -- so if a school is "good" gifted kids don't need anything else. I'm not surprised to hear this, in the sense that many people hold this belief. Gifted education programs are just sops for well-to-do, reasonably smart kids in lousy systems. Once you've solved the lousy system part, then gifted kids in this "good" district don't need anything because their schools are "good." Isn't that just what parents wanted? Unfortunately, a number of gifted programs set themselves up for this sort of criticism by employing various questionable strategies: forcing parents to request testing (meaning only the connected or in-the-know parents do so), putting the cut-off low enough that it includes kids whose needs probably could be met decently in the regular classroom, or being about fun stuff (trips to science museums!) that all kids can do. I tend to think that even "good" schools need gifted programs because it's not just about discipline and challenging grade-level work. It's about challenging kids whose brains are far enough ahead of their peers that even the best teacher will have trouble meeting their needs in class. It's about putting kids with others who will show that they are not the brightest kids in the room. Since NYC is so big, even 1 in 1000 kids can have 1000 kids like them. It's been a bright spot in the system that the city has tried to recognize this and put these kids together as much as possible. So it's unfortunate that the people in charge have a different conception of what gifted education is about.