Friday, November 11, 2005

The Forgotten Middle

Does making the case for challenging all students require making enemies of gifted ones?

That seems to be the opinion of Mary Catherine Swanson, creator of the Advancement Via Individual Determination system, which helps underachieving students prepare for college. She touts excellent results for this challenge-and-support method; 95% of students in her program go to college, vs. about a third for similar students not in the program. Her website is She also has a commentary in the 11/2 issue of Education Week (, requires subscription) called "It's Time to Focus on the Forgotten Middle."

Her calls for school reform are common sense: our economy needs a lot more skilled workers in the future. Our schools, though, do not adequately prepare the middle quartiles of students for college. To do that, schools need to invest in individual instruction and challenge all students to the extent of their abilities. Here, here!

But then we get this salvo:

"Today, our school policies focus on the top and bottom quartiles to the exclusion of the huge middle. Federal programs are aimed at either gifted and talented students or special-needs and at-risk kids. The two ends of the spectrum understandably have demanding and costly needs, but they have gotten most of the attention and money."

Say what? The 2002 federal education budget allotted only $11 million for gifted programs, and these funds are almost entirely for research and demonstration projects, not classroom instruction. Programs for gifted students are either funded at the state or local level. But they're not exactly getting "most of the attention and money." America spends 143 times more on special education than gifted education. The fifty states, Washington D.C. and the federal government spent roughly $50 billion on special education in 1999-2000.

But for a progressive educator, saying the hard truth -- that special education eats up the funds that might otherwise have been available to provide individual support and challenge to children in the middle quartiles -- is very difficult. So reform efforts rope in gifted education as an equal offender -- as though the tiny fraction of a penny of the educational dollar spent on high achievers is as powerful as the 21 cents on the dollar spent for special ed.

Swanson is right that both ends of the spectrum have demanding needs. She's wrong in thinking this country does much about the top.


Davina said...

Laura, Thank you for pointing out the error in Mary Catherine Swanson's Education Week commentary. I’m surprised that the author’s fact about how Federal programs are aimed at gifted students slipped by the Education Week editors. I hope they and Ms. Swanson have an opportunity to read your blog!

One more thing, your blogs are TERRIFIC! I look look forward to them every week.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Oh, I'm blushing. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that most educational programs, most curricula, and most teachers aim their best efforts toward the middle, which is why parents with children at the top and bottom have to make so much effort to make sure their children are appropriately educated! We may be loudest, but that doesn't mean our kids get the most attention or resources. Schools still "teach to the middle".

Anonymous said...

I'm a kindergarten teacher with a very bright 5 year old in my class who is reading at the 6th grade level. I ask my supervisor if we could move her up a couple of grades so she wouldn't be so bored in my class. She said, no.... the child will be on the same level as the others in no time. Ouch!

wichitarick said...

this is my first post here .
thanks for the insight I have a very gifted 7yr. old d.d. and I feel very under educated in a lot areas .
the comment from a teacher on the 5 yr old is a big? .I do not understand how there is a "gifted program" in place but this child is not automaticallly sent there????
this very thing is the reason my d.d. is in gifted classes , she went into kindergarten reading ?? 4th 5th 6th?? with a huge vocabulary and her teacher had nothing for her to do.
bless her when the other kids were reading a. b. c. books she gave her a blank book and she wrote a book in kinder garten.
the reason I commented is it took until the second 9wks to get her in gifted and then it was only 1/2 a hr a day and as a result of this I feel now she was cheated out kindergarten
and could be a t higher levels now if this was handled different .
that middle that is rferred to is fact I have met and know to many like this that with a push and guidance would be college grads now.
am searching for a lot imfo. so thanks Rick

jo_jo said...

I think it would be wonderful if we could find a way for all students to get the kind of individual help and attention they need, regardless of their ability. Judicious use of existing technology would make that happen sooner rather than later. But in the current situation, I would back gifted programs as making the best of a system that's not working well for any of the people involved.

Anonymous said...

It's very interesting to me to see the differences in approach to acceleration in our local high school. In most subject, students must "test out" to move up. Testing out is only allowed twice a year, and if you miss a deadline to sign up, too bad. Furthermore, there is just one day for it semiannually. My ds is a slow writer, so he could only manage to test out of two semesters of one subject last August. Contrast that to foreign language - his teacher has suggested he skip to the next level of German for next semester, no testing required!