Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What Percent Gifted?

USA Today has a a feature piece on its website about Dana Kelly, one of the paper's 2005 All-USA Teacher Team members.

Kelly teaches gifted education in what sounds like a very fun program at Southwest Elementary in Lakeland, Florida. This post is not about that program's merits, though.

What stuck out for me in the piece is that 8% of the school's population participates in the gifted program. This is twice the level at other schools, Kelly explains, but she also chooses high-achievers who don't meet the "gifted" qualifications the district sets out.

It's a noble thought. There's just one catch. When the percentage of students participating in a school or district's gifted program starts creeping up, and the program consists of lots of fun extra-curriculars in addition to (or, alas, often in place of) advanced academic work, it starts becoming a prize.

Then, you have to justify keeping that prize from other kids. Why not the top 10%? Why not the top 20%? At some well-to-do districts, I've seen percentages as high as 25% in the gifted programs -- which at that level becomes more of a way of mollifying parents than meeting kids' needs.

But it's not like 4%, as this district chose, is inherently good, either. The old 130 IQ standard set the level at roughly 1% of the population. Children with IQs north of 130 are often too intellectually advanced to fit in around the margins of a grade level class (something children only one standard deviation above the norm can do with a good teacher). Of course, a child with a 130 IQ, and a child with a 160 IQ have very different needs.

So what is the right level for the gifted program? I can't necessarily answer that (though I usually do say top 1-2%). I can point out other ways of dealing with the problem.

One is to make sure the gifted program is no more "fun" than the classes other kids experience. Gifted kids need advanced academic work in all fields, not the pull-outs that have them learning about the pyramids and pretending to be Sherlock Holmes and what have you. There is no reason other kids can't do the activities in most pull-outs.

Second, schools can't start treating gifted education as a prize doled out to high achievers. Getting an A on a test is great-- but if you had to work hard to get that A, you might be in the right class already. Gifted kids get A's without trying in grade level classes. Or they get lousy grades because they're so bored they won't dignify the work by doing it. Schools need to treat gifted education as an intervention for students who need it. High achievement alone doesn't indicate that.

To ward off the prize mentality, schools could even call the program something other than gifted education. Maybe the "double homework" class ... :)


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that the whole idea that gifted children need special "enrichment" is silly.

All children deserve access to field trips and other enrichment activities, and most healthy children will find ways to enrich themselves, one way or another. (Example: the many teenagers who startle their parents by creating goth or hip hop self-study modules.)

But all children, including gifted children, should have access to individualized workbooks, Web programs, etc. that will teach them spoken languages, mathematical languages, symbolic languages, musical languages and artistic languages as quickly as they want to learn those languages.

Forcing children to go beyond a high basic level in a subject that they really hate is mean, but giving children who want to learn a language or language-like subject a chance to learn as quickly as possible is important. Not because that training will turn them into geniuses but because it will put more tools in their intellectual toolbox before they are old enough to have to worry about paying the rent.

In Europe, for example, most normal kids grow up knowing their mother tongue well, English well and a third language reasonably well. Bright kids there might know 5 languages. That doesn't make them geniuses, but it does give them extra choices about how to live their lives.

katerina said...

Maybe the double homework class

God forbid. Gifted kids need and deserve to be taught in a way that acknowledges their qualitatively different way of learning rather than assuming they are just high achievers who can do double the regular work.

While your points about not making gifted classes into some sort of prize are valid, your joke about the double homework class just feeds into a notion that gifted kids don't need different work, they just need more. In my school district I know many parents whose children have been GATE identified who keep their kids out of the program precisely because it is so homework-heavy and high-pressure.

I think high-achieving kids these days are in danger of being burned out before they ever reach college. I think gifted kids are in even more danger of this if they are in programs that think they should do more, more, more of what they already have too much of in the regular classroom -- either out of a misguided notion that this is what gifted kids need or out of a less benign desire to ensure that the gifted kids test scores reflect well on their school.

Giftedness is not necessarily about doing more, it is about doing differently. Homework (which now begins in kindergarten) used to be considered a means to an end; time spent studying at home was expected to consolidate learning and allow time for projects to be completed. Now homework is seen as an end in itself. A nightly ritual that trains children into an ethic where all life is subsumed into work and all play is left behind.

So please, even in jest, let's not suggest a cure to the gifted program problem that is worse than the disease.

Anonymous said...

There is a myth in the education world these days that more homework means a better school -- "Look, see, we're a great school; we give our 1st graders 2 hours of homework!" To me, that means they aren't doing their job when they have the kids.

Gifted kids are more apt to shut down if inundated by unnecessary homework.

We're fortunate. My son is currently attending part time a math and science center (just for those subjects), with material that is a couple years ahead of "grade level", and the teachers don't seem to think they need to give an hour each subject. In fact, my son generally has little homework. These kids will do as well as the national norm on the AP tests they will take at the end of the year (especially if compared to grade-mates), yet have less work.

I know someone else, in another state, who has a daughter in a math/science magnet school. They pile on the homework, the poor kid has to run on way too little sleep, and the school doesn't see a problem with this.

Educators need to understand just what gifted really is.

Anonymous said...

Double homework? No, I have to disagree. Harder homework. Yes. Challenging work.. This I think gets gifted children excited about school again. The key is to stop the boredom. Often times gifted children will drop out of school.. if not guided and challenged. said...

have just fallen into this discussion! we're in the uk, where "gifted education" is only just starting up. our son (what you call twice-exceptional, i believe), went right through school with little recognition of & no support for his abilities/disabilities. i must agree that the most important thing is to AVOID BOREDOM. this was what really turned him off school (right from the age of 5)& led to all kinds of other problems. he under-achieved all through & is only now (at age 19)starting to rediscover the person he was before he went into the "education" system. we must recognise that gifted children (with or without specific learning difficulties)learn differently: more of the same is just a killer. let them follow their interests & provide them with gifted teachers they can respect. if they're interested in something, they soak up knowledge like a sponge - don't give them more homework unless they ask for it! hm