Small schools… small gains for gifted kids?
Bill Gates, by all accounts, was a very gifted young man. So it’s unclear why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is choosing to fund school projects that eliminate the classes bright children need most.
The Gates Foundation gave $11 million to the New Schools Project to develop 75 small high schools of no more than 400 students. Since this isn’t a capital building grant, these high schools tend to result from dividing existing schools into 3-4 schools.
By design, these split schools don’t have one school of faster learners, one of medium-speed learners, etc. Each school of 400 is supposed to encompass the whole range of learning speeds. Since that means there usually aren’t enough students to create full honors programs, many classes wind up containing all ability levels. You can read about some North Carolina schools’ experiences with this model here.
As the article starts out, “The days of the brightest high school students taking their own classes could be ending in the interest of helping slower students succeed.”
The consequences of mixed-ability grouping for quick learners are clear. As the article notes:
“If you want easy credit from an honors class, it's good,” said Lauren Hopton, 17, a senior at Southeast Raleigh High School. “But if you want a challenge, it’s not.”
Gifted children learn best in classes tailored to their speed of learning. It’s naïve to think even a very skilled teacher won’t slow down the class pace when children who are not capable of learning as quickly are added to the mix. In fact, skilled teachers may be more likely to slow down, as they are most aware of every member of the class’s progress.
Consequently, gifted children wind up with extra time on their hands as they wait for their classmates to catch up. Some enterprising teachers try to accommodate their gifted kids’ extra time by using them as teacher’s assistants.
This is exactly what’s happened in these new small schools. From the article: “Another benefit, Southeast Raleigh High Principal Beulah Wright said, is that the usual honors students are put in leadership positions as they help their classmates learn the harder material. ‘You learn more when you're teaching it yourself,’ Wright said.”
This is just not true. If both students are relatively unfamiliar with the material, the quicker kid may learn a bit more by teaching it to the slower one. But there’s only so many times a gifted kid needs to see the difference between “its” and “it’s” before she knows it. Explaining it three more times to other students won’t help her. It will bore her.
The saddest thing about these mixed-ability classes, though, is that for all the talk of raising the floor, de-tracking doesn’t help slower learners either. A major review of 23 ability grouping studies by James Kulik of the University of Michigan found that grouping students by ability in subject matter classes helps slower learners learn more. In Success for All reading program groupings, for instance, low-achieving fourth graders gained as much as two-thirds of an academic year over control groups in mixed ability classes.
If the Gates Foundation wants to fund small schools, how about funding schools that are grouped by ability? That will help slower and quicker learners a lot more.