Friday, December 09, 2005

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.

9 comments:

MrsPeel said...

No kidding- gifted kids learn faster and need new material on a rapid basis. My nine year old high schooler was learning to type at the beginning of the school year, yet yesterday her English teacher suggested she get honors credit for her class (which she completed in one quarter). There's no way this could happen if she were stuck in fourth grade giving spelling tests. What a cruel idea.

Susan G., xMicrosoft employee said...

When Bill Gates ran a company, he recognized that individuls have different abilities and skills. He didn't group them all together and provide them with the same level of work. It is too bad he lost his good judgement when he decided to get into the business of creating and operating schools.

Susan D. said...

I think I'll send Bill and Melinda Gates a copy of Genius Denied . Surely that will inspire them to rethink their strategy for improving the academic achievement of all students!

joe b. said...

This is not a new problem. I grew up in a rural community in NY where the high school poulation is 600 for grades 7-12. They normally offered 1 (maybe 2) AP courses for seniors each year. Unfortuantely for me, they had *none* when I was a senior, due to low demand. The next year when I went to an engineering college, I was at the bottom of the pack because everyone else I ran into had taken at least a half dozen AP courses. I even had a suite-mate there that was taking Junior level courses as a Freshman because of all the AP courses he was able to take in high school!

Anonymous said...

Your narrow-mindedness about what constitutes giftedness and the best way to educate the gifted is why you're you and Bill Gates is Bill Gates. Adjust your paradigm away from the high schools of the past and embrace true reform. Small high schools allow for a much more child-centered experience. Small schools are better able to use the community at large, nearby universities, businesses, etc. as mentors and instructors and get kids out into the world where the real expertise is. It's true that in most garden-variety small high schools, the typical slate of honors classes is less likely to look the same as that of a traditional, large institution, but perhaps that is the whole idea! I find it hard to believe that Bill and Melinda Gates would even tolerate boredom let alone promote it! How many geniuses need to drop out of our industrial age high schools, even those with excellent AP programs, before we realize that we may need to change the way we deliver instruction or the way education should happen? I teach in a small high school that has devoted significant resources to maintaining fast-paced, demanding classes for the gifted lesson-learners who run faster and jump higher, but we know our students well and have begun aggressively finding or creating alternatives for those whose gifts are not easily measured by grades or tests. I am passionately devoted to developing the potential in ALL our students, recognizing that some future Bill Gates may not be recognizable at this moment. Academic superstars are nurtured, but we don't view ability grouping or segregated classes as the only way to accomodate gifts and talents. The disenfranchised high school student may be a talented entrepreneur. The underachiever may blossom in a museum apprenticeship program. Dewey understood nearly 100 years ago that education should be experiential and when passion meets opportunity, greatness can occur. Perhaps now that we no longer need to crank out a majority labor force to work the assembly lines, we can turn our attention to talent development and the creativity that will sustain our nation. Such personalized instruction doesn't happen in schools of 2000, even if Honors Chemistry does.

jason smith said...

Ironically if you get an interview with microsoft one of the first things they do is give you an IQ test. Supposedly they will not hire anyone for a software or other product engineering/development job with an IQ below 2SD over the median.

However given how well Microsoft products work perhaps this new school program is Mr Gates way of reexamining his beliefs on the importance of IQ in achievement.

Anonymous said...

You are exactly correct in your predictions of what will happen to the top students at these "small schools". Here in Medford, Oregon, a few of us parents are fighting against this right now. Unfortunately, it seems to be a losing battle. The response we get from TPTB is that we are elitist parents, unconcerned with the trouble most kids have learning in high school. The reality is that we are parents that have instilled in our children a love of learning and a desire to to excel. If the Medford high schools are successful in implementing this, a majority of students WILL benefit, but at the terrible expense of the top students at these schools. What these small schools will do is bring both the bottom 10% and top 10% of students closer to the middle. Great for the struggling student, a disaster for the students that are currently the high achievers and leaders.

LorraineBouchard said...

Small schools *can* serve the needs of gifted learners when there is an emphasis on seeing that the teachers provide individual attention and community mentorships that develop each student's gifts. While large schools can more easily attain a critical mass of students who are all capable of gifted and AP classes, there are proven ways to differentiate in mixed-ability classes that *do not* require that the gifted learners become unpaid teachers of the less capable learners. However, the differentiation is too time-consuming for teachers in large schools with student loads of over 100 pupils to be able to pull off.

Now, imagine an intentionally- small school for gifted learners, one that will provide individual attention while enabling the types of connections between gifted learners that these students crave and require. I am very excited about this very school,Rainard School and its new high school program that is being launched in August 2006 in Houston, Texas. We are aiming to create the best combination of small school, gifted program, and "essential schools"-type values.

k-man said...

Sorry for the very, very late post (July 2007), but I'm new here.

The Gates Foundation—it isn't clear about Bill himself—has an agenda, and that agenda isn't pretty. The foundation funds college scholarships for the underprivileged, but these are for minorities only; no whites need apply, even though plenty of underprivileged whites exist.

The story here about funding smaller high schools, combined with the above observation, strongly suggests that the foundation has a far-left tilt, much as happened with the Ford Foundation after its formation.

We've seen the work of leftists in education before in the form of such works as Schooling in Capitalist America (Bowles and Gintis), a book used in education colleges starting 30 years ago. That book called programs for gifted students unnecessary and leftist, claiming that studies showed little difference in long-term outcome between gifted and regular students. It went through over 20 printings over the years until the late 1990s, indicating that it was widely used in university education departments to indoctrinate teachers—many of whom are still teaching and still have a disdain for the gifted.

Many of the arguments used in Schooling in Capitalist America have been rehashed in recent years, so its influence perniciously continues among many educators. In this context, don't forget the widely heard statistic that education majors tend to have the lowest grades and academic achievement levels among university students, and it certainly appears as if many of these future teachers are unable to question statements against gifted education. In short, many educators are all too easily (mis)led.

And now the Gates Foundation is funding changes in schools that would handicap higher achievers by making the results egalitarian, like it or not. Sounds as if that old book continues its influence. If that isn't a factor, then fellow travelers are certainly at work.