Monday, February 19, 2007

Curriculum Compacting: Why not start school in January?

Sally Reis has an article in February's School Administrator magazine called No Child Left Bored. Her piece talks about the various options available for gifted kids. It's more or less a laundry list, though it's a good refresher for people stumped about what to try next.

Buried in the section on curriculum compacting, though, I found an interesting tidbit. According to Reis, "In a national study, we found that with only a few hours of training classroom teachers learned to eliminate between 40 and 50 percent of the previously mastered regular curriculum for both high-ability and gifted students. Interestingly, no differences were found between students whose work was compacted and students who did all the work in reading, math computation, social studies and spelling. In fact, in some content areas, scores were actually higher when this elimination of previously mastered content took place."

I searched for the study I believe she is referring to, and found a summary here. As the study title asks, puckishly, "Why not let high ability students start school in January?"

Aside from the obvious answer (parents have to work; where do you stash the kids for an extra 4 months a year?) it's a reasonable question when you look at the results. Reis and her fellow researchers found that after a bit of training, 95% of teachers were able to identify 1-2 high-achieving students in their classes, and most of these teachers were also able to identify what material these students had and hadn't mastered. Quickly trained teachers were also able to brainstorm ways for the students to show mastery. They identified about 40-50% of the regular classroom material that could be eliminated for gifted kids. Even when a full 50% of the classroom work was eliminated, these students did no worse on standardized tests (and out of level tests) given to them later.

In other words, high ability students are probably wasting about half the "teaching time" in their regular classrooms. That doesn't even include the time everyone wastes doing things like waiting for other students to be on task. While this is probably no surprise to any bright kid who's been bored in class, it is interesting to see it documented.

Unfortunately, in the Reis study, while teachers trained for only a few hours were able to successfully compact the curriculum, they were not able to come up with high quality replacement material to fill the time. While reading in the back of the room, going to the library or even just daydreaming may be better than doing mindless worksheets, it hits home that gifted kids are often in school just to mark time. And if that's the case, why not start in January? To truly blossom, gifted kids need teachers trained to meet their special needs. And unfortunately, that's harder to pull off in a few hours of staff development.


SteveH said...

Schools and the education profession steal words and change their meanings.

In our state, there is no money for gifted and talented programs. There are no gifted and talented kids. They are called "beyond grade level". The problem is pushed back to the local level to solve within the limitations and assumptions (tracking by age) of full-inclusion.

With full-inclusion, there is the conflict between enrichment and acceleration (not necessarily skipping a grade). Full-inclusion and standardized testing require lower grade-level expectations, so the definition of grade level has been changed. Our town's paper had an article which said that the schools' high standardized test results showed a high level of rigor. However, all that it showed was a high ability to get most all students over a minimal cutoff level on a very simple standardized test. It said absolutely nothing about academic rigor.

They want to keep all ability kids together in some sort of happy, egalitarian learning environment. They seem to confuse equal ability and equal opportunity. Add to this the low cutoff expectations of standardized tests, and it becomes very difficult to provide for the acceleration needs of the more able kids. This is a problem for kids well below any sort of G/T cutoff.

Schools know that they have to do more than enrichment, especially in core subjects like math. They know that parents use terms like acceleration, so they come up with compacting and call it acceleration. That way, when anyone asks, they can say that they do acceleration.

There is, of course, the question of what the school does when the child gets done in January. My experience in dealing with schools is that they are good at arguing the generalities, but you never get a chance to discuss the details, let alone influence them. "Thank you for your input. Goodbye."

When cornered, they will pull out the zero-sum argument; that if you give more to the advanced students, it has to come from somewhere. This usually leads to a discussion of more money. It can also lead to pitting parents against each other. But the real problem is that our K-8 schools don't like separating students by ability even for math in 8th grade.

The problem is not training and it's not a zero-sum game. It has to do with the full inclusion assumption. They don't like tracking, but full-inclusion is really tracking by age.

Full-inclusion and acceleration are incompatible. All kids are not equal.

This is not just a TAG/GATE issue. Many of the most able students can deal with this situation better than those slightly above average. I could make an argument that everything would be workable if the average grade level expectations (K-8) were higher, but they are going in the opposite direction. States define only minimal standards that soon become maximum targets. Many in our town are quite pleased with our "high rigor" evaluation and see little need for anything other than enrichment.

Parentalcation said...

The only reason gifted education costs anything, is the reluctance of school districts to adopt ability grouping.

My son wastes two hours a week in his pull-out TAG program. I sat in it last week to observe for a 30 minutes, and watched as he and 20 other bright kids colored recurring pattern of shapes. All in the name of enrichment.

The solution is so blindingly simple it drives me crazy. Accelerate the curriculum for high ability kids, and after they have mastered it... move on to the next years curriculum.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that this is one of the positive areas of all the testing going on. Ability grouping is back in elementary school. It is considered test prep, but it is the same thing. We have a very high group of kids (most of our third graders were reading at least 2 and many were 5 grade levels above). The children who were at risk of failing worked on the testing and the others were accelerated.