Every Child a Cheetah? (the "Full Fabric" Myth)
The most recent issue of The School Administrator is chock full of articles on gifted education. I will be out of the country next week, but we'll look at one of the articles today, and more when I come back.
Weaving the Gifted into the Full Fabric, one of the magazine's essays, is quite a piece of work. The author, Eric Smith, has been the superintendent of four school systems, and is currently the senior VP for college readiness programs at the College Board. He makes several of the "right" statements about gifted education -- i.e., that we don't challenge our brightest kids enough, that identifying giftedness in third grade is too late -- but fundamentally, this essay uses those caveats to then argue that any notion of separate education for gifted children is fundamentally flawed. Instead of viewing children as cheetahs, beavers and turtles (as, no doubt, some well-meaning teacher in one of Smith's school systems called various reading or math groups), he says we should view all children as cheetahs. We should have high expectations for all, inviting all children to partake of the same advanced curriculum that would be limited to gifted kids, and support those who need help. He cites a few examples from his own tenure that certainly are impressive (lower income children exposed to an accelerated preschool program in Charlotte maintained their academic gains several years later; the number of Anne Arundel, MD students taking AP classes soared).
One has to be an optimist to run a large school system. But as many a parent has pointed out on this forum, in the real world, almost all classes are taught to the lowest common denominator. When students who are not prepared for college level work take AP classes, the AP classes must be taught to keep these "turtles" on board. That means the cheetahs must learn more on their own. They wind up spending time tutoring the other kids, waiting for questions to be answered, etc. The whole pace is slower. In the course of researching Genius Denied I looked at one school that made a point of offering an accelerated curriculum to all students. I have no problem with that. I encourage it! People do perform better when there are high expectations. But when I interviewed the mother of a highly gifted girl in that accelerated program, the mother sighed and said it was unfortunate, but her daughter just wasn't being challenged. It was a great school, the teachers and administrators meant well and were achieving great results among the students. But that does not change the reality that some students are simply more intelligent than others.
The beauty of a separate education program for highly gifted kids is that it fails better. We do not have schools where everyone is as energetic and interested in problem solving as Smith. Teachers mean well, but it is hard to teach to anything but the lowest common denominator. Only the best teachers can do it and, alas, just as some kids are more intelligent than others, some teachers are better than others, too. When highly gifted kids are in separate classes, the lowest common denominator is at least closer to where they are. High expectations for all, and gifted education, are not mutually exclusive concepts. Smith does a disservice to school administrators who value his opinions by implying that they are.