Friday, February 02, 2007

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.


Jason Jones said...

The author writes like he is very proud of himself.

Why does he state that 3rd grade is too late to address giftedness then state that separate gifted education is a negative?

Because he is with the No Child Left Behind mentality. His job is to educate the masses - not cater to a separate subset of students that have no effect on his area's test results.

Should we also lump the special ed. population into the regular classroom? By his arguement: yes.

I live in NC (near Charlotte) and our recent state superintendent stated that if your child is gifted the NC public school system can not accomodate them. He recommended removing gifted children to some place that could help them.

Why doesn't the author give examples of success with public gifted education in his area? Because he doesn't have any.

From his perspective there is no benefit from gifted education.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone in most of these discussions, both on this forum and others, has avoided the elephant in the room.

That elephant isn't whether or not highly gifted kids deserve separate accomodations.

The elephant is the quality of teaching. Who are the majority of teachers across the country? They aren't gifted. No, most of the gifted go to other careers. Teachers should be required to show their college credentials and test regularly. Some do test on rare occasions and complain on and on about it.

Why should a teacher teach in a subject not of his or her specialty? It does a grave disservice to all children. Why should teachers not be required to take and pass all courses with an A average? Why should teachers not be required in virtually all of the states to even take courses addressing the unique needs of the highly and profoundly gifted? Why is the teacher's union so strong that it is nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers?

I would love to have all the children learn together. I chose to pull my PG child out of school at a very young age and homeschool, not because the teachers were teaching to the "lowest common denominator" but rather because the teachers, as a majority, are at best average and are governed more by politics and less by a love of learning and discovery.

In those school systems where there are indeed impassioned teachers, there is success, not just of the gifted, but of all children. I too believe that all children can be cheetahs, all in their own way, if we simply empower them. IQ is but one element of a person's identity. To dismiss other children is to draw ire from even some subgroups of the gifted.

Corect the *real problem* - the teachers and their union. The children, as a whole, all want to learn to the best of their abilities. Let them.

JPGoldberg said...

"High expectations for all" is the key phrase here. Nobody would disagree with such a nice sounding sentiment. But when it means "the same expectations for all" those expectations will be grossly inappropriate for the gifted. "The same expectations for all" means low expectations for the gifted.

Once we understand that "High Expectations for All" and "The Same Expectations for All" can't work together in practice, we can start talking about "appropriately high expectations for all".

What surprises me about this discussion is that the same people who suggest the same expectations for all would be horrified if it were applied to children whose IQs are more than 30 points (two standard deviations) below the norm. Nobody disputes that we should hold those children to appropriate expectations given their abilities. Why should it be any different for children who are two standard deviations above the norm?

Plain Jane said...

I agree with the quote from "Anonymous" about the Elephant in the room. Everyone knows that superior teachers get superior results, but our entire system is set up to encourage and support mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

Re Anonymous's comment on the elephant in the room --

(Funny, we have the same name! I should sign as Anonymous 2.)

One excellent teacher can be enough to change the course of a child's educational path.

Here in Georgia, and in another state, the two (kind, effective, compassionate, smart, stellar) teachers who advocated for our two older children, and succeeded in changing their local school's policies to accommodate each of our older children, were clearly very highly gifted themselves. One is a science teacher; the other is a math teacher; both happen to have always worked as educators. We also have received wonderful support from a smart, classically trained librarian.

There are some amazing teachers out there. I would agree with you that the best teachers for gifted students are those who are gifted themselves -- these teachers really understand, and are often more effective than administrators, since the teachers can have considerable control over their own classrooms, and, as well, can advocate most effectively as credible voices within the existing system.

The problem is that one generally doesn't know the individual teachers before enrolling a child in a particular school.

Still, until there are larger policy changes, I think the best way to advocate for a child in a particular system is to work directly with the child's teachers. The from-the-ground-up process seems to work much better than the top-down process, for creating change -- at least in our experience.

This was the same sort of experience my DH and I have both had. We grew up in very different locations but had similar experiences. Our schools were not particularly helpful, but there were individual adult mentors, librarians, and teachers along the way who taught and encouraged. We each learned far more from these unofficial teachers than from most actual teachers.

I wish you the best of luck!