Friday, August 17, 2007

Failing Our Geniuses

Time magazine covers the Davidson Academy, and the issue of gifted education, in depth this week. You can read the article here.

Reporter John Cloud spent a week at the Academy meeting the kids (and apparently gawking at Bob's Ferrari, but anyway...) He reached many apt conclusions. Namely, that our schools are just not set up to handle highly gifted children. It's not because they don't know what to do. Acceleration, dual-enrollment, and other such accommodations are well-studied and known to be effective. It's just that we don't like doing them. Such accommodations hint at the idea that some children are -- and will always be -- smarter than others. And in the egalitarian world of education, that is simply not acceptable.

"At the academy, the battered concept of IQ--complicated in recent years by the idea of multiple intelligences, including artistic and emotional acuity--is accepted there without the encumbrances of politics," he writes. "The school is a rejection of the thoroughly American notion that if most just try hard enough, we could all be talented. Many school administrators oppose ability grouping on the theory that it can perpetuate social inequalities, but at the Davidson Academy, even the 45 élite students are grouped by ability into easier and harder English, math and science classes. The school poses blunt questions about American education: Has the drive to ensure equity over excellence gone too far? If so, is the answer to segregate the brightest kids?"

That's certainly one answer -- to congregate such students in a place like the Davidson Academy -- since schools have been so unwilling to do simple things like acceleration. Of course, as Cloud points out, it's a harsh choice for these students to have to move to Reno in order to find kindred spirits. It would be nicer if their home schools could figure out a way to challenge them. But instead, gifted programs wind up being about enrichment. Kids get 90 minutes a week of pull-out on topics such as bugs, or ancient Egypt, or forensics, or what have you, and these programs wind up being open to kids who may not be gifted, but who work hard and get good grades. Why not? Enrichment seems like a reward, not an intervention for kids who desperately need it. So why not reward kids with gumption and determination, regardless of IQ? We cling to egalitarianism and the hard work concept in intelligence even as we recognize that it's only part of the equation elsewhere. I run many hours and miles a week. If I ran more, and had a professional coach, I'd probably be able to run faster. But I would never run as fast as Paula Radcliffe. I simply don't have the physical ability.

Likewise, a child with an IQ of 155 is simply wired differently than a child of average intelligence. We can quibble over how meaningful individual IQ points are, and how high the scale can go, and whether our tests can actually test such a concept accurately, but no one who's been around children of average and extreme intelligence can deny a difference. Cloud talks about listening to the Davidson Academy children speak and realizing how different they sound than others their age (even as he notes that modesty is not a virtue of some).

He uses the standard line that these children will be the ones most likely to solve great problems in the future. Perhaps. That's a difficult argument to make, because plenty of gifted kids turn out to be very normal adults who don't move the world. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given an education that meets their needs. That's a right we deserve simply for being human. I'm glad to see Time magazine feels the same way.


Anonymous said...

The Time article says, "Einstein was encouraged to leave the school, and he did so at 15. He didn't need a coddling academy to do O.K. later on."
Einstein was working at a patent office and his work was largely ignored for awhile.
I wonder what he could have done had he gotten started at 15 and didn't have to file papers for a living. Many geniuses in history have been "coddled" by universities, tutors, kings, and so on. Their lives are taken care of, so they can focus on what they do best.

robin said...

Hi Laura,
Is education a right? I'm not sure that's such a useful postion.

But I do agree that human decency suggests that we make reasonable efforts to educate all our kids in ways that can be expected to be useful to them. Particularly since our families education tax dollars are not optional, and school is compulsory, and we do all have to live together for the rest of our lives.

I really like how plainly that article takes as it's starting point that we know how to educate the "tenth of a percenters" - although, here in the real world, I estimate that "open placement" would solve 3/4s of the problems of 3/4 of the students. So yes, I think it would be terrific, but no, it wouldn't solve all our problems. Plenty of kids I know are thinking at a high school level, but unable to hold a pencil for more than 5 minutes to do the homework. Still that's not a reason to not move forward and solve the problems we actually have solutions to.

My proposal - that we support "open placement" where parents have the final say about what level classroom a child sits in for the various subjects. (One could use the Iowa Acceleration Scale to prevent abuse.) We would need school to run in such a way that at least some of the classrooms are doing each subject at the same time, so that there is always a way for each child to move up within the building.

The second key thing we need is "partial homeschooling" in every district! Many tenth of a precenter don't have the physical stamina to do a full day of 2nd grade when they are four, but would benifit greatly from a half day. Basically we need more flexibility from the schools we have, to meet the very unique needs of our kids.

I sure wish the article could have presented more information about ways to help the whole range of gifted kids. By focusing on the "extreame end" of the gifted tail, it creates the false impression that one doesn't have to do anything about the "1%ers" who are also suffering in their agemate classrooms. Unfortunatly, many of the "tenth of a percenters" look like regular goofy kids to their families, and won't get noticed at all unless there are also programs in place for the range of gifted, or they develop loud behavior problems. And waiting for a kid to develop classroom behavior problems as a way to trigger the identification process, when we know so much better than that by now, is truly indecent.

Elizabeth said...

I read the Times article this weekend, and it got me thinking about my school experiences. I was reading when I was 2, and read Little Women for the first time when I was 6. I was in the Montessori program for kindergarten, but then went to a normal school for first grade. The first day of school, I went home and asked my parents when I was going to a real school.

In second grade I got a stomach ache every single day and went to the nurse.

I had no friends in middle school, and most of my high school friends were morons. I breezed through classes doing no work, and then got to college...nearly flunked out my first year, because suddenly I had to study, for the first time since kindergarten.

Should my parents have pushed the school to accelerate me? I don't know - because I was doing cube roots before first grade. Would it have been appropriate to skip grades 1 and 2 entirely?

Now my 2 year old in showing signs of being extremely smart. He's not too interested in books, but he has amazing long-term memory, and speaks incredibly well for his age. He is able to follow a long series of instructions (when he feels like it!), or figure out what he needs to do from brief instructions (i.e. this evening, I asked him empty some buckets and fill them back up. He dumped them out, went and turned on the hose, filled up a bucket and said "Here you go, Mama!" all on his own. It really took me by surprise.

He also has a long attention span when he's interested in something, and is always a lot more interested in playing with older children than with his peers (with one or two exceptions, of course).

Is he ready for preschool? I don't know. I want to challenge him without burning him out. I want him to be interested in school, which I never was. Would it be fair to him to start in a preschool that will teach to his potential, then send him to a "normal" school when he gets older?

robin said...

Hi Elizabeth -
Welcome to the wonderful world of discovering your own gifted history because you are trying to parent a gifted child.

Would you like some advice?
1) read some books -
Dr. Deb Ruf's Losing Our Minds
Karen Roger's Re-forming Gifted Education
2) Find some "online friends" you can compare notes with and ask questions of
I like lists many more.
3) Start reading about gifted kids and their educational paths - try for starters.
4) Take notes, particularly the ages for the developmental milestones outlined in Ruf's book.

It certianly is true that some gifted kids who are at or near the "tenth of a percent" mark to get burned out by long hours in preschool - although multiage programs can be better. Short hours that are devoted to play are usually better than academic programs that are aimed below his "readiness level."

Best Wishes,

Anonymous said...

There are a whole set of issues surrounding this subject, some below:

1. Bell curve "tails" are minorities.
Human cultures don't do well with minorities...hell, *primate species* don't do well with minorities.

2. It would probably help the public schools to have at least some teachers as bright as these special students. My experience; you can't teach someone you don't understand.

3. These kids can be very alone if they are disliked by parents at home as well as by teachers at school, which is sometimes the case.

4. Public school segregation may be one answer, regardless of anti-elitist blather.
How about one "academy" in each large city that isn't run directly by the school district? Let it be a K-12 school with high requirements for the teachers and administrators as well as for the students. If this irritates the locals, at least the students are protected from having to face hostility in the classroom everyday and from being beaten up on the playground at lunchtime.


robin said...

Hi Laura,
I'm trying to find out more about the Reform of teacher curriculum in the Higher Education Bill.
Here's a press release from Senator Grassley's website. I'm wondering if this provision will stay intact as the bill goes through the House.

For Immediate Release
July 24th, 2007


WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley today said that provisions he has pushed for were included in the Higher Education Authorization Bill that passed the Senate today. Grassley has twice introduced legislation that would have made similar changes to the current law that the bill passed today included.

The bill includes Grassley provisions that would require teacher preparation programs receiving grants through the bill to improve the knowledge of new teachers about the unique needs of gifted and talented students.

“Gifted and talented children actually have a different way of looking at the world. They tend to have distinct approaches to learning and interacting socially, and they frequently learn at a different pace, and to different depths, than others their age,” Grassley said. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of teacher preparation programs do not require prospective classroom teachers to have coursework in gifted education. If teachers aren't exposed to information about the needs of gifted students in their pre-service training, they may never acquire the necessary knowledge."

Current law provides funds to partnerships among teacher preparation institutions, schools of arts and sciences and high-need school districts to strengthen new teacher education and allows these partnerships to use funds for preparing teachers to work with diverse populations. The Grassley provisions included in the Higher Education Authorization bill require that any teacher preparation institution receiving a grant reform its curriculum to ensure that prospective teachers develop the skills to identify and meet the specific learning needs of gifted and talented students, as well as other special populations of students.

Grassley has been the leading advocate for talented and gifted children in the U.S. Congress and has worked to ensure that they have access to the education needed to reach their full potential. Grassley advanced legislation that would expand the availability of gifted education services and he was successful in expanding the benefits available for gifted students through the No Child Left Behind Act.