Monday, February 04, 2008

"We're neglecting our brightest low-income kids virtually as a matter of policy..."

I've finally been going through the pile of old BusinessWeek magazines at my house, and came across a Second Careers pull-out section from the Dec. 17 issue. The lead article, "Mr. P Learns His Lesson" was about a former BusinessWeek communications director, Robert Pondiscio, who had become an NYC Teaching Fellow. Basically an alternative certification program for mid-career types, the NYC Teaching Fellowship program aims to put these folks in jobs in hard-t0-fill schools. Pondiscio wound up teaching fifth graders in a South Bronx elementary school. In general, "parents loved me," he says. He was strict, gave a lot of homework, and enforced standards.

The article is mostly about how Pondiscio still managed to get burned out after five years of teaching, and wound up transitioning back to communications and non-profit work. But I thought that his observations about working in an urban school in the era of No Child Left Behind were most prescient. I quote:

"I was especially frustrated for my highest-achieving students. I have nothing but admiration for high-minded education reformers, teachers, and administrators who want to make sure every child goes to a great school. But one of the unintended consequences of the accountability movement in schools is that virtually all of a teacher's time and attention goes to the lowest-performing students. We lie to ourselves that we're educating high-performing kids because they test at or above grade level on dumbed-down state tests. In reality we're neglecting our brightest low-income kids virtually as a matter of policy, all but guaranteeing their future struggles in college and the workplace."

Eventually, Pondiscio decided he should start a non-profit that would focus on high-achieving low-income children -- on challenging them, and finding opportunities for them. And actually, New York City is embarking on a new era of gifted education -- in which all children will be screened, and all children who score in the 95th percentile will be offered a spot in the city's gifted programs. Up until now, admission to the various gifted programs has been a complicated patchwork of systems which, not surprisingly, better-off and better-connected parents were better able to navigate (we'll do another longer post on this topic later).

But I think that Pondiscio is on to something. There is a lot to like about the accountability movement. For too many years, too many educators have assumed that as long as there was a teacher in a classroom, and textbooks, and adequate funding, schools were doing their job. This is how a lot of jobs have worked in the past -- show up, you get a paycheck. No one demands a connection to the business bottom line. Now, we as a society are asking about outcomes. Are kids actually learning to read? Are they gaining the math skills necessary to get anywhere in life?

Yet...Savvy parents can deal with schools that focus on lower-performing students to the exclusion of their brightest pupils. They can notice that their children aren't being challenged, demand accommodations, or enroll their children in extra-curricular activities, make sure the kids get to the library a lot, read a lot, or else even pull their children out and put them in private schools. Children whose parents are not so savvy are simply stuck with the schools and teachers they get. T

his is a shame and needs to be addressed -- not by dumping the accountability movement's new standards, which would be a disaster -- but by judging schools and teachers based on individual students' progress. Give a high-scoring third grader a fifth grade achievement test. If she scores at the 79th percentile in the fall, and the 79th percentile in the spring, there should be consequences. What gets measured and rewarded gets attention. It's just that sometimes, we're measuring the wrong things.


Anonymous said...

A-M-E-N! If anyone really cared about our country's future instead of just about votes, gifted kids would be disaggregated from other categories also, they (as well as all other kids) would be measured on a growth model. The schools should be responsible if ANY child does not gain a year of knowledge... regardless of their starting point.

Of course, such a position doesn't get votes because, by definition, gifted children/families only constitute 5% of the vote at best. It will never happen.

mathmom said...

Ideally, gifted kids would be expected to gain even more than a year's worth of progress, since they are capable of learning more quickly! Now, as you point out, they are not expected to gain anything if they meet state standards coming in, which so many do.

I have blogged about this issue myself, recently. Frustrated by a lack of challenge, fully 20% of all dropouts test in the gifted range. We are failing these kids! I think it represents a huge problem for the future of this nation.

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura:

Funny you should reference my BW article today. I was just lurking on your blog over the weekend after reading your USA Today piece. Small (virtual) world.

I don't consider myself qualified to determine who is or is not gifted. but I do know there are boxcar numbers of kids in schools like the one where I taught, where students who are merely competent could rise to much higher levels of achievement given a rigorous, challenging curriculum and a productive learning environment.

These are the students I call the "not your problem" kids. I once made the mistake of asking an AP in my school about the bright kids in my class who were quietly doing "grade level" work, but were capable of much more. I was lamenting never having time to work with and challenge these students and the AP scoffed that "those kids are not your problem" and that I should be giving all my attention to my lowest achieving kids. Perhaps this will change under the "growth model" attached to the City's report cards, but it was clear that those kids were considered finished goods.

Obviously, they're not. But alas, we seem to have made up our minds that No Child Left Behind means No Child Gets Ahead.

Robert Pondiscio

Anonymous said...

I just want to point out that 20% of dropouts are not gifted. The study that found such numbers was based on research done in the 1950s on students from Iowa. In actuality, a rather small number of students who dropout are "gifted." That being said, a larger number would be found if we looked at the number of gifted who drop out. Anyone interested might take a look at Michael Matthew's article (I believe it's in GCQ) about one state's dropout rate for gifted kids. Overall this is a very under-researched area.