I've been reading NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's new tome about research-based approaches to education and parenting.
It's a fascinating book in many respects, aiming to show how little of what we think is obvious is actually backed up by any data. Of course, to do this, Bronson (whose voice carries the book) has to make a bit of a gee-whiz fuss over research that does exist and seems counter-intuitive.
Unfortunately, the chapter on gifted education -- "The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten" -- gets a heady dose of that. Bronson maintains that testing for IQ too young results in many kids being put in gifted education that wouldn't be if tested later, and keeping some late bloomers out. As he puts it, "if a school wanted the top tenth of students in its third-grade gifted program, 72.4% of them wouldn't have been identified by their IQ test score before kindergarten." This, he claims, is a problem, because "earning this classification when young is nothing less than a golden ticket, academically. The rarified learning environment, filled with quick peers, allows teachers to speed up the curriculum. This can make a huge difference in how much a child learns. In California, according to a state government study, children in Gifted and Talented programs make 36.7% more progress every year than the norm."
I'd quibble with the golden ticket idea -- much of what makes gifted education into a controversy is that it's perceived as some sort of reward, as opposed to an educational intervention for kids who need it. But anyway, the headline one would take out of this chapter is that either "gifted education is a scam" or "you shouldn't test until 3rd grade, at the very very earliest."
But this isn't exactly what Bronson appears to be showing. As he points out, "even in kindergarten, a few children are clearly and indisputably advanced." There is nothing gained by failing to meet these children's needs by putting off interventions until 3rd grade or later (which is what I worry people reading the chapter will take away). Instead, "what stands out as problems are: the districts who don't give late-blooming children additional chances to test in, and the lack of objective retesting to ensure the kids who got in young really belong there."
I find this to be a far more fascinating idea. It is true that in many districts, schools screen once for gifted programs, and then don't allow a whole lot more additional screens later. More importantly, they don't look at their gifted classes to see if the situation is still the best match for these kids, or whether someone would be doing better in a more conventional classroom. These policies are based on the assumption that intelligence is an unchanging thing, but there's no particular reason we need to think of it as constant.
That's why I prefer the words "readiness grouping" to "ability grouping." It implies less about an innate quality, and more about simply giving children work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities. Likewise, if gifted education were truly perceived and treated as an intervention, not a reward, it would not be seen as so awful to remove children from the class based on retesting.
So what do you think, readers? I rather like the idea of more frequent evaluation, and kids moving between classrooms, grades, etc., as the need arises, as opposed to a certain IQ meaning you get 90 minutes of pull-out a week, and a lower IQ meaning you don't. Do you know of any gifted programs that offer lots of opportunities to come in and out?