Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Indiana Academy, budget cuts and what we do with an education

It's no secret that state budgets are strapped these days. While Indiana is doing better than its neighbors (see Illinois's recent tax hike), the state is exploring areas to cut, and education budgets should probably be no more sacrosanct than anything else.

So I was not surprised to see this recent article from the Star-Press that my high school, the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities, a 2-year residential school for gifted high school juniors and seniors, is facing a 15% budget cut. As a generally fiscally conservative person, I'm always wary of making arguments that programs I care about are somehow more deserving than others. But I want to talk a little bit about the value of specialized secondary schools, and why the questions some of the lawmakers asked about the Academy are probing the wrong vein.

First, gifted education, as we often talk about here, is not a reward for hard-working kids. Hard work should certainly be rewarded, but gifted education is something different. It is an educational intervention for people who require it.

Regular high schools -- even good ones -- find it very difficult to serve highly gifted young people. I attended Clay High School in South Bend, Indiana for my freshman and sophomore years, and it was certainly not a failing institution. One or two kids went to Ivy League schools most years. There were a handful of AP classes. They were also reasonably accommodating to me. I was allowed to accelerate 2 years in math, and would have worked out an arrangement for studying at Notre Dame or IUSB had I stayed there. After I had a showdown with my sophomore English teacher about various things, the department head used his planning period to do an independent study with me. He taught me grammar, introduced me to the classics of American literature, and definitely honed my writing craft. But I was still miserable. I actually made hash marks on the back of one of my notebooks to count through the 180 days of my sophomore year. I felt like being smart wasn't particularly valued, and "smart" was my only identity. I was still not challenged enough.

So that was my position when I started at the Indiana Academy in the fall of 1995. It was not perfect either. There were various controversies over administration, over rules that were more of the CYA variety than about rationality. Some classes were better than others. Some students were not emotionally prepared to live away from home, and in the early years of a school sometimes people enroll who are not prepared. But I learned to work. Hard. I would scribble lines in my journal about my brain stretching. I failed at things and had to learn to try harder. Because my peers were mostly academically inclined as well, we did not all have to fit into the "smart kid" role, and we learned new things about our identities. Thanks to the crucible of the Academy, not only was I admitted to every college where I applied, when I showed up at Princeton I felt prepared.

Note: Princeton is not in Indiana. I mention this because the article quotes Rep. Peggy Welch of Bloomington as asking "Do most of these students, after they graduate from the academy, do they go to Indiana colleges?" She asked a representative from the school, "Are you tracking them? Do they stay in Indiana for their jobs or are we losing them?"

Welch continued that "Obviously we should be supporting it (the academy)...But I think it would be helpful to build the case, or, if we find they are kind of leaving the state or not returning to the state after they go to an Ivy League school, track that to see what we can do differently to have them land in Indiana."

I understand that politically, it is easier to sell education as an investment than as an expenditure. But staying in state for college is a silly metric on which to judge a high school. By this definition, the Academy "failed" by sending me to Princeton, and would have succeeded if I'd stayed right there and gone to any college in Indiana.

Returning to the state to work is a trickier matter. I know that this is the same mindset that has gifted education coordinators selling their programs by saying "these kids will save us in the future! These are our future medical researchers, presidents, inventors..." Maybe. I think it's the wrong argument though. Some gifted kids do amazing things. Others don't -- or at least not the kinds of things you'd send a press release about. But as noted above, gifted education is best understood not as an investment in our future, but as an educational intervention in the here and now. Many students with disabilities will not go on to win Nobel prizes, yet this doesn't stop us from spending the money necessary to meet their needs so they can receive an appropriate education. Likewise with intellectual giftedness. It is simply humane to give all children an education that challenges them to the extent of their abilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers.

I would bet that the majority of Indiana Academy alums do go to Indiana colleges and stay in Indiana -- and these stats are worth tracking -- but even if no Academy alum goes to an Indiana college or returns to Indiana to work, the Academy gives gifted children the education they deserve.

No more than anyone else. But no less either.


Twin Mom said...

One of the tough things about "measuring the success of gifted students" is how many gifted students, especially females, become full-time parents. Public education in most places does not prepare one for a prestigious career. In my area, many of the homeschooling parents have graduate degrees. Is that an example of "success"?

US tax structure certainly isn't supportive of two-income professional families hiring help for what two careers families lack time for, like food prep and housecleaning.

Laura Vanderkam said...

@Twin Mom: thank for that comment. I didn't want to go into that in the main post, but that is always one of the big reasons it's dangerous to justify any kind of educational program with saying "these kids are our future [astronauts, inventors, Supreme Court judges, etc.]" By that definition, any participant who becomes a full-time parent was a failure of the program. This was, of course, the reason that in many places and through much of history women have been inadequately educated, because they won't "do" anything with it (even though in developing countries the pay off in children's health alone is worth it). I don't think it's wise to make arguments about what people will do with education. Of course, looking at it that way, American education is a huge failure since half of us don't vote -- and that is one of the main justifications for it (to have citizens capable or participating in a democracy).

Summer Kingery said...

I attended the Academy with Laura. I doubt I would have made it as far as I have without the Academy. I came from a dirt poor rural community, the nearest college was nearly an hour away, and farm chores were always as important as education. Some of the options Laura mentioned just weren't options for me; it's hard to help a student that is so far ahead of her peers in a normal high school with less than 300 students.

I wanted to stay in Indiana, but when a small liberal arts college offered me enough in scholarships to make the cost of attendance less than half of attending IU, I packed my bags. I have since applied for 6 jobs in Indiana, even paid for flights and hotels for interviews, and was repeatedly told that my years out of the area were considered 'unfortunate.' I was even told I didn't know the local community well enough to direct a water conservation project, despite having grown up with the majority of the constituents in the area.

I have now lived in 6 other states (and some other countries) and I am saddened to say that Indiana often short-changes itself in assuming loyalty equates remaining. If I had remained in Indiana, I would NOT have been able to attend university. I would not have had an amazing career in international zoology, nor would I have worked out to sea for NOAA, nor would I be completing a DVM in zoo medicine. Still, when I do try to return and repay the amazing education I recieved at the academy, even moving beyond Indiana to grow and develop is faulted as disloyal.

Finally, because I wouldn't have had some of the oppurtunities Laura mentioned, I probably would have been a problem child in some context. I never studied in my home high school; I never had to push myself. After the Academy, I knew I could handle more than I ever imagined, and when I discovered that making ends meet in college required working 50 hours a week, I could manage that. When I survived Katrina/Rita destroying my home and my work, I knew that just continueing to push forward would, eventually, enable me to move past that event and rebuild my life. Those are the skills I believe I would have lacked if the Academy hadn't been a part of my life. Even if I am not directly contributing to Indiana by working there (8 job rejections with a total personal bill of ~$9,000 due to extensive necessary travel) I routinely visit Indiana and contribute to my own family. I also bring and send others to Indiana via contacts there for internships, jobs, and externships. Presuming that having some of the strongest students outside of the state is highly damaging is ignoring the contributions that come back to the state as a result.

My younger cousin just graduated the Academy this past year; another cousin plans to apply next year. This hasn't just been life altering for my immediate family, but for my extended family, and all of our communities.

LaRita said...

Laura, thank you for your well-written article. I very much agree with your point that ALL students deserve to have their educational needs met. I find it incredibly frustrating that "no child left behind" seems so much important to many than the idea of no child being held back from their potential.

I also see it as very short-sighted to think that Indiana students have to remain in Indiana to "pay back" the benefits of their educational experiences. I think we can all benefit our world wherever we end up, and that is a win for everyone, not just for our current neighbors.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"looking at it that way, American education is a huge failure since half of us don't vote -- and that is one of the main justifications for it (to have citizens capable or participating in a democracy)."

One could argue the other side: education has succeeded in making many people realize that they don't know enough to make a reasonable decision, and so leave the decision making to those who have spent the time to learn about the issues. (I don't really believe that---I think that stupid, ignorant people are *more* likely to vote.)

Laura Vanderkam said...

Summer- good to hear from you! Thanks for your comment. There are many reasons, many of them good, that a person would not wind up in Indiana. Again, by that definition, an Academy alum who became president would be a school failure... because he/she is working in Washington DC. Best of luck with your career pursuits. The Academy definitely instilled a work ethic!

Rolade said...

I certainly agree with most of your views. We had to move from the north of France to live in the south (Nice) because there's no school for gifted students in our region. Our son did Grades 8 and 9 in one year at Lycée Michelet Privé costing about $11,000 tuition/year. This one-year private education and acceleration in a French public institution have been the best decisions made regading his schooling.

I wish we have schools like your Indiana Academy, and hope that you'll find means to offset the budget cuts.

I believe that giving all children an education that challenges them to the extent of their abilities is a social justice and equity issue. Likewise, I maintain that it is both an educational intervention and an investment for the future that goes beyond financial success.

Dr. Rolade Berthier
Author, "Intelligence, Giftedness: Pre-cradle to Post-grave"

lgm said...

>>looking at it that way, American education is a huge failure since half of us don't vote

Many don't vote intentionally. At school ballot time here, one always sees double the votes cast for the budget as one does votes cast for school board candidates. People are voting 'no' by not voting. It sends a significant message that the candidates know how to read. Same thing happens in other elections...many people will vote for only one or two, and will withhold their other votes.

atxteacher said...

"gifted education is best understood not as an investment in our future, but as an educational intervention in the here and now. Many students with disabilities will not go on to win Nobel prizes, yet this doesn't stop us from spending the money necessary to meet their needs so they can receive an appropriate education. Likewise with intellectual giftedness."

We ask for the same level of modification, accommodation, services for students who are equally different from average. Measuring success by growth can work for both populations rather than the number of prize winners.

hschinske said...

Washington State is looking at eliminating (not cutting, ELIMINATING) all funding for highly capable programs. Within my district, that means they'd be chopping long-term programs in order to save -- wait for it -- NINE BUCKS A KID.

leahk0615 said...

I am a 1997 graduate of the Indiana Academy. For years I have questioned my decision to attend, but my eyes have been opened as of late.

Many of the "issues" I experienced, were at least in part my own fault. When I came to the Academy, I already suffered from low self esteem, and never reached out to anyone. I was that student that spent much of her time alone, afraid to get close to anyone because I was afraid of rejection. I do firmly believe that if I hadn't spent so much time being scared of my own shadow, my experience would have been better.

I believe I can attribute some of my successes and milestones directly to my experience at the Indiana Academy. For example, I am an Enrolled Agent. This is a license issued by the IRS demonstrating knowledge of taxation (representation, tax preparation, business issues, etc). This license took me almost 2 years to obtain. I had to take a 3 part test while I still worked full time. I took classes and spent a lot of time studying. The Academy instilled in me that if I want success, I need to devote the time and use my resources wisely.

On the darker side, I spent many years in a bad marriage. Many probably wonder how my experience at the Academy ties to this. It took much effort to get of this marriage. Once again, I believe that the Academy instilled the "never give up" mentality in me, so I didn't give up, and experienced some great payoffs in my personal life as a result.

In short, the Academy really did teach me that "nothing ever easy is worth a damn." The institution really did have its shortcomings, but that is part of life. I would still recommend this school to anyone that is serious about obtaining a quality education and wants an experience that will stay with them forever.