Friday, February 04, 2011

Narrowing the Range

Over in Batavia, Illinois, the school board is considering a curious gifted education proposal. The idea, according to this article, is to get rid of the pull-out program (basically, 50 minutes of advanced math per day) and instead, have one gifted class per grade level.

So far, so good -- here at Gifted Exchange, we definitely prefer homogeneous grouping to enrichment pull-outs, and expanding the gifted concept to mean more than just math.

But then things get interesting. Because these gifted classes aren't actually going to be homogeneous. According to the article, "Each 'gifted' classroom would include all the gifted children in that school at that grade level, plus a mixture of high-achieving and average students. Low-achieving students would not be assigned to those classrooms." The purpose of this, according to Associate Superintendent Jan Wright is to "narrow the range of abilities in those classrooms." But, I guess, not be too narrow.

My first thought is that this was odd, but the more I think about it, the more it seems like a relatively reasonable compromise. In this era of fiscal tightening, no gifted education proposal will be accepted if it costs more money. All must be budget neutral. If there aren't enough gifted kids in any grade to fill a full class, in order to be budget neutral, other kids would have to be assigned in. But by aiming the median slightly higher, you'd avoid some of the challenges of meeting a more diverse range of abilities. A full-time gifted class, even if the median isn't in the gifted range, is still better than pull-out.

That said, there are other options for a school district that could be budget neutral too. If there are only enough gifted kids for half a class, you can combine grade levels (so a 3-4th grade gifted class -- and maybe a 3-4th "regular" class too if that makes the numbers come out right... ) Or you could combine 3-4-5th grades, even if it meant a slightly bigger class size. I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think.


Lainie said...

This was the structure we used in a district-wide "Magnet" program when I taught in Michigan. There are many advantages, including a narrower range and the ability to focus instruction for gifted students.

The primary difficulty lay in the budget; we were forced to be as "neutral" as possible. (It must be said, however, that our program generated thousands of dollars for the district via schools of choice candidates.)

I taught one of those multi-age groups: 26-28 gifted second and third graders. Granted, we would have had a harder time rationalizing a classroom of 13 or 15. But the advantage of a narrower range? I think not, at least at my level.

Other advantages I found were those that defy measurement: the different peer groups formed, the opportunities for struggle and challenge, and the potential for strong social and emotional coaching in a safe, caring environment.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

This is more or less what's happening in our district this year. Budget cuts axed all the gifted teachers at the end of last year, which meant the pull-out program disappeared. In my son's grade, there were only two children identified in both reading and math and a third identified in math only, so a separate classroom was completely unfeasible (Average class size is 28). Instead, they clustered the three of them in one classroom and added other high achievers and average students. Low achievers were not mixed in because it was deemed too difficult for teachers to manage with larger classes (class size was also increased this year).

I think it's basically working okay. It would be better if there were a gifted resource teacher in the building (there isn't even one in the district anymore) to help. It would be better if there were aids to help teachers work with groups at different levels. My son misses the pull-out, but in part, I think what he is missing is the individualized attention, something the school district can no longer afford and something that I try to give him at home. The preservation of the gifted cluster in his classroom left his peer group intact, which has helped him make the transition.

Next year, when my son moves to middle school, he will be in a designated accelerated classroom. All the elementary schools in the district merge at grade 5 for middle school, so there will be more identified kids and they will all be in class together, along with other high achievers to fill the class.

The one drawback that I see in our district -- and I don't know if this is true for Batavia -- is that the elimination of the pull-out also meant the elimination of identification as gifted. They dropped the OLSAT (which was problematic anyway, but that's a story for another time) and are only doing achievement testing now. The are using MAP testing to identify kids for acceleration -- it's a good test for that, I think. But they are not making any effort to identify gifted learners -- without a formal gifted program, the logic goes, what's the point? My big concern is that without any support for gifted learners, that teachers and administrators often do not understand the difference between "gifted" and "accelerated." And there appears to be no mechanism for getting gifted learners who are poor test takers the help and support that they need.

Laura said...

This year, my son's classroom moved from a gifted-only class to a full spectrum. This is because it is an IB school and apparently homogenous classrooms are not "best practices" under IB.

There was always somewhat of an ability spread, even in the gifted-only classroom, because our district overidentifies for GT. That said, there are very few non-GT kids in the class because it is a magnet for gifted ed, meaning that our spread probably skews higher than the average elementary school. Even those that are "identified" as GT who aren't really are still at the higher end of the spectrum, and only a few are truly misplaced in the classroom.

Whenever we asked how the teachers would handle the wider spread, we were told "differentiation" but I have yet to see any of that "differentiation" in action. I'm not unhappy with his situation, though. He has peers and he has a capable teacher. He is progressing nicely.

My older son, in middle school, is in GT-only classes for his academic subjects and this has been great for him in every subject except for math. We've asked for four academic years to have him accelerated in math, and we were always told no. A new principal started this year at his middle school, and I thought I'd try again earlier this year. Guess what? She really looked at him and agreed. He was jumped up a year to algebra (GT class) after Christmas (he's a 7th grader). I think they've been shocked to see that he has not missed a beat and is thriving in the class. I am hopeful that that opened some eyes to the fact that some kids really truly need single subject acceleration (and actually, he could go another year higher but this is so much better I'm not complaining).

Anonymous said...

This sounds like the model described by Susan Winebrenner in the Cluster Grouping Handbook. I suggested it at our school but the teachers were adamantly opposed. The want to keep the full spectrum of abilities in every class and meet everyone's needs through differentiation and flexible grouping. I'll be interested to hear how this model works out at other schools.

Suzy said...

Our school district has a gorgeous GATE program. It is housed in a building with moderately cognitively impaired students in the other half of the classrooms in the building. The students all interact with each other and the building is funded regionally for the MCI students and locally for the gifted classrooms. The MCI program is a magnet program for the entire county. In years where there are not enough students to fill the GATE classrooms the school opens as a school of choice school and allows students (and their state funding) from other districts to attend.
The school is fiscally sound and a wonderful environment for the students!

Erika L. Fosgreen said...

This is precisely the program model we are currently using in my charter school region. It has been highly successful because we have narrowed that range. As individual LEAs, we simply could not afford a gifted specialist or gifted program for such small numbers but knew reg ed teachers were not meeting the needs of these students on a regular basis. What I have found is that no students are left behind... meaning the truly gifted students are getting what they need, along with the high achieving students (excuse my use of labels for convenience!) who are able to work at sometimes the same or higher levels than gifted students. They all work up because that is the supportive environment that I carefully created.

I then created cluster groups for grades without accelerated classes and created a modified cluster model for the students not placed in the accelerated classes. This ensures the range in ALL classes is smaller, yet there is still a range that can be beneficial. I highly recommend this model for schools or districts similar to ours.