Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Treating Students As Gifted," Giftedness and Assumptions

It has become fashionable, of late, to claim that giftedness is purely a construct. Children learn at different paces, and some kids who enter school ahead of others will later regress toward the mean and others will catch up. IQ has nothing to do with success, etc. We have heard all these arguments.

So I'm not surprised to see the spin on recent research out of Duke University, which finds that, "Schools that seek to help students who are underrepresented in advanced programs should treat them as gifted young scholars, an approach that can result in many of them actually performing at a gifted level within a few years." Project Bright Idea put thousands of young students through what the researchers deemed as "techniques usually reserved for gifted classrooms." Net result? 15-20% of students (and in many cases more) later reached the bar for academic giftedness, compared with 10% of a similar group.

So is gifted education a fraud? Not at all. These "techniques usually reserved for gifted classrooms" turn out to look a lot like...good teaching. According to the press release, "The project requires teachers to undergo regular and intensive training, energizing their profession and their classrooms by weaving together teaching strategies based on the work of national education experts... 'We are literally changing the knowledge, skills and dispositions of teachers so they believe children can learn. It is a lot about teacher expectation and belief,' said Mary N. Watson, the director of the exceptional children division of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, who helped develop the project. In workshops and week-long summer institutes, teachers in the project are taught by national and state-level experts on how to develop students’ thinking and skills such as controlling impulsivity, posing questions and taking responsible risks."

I am not surprised that energized teachers who focus on developing students' thinking skills and controlling impulsivity get good results. I wish all teachers did this, and there's really no reason they shouldn't. If people think this is unique to gifted education, I think they misunderstand the whole idea.

But beyond that, the press release wasn't clear on how students were later identified as gifted, but the fact that 10% of students were identified as such even in the control suggests it may learn toward one of those very broad definitions that get gifted education in trouble. And I worry that the definition may be even broader. This research was funded by the Jacob Javits grant, which, as I wrote back in 2008, had been re-steered to fund programs that solved this problem, per literature from the Department of Education: "In 2007, 32 percent of all 4th grade public school students scored at or above the proficient level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to only 17 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch under the National School Lunch program (i.e., students who are economically disadvantaged), 13 percent of students with disabilities, and 7 percent of students with limited English proficiency. Students from these three groups are significantly underrepresented at or above proficient levels on the 8th grade reading and 4th and 8th grade mathematics assessments." The idea was to find programs that can bring at-risk students up to the top third on standardized tests.

Which is great -- and definitely a worthy endeavor. But not necessarily what gifted education is about. To my mind, gifted education is about meeting the needs of children who are so far outside the norm that they can't be readily accommodated in good classes. All children should be treated as bright, capable scholars. All children should be challenged and their teachers should demand their best. But that has little to do with giftedness.


Hang in there! said...

It is wonderful that all parents who love their children say that the family loves their school and that all of their children do very well in the school and have no problems with school at all, ever. Since I have become a parent I have heard this over and over. In fact, I have never heard a parent say that their child did not do well in school. To me, what I personallly experienced and what I am witnessing now with my child, does not fit nicely (at all) into that category. To me, it is so obvious what is different about a gifted child -- but no one else ever has to notice it or tesify to it or support it or acknowledge it. Birth parents and schools may not believe that such a "gift" exists. Belief systems might not allow for a high intelligence quotient to exist in homo sapiens if that does not complement the concept of omniscience. (Who came up with the term gifted anyway? It may be part of the problem of gifted people. The term 'talented' is even worse, are they really going to score points with constituents implying that all of the other children are officially not talented?) Parents are busy with their own lives and the lives of their non-gifted children. Schools see the participation, the quality of the work, all of the test scores. A child gets promoted year to year and their is no continuity by an adviser over their academic career. It is possible to never see a teacher ever again in their life. Other people in the community witness the differences in the gifted child, but unfortunately, instead of getting support, you may get an insensitive, unkind comment or a complete denial that the child is 'smarter' than other children. (It seems to be very easy for a non-gifted person to be in denial, whereas a truly gifted person almost feels a compulsion to tell the truth.) {I always think, when I listen to a whistle blower on the news, that they are more likely to be gifted, because (1)they noticed something that no one else saw, (2)they took the time to dig for the truth (when a non-gifted person would have gone golfing instead) and (3) they are compelled to speak the truth, even though exposing the truth is always to their detriment, career wise and financially.} Right now, and maybe it has always been this way, the emphasis is on trying to help the majority of the students. Maybe the minority (top 1% to 3%) will always have to speak up for themselves. I guess it is intrinsic to the idea of a democracy to have majority rule and luckily in a free society the interests of the minority are heard, but it has always been to their own peril, strife, hard work, persistence.... That is the American story. What is kind of hard to take though is seeing our society tackle the topic of giftedness and get it so wrong. But, it is always painful for a gifted person to watch the mistakes humans make over and over again. History repeats itself. The gifted person asks, does it have to?

Amos Glenn said...

My favorite line from the article: “We are teaching students how to think, not what to think,” Gayle said. Not only is this a direct quote from The Sabertooth Curriculum, but a total misunderstanding of what gifted education is (and I assume the mistake is with the author, not the researcher). Actually, it's a total misunderstanding of what any education is! The article did, however, provide some interesting insights into what people think gifted education and gifted students are.

hschinske said...

"We are literally changing the knowledge, skills and dispositions of teachers so they believe children can learn."

They don't seem to acknowledge how appalling this is, if true -- doesn't the above statement necessarily imply a previous high level of ignorance and bigotry in the teachers?

Helen Schinske

Ingi said...

It sounds like they are measuring "achievement" as opposed to "ability". And I agree - good teaching and high expectations will improve achievement at all levels.
I like Passow's test: Could all students do the work? Should all students do the work? Would all students want to do the work? If the answer is "yes", then it's not sufficiently differentiated to cater for the gifted.

Anonymous said...

@Amos Glenn,
Why is "teaching students how to think, not what to think" a "total misunderstanding of what any education is"? It sounds better to me than the current emphasis on filling in bubbles!

Anonymous said...

There's an additional factor that may account for some of the results, and that is that the method may be helping identify previously unidentified gifted kids. It wouldn't account for all of the higher performance rates, but it very possibly would account for some of them.

atxteacher said...

I find this article terribly disturbing for gifted education. It doesn't include a definition of gifted - which is problematic. If 19% of students in 3 counties were identified as GT, they don't define it like I do! Certainly all children should have the best teaching possible and it's clear the project is making a difference for children. That's terrific! But using the term gifted so liberally is a mistake. It confuses people as to what gifted (in educational terms) really is. I agree with the previous post: Using Passow's criteria, this isn't gifted education!