Friday, June 03, 2011

Gifted Programs = Lower Grades?

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Shea asks "Do gifted programs work?" citing the study of students who either just made the cut for a gifted program, or didn't.

Oddly enough, one of the study results being highlighted under this headline is that students who just got into the gifted program got lower grades than students who remained in their home schools. Why? Well, most likely, the gifted program is more challenging. Of course students who barely squeaked in would have a harder time acing the work than they would in coursework aimed to a less challenging level.

I definitely have seen this in my own life. My first academic "B's" ever came when I was able to take algebra in 6th grade. If I'd taken pre-algebra or normal 6th grade math, I would have aced it. Likewise, when I transferred from Clay High School of South Bend, IN to the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities, I got several consonant grades that first semester. The work was harder. So I had to learn how to work.

The story has a happy ending in that, in both cases, I figured out how to get A's in harder classes: more studying, more practice on problem sets, etc. But I hardly think anything would be gained by staying in easier classes just to keep up the good grades. The great thing about gifted education, done right, is that it teaches children who have often never had to work hard for anything the joy of throwing themselves into something difficult. We need more of that, not less.


Nother Barb said...

Laura, that's an interesting observation. I wonder how it works with the general population? My son was invited to test for the Talent program in grade school -- in math, which surprised us. He didn't make the cut, which didn't surprise us. In 6th grade, he was recommended for the "not quite the gifted class, but accelerated". Against my better judgment, he entered it. What we didn't know was that that decision tracked him all the way through high school with no flexibilty. Now he is dealing with, as you might say, non-labial consonant grades (Cs), which are on his high school transcript. If he had been in the "track" below, he might have done better. How would all this show up on college applications? He's a junior now, so we'll see.

On the other hand, we are not disappointed if our younger son gets a B in his gifted math class. It means he's being challenged. He didn't squeak in, they knew in Kindergarten he'd be in the program. (But of course our school philosophy is "you can't identify until 3rd grade".)


Anonymous said...

A fellow Clay High School alum! At any rate, I know first-hand the sting of getting those first non-A's when you are finally given a true academic challenge. I warn my kids and their friends in the gifted program all the time to study every something...if only to develop the habits now. It's hard to see when you are a kid and you can ace everything without ever cracking a book. As for the study, I'm not sure that two years is an adequate period of time to assess changes in the performance of kids faced with more challenging coursework.

Anonymous said...

I think it's much better to get those non-A's in elementary school, or even high school, than it was for me to get them in college. My DS7 is still in early elem, so no grades per se yet, but I have always explained to teachers while advocating for more challenging work that I want my kid to get a B every once in a while so he can learn how to learn.

It would be a different matter if he got stuck in a problem over his head, with no possible way to earn an A or B through study. But it makes perfect sense that a kid who has never been challenged will struggle a little when finally challenged appropriately. To me, that's more proof that GT education is working. You cannot learn perseverance without ever having a chance to fail.

Lindsay said...

I agree with your logic that gifted children who are rarely required to reach their full potential don’t fully know what it means to throw themselves into something difficult.

I teach second grade and I had a student this year who was reading three levels above grade level. I knew he wouldn’t learn much about the process of reading if I required him to read grade level texts, so I had him read books that were on his instructional level instead. During a reading conference, he came across a word he didn’t know and he immediately panicked and broke down in tears. He didn’t understand that there are strategies that readers use to figure out unknown words. Previously, he had not been held accountable for reading on his true instructional level; therefore, he had never really had to work at reading.

This student had already mastered reading at a second grade level, yet he clearly still had areas where he could improve in the reading process. Through his exploration of texts appropriate for his ability, he was able to learn that working hard is actually a good thing and it helps to expand your thinking.

I will be moving up to teach third grade gifted and talented students next year, so I was encouraged to see that my beliefs about g/t education are shared by others who are deeply invested in the issue. Thanks for the great post!

Laura Vanderkam said...

@Lindsay: What a fascinating story with your second grader. I have certain memories of this from school -- kids crying when they tried something and failed, because they'd never learned that's part of the game. Not exactly a good way to then go out into life, thinking everything should be easy and not having strategies for dealing with life when it isn't. Congrats on your move into gifted education, and I hope you'll continue sharing your expertise here.

StefanyS said...

Kudos to Lindsay - you are a rarity. Your students will not only be happier at school (and see the value in it), but will gain tremendous self confidence that they otherwise may not have found.

We actually had to change schools to find an environment that allowed my daughter to be challenged (she too was reading 3-4 yrs above grade level). We also had to work through the tears of being challenged once she actually was challenged.

Anonymous said...

It would have been nice to have learned how to study before getting into college/graduate courses, where the stakes are so much higher as those consonant letter grades start appearing. While it can hurt some kids who barely make the cut-off, it prepares other kids in the program to work for the grades they receive and teaches them how to persevere in the face of failure.

Rather than track kids, it would be useful if more programs allowed flexibility, so that kids who struggle have the option of returning to their old classes and so that kids who are blossoming later can enter them (seems to be what Nother Barb is getting at).

amandadonnelly said...

A little over a year ago we moved from Wake County Schools in NC, where the entrance into the gifted and talented magnet school is determined by lottery--not test scores, to a city which has a 2nd through 5th grade gifted elementary school where enrollment is determined by testing all first graders in the city. We moved after my daughter finished kindergarten, enrolled her for first grade at our new neighborhood school, and prayed she'd test well. My close friends who knew why we were moving kept telling me, "She'll be fine. You don't need to move." One whose daughter is also gifted told me that her daughter's "A's couldn't be any straighter." No one seemed to understand that what I wanted for my child was EDUCATION. I wanted to know that she was learning something at school. She had taught herself to read by the age of 3, and currently reads about 5 grades levels beyond her age. So her teachers basically ignored her unless I became the crazy pushy mother. She did get into the gifted school in our new city; she finally has a teacher who will admit to me that she's smart, and ironically, she's getting 4's (basic equivalent of an A) for the first time. But the grades aren't now and never were important to me. I wanted to know that she was engaged at school and being challenged enough so that middle school/high school/ college won't bring a shocking work load that she isn't accustomed to.