Thursday, March 31, 2011

Differentiation, Tracking and Challenge

A recent feature story in the Quad City Times discusses a new "integration" program at North Scott High School that did away with honors classes for freshmen. In their place, students at varying levels of preparation take classes together. Teachers are charged with differentiating within the class. As one teacher puts it, her kids can choose "straightforward" or "hilly" or "mountainous" work. You can read the article (worthwhile, by the way) by following this link.

As long-time readers of this blog may guess, the results have been...mixed. Teachers who have done a lot of training in differentiation, and who are teaching subjects where it's more possible (like social studies) do OK with it. Others struggle quite a bit. As the language arts teacher points out, the most obvious way to differentiate would be to have everyone read the same novel then do different projects with it. But she has such varying reading levels within her class that this is hard to pull off. And some students, as she notes, aren't that into class. Dealing with those discipline issues holds everyone back.

What I find fascinating is the rationale for this de-tracking experiment. According to the article, "Administrators are hoping the end result will be more students signing up for Advanced Placement, or AP, classes." In the past, apparently, only the kids in the honors classes would take AP classes. But why is the solution to this to do away with such classes? An equally obvious solution, to me, would have been to offer more rigorous preparation within the other tracks. It doesn't seem clear why the presence of honors students in general classes would suddenly inspire others to sign up for AP classes later on in their high school careers. More, this seems to me like another excuse to get rid of the readiness grouping which many educators dislike anyway. By framing it in terms of increasing enrollment in AP it gives the movement a little push. But I'd be fascinated to see if rates of students scoring above a 4 or 5 on the AP tests they take go up significantly.

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.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Early Enrollment: On The Rise?

The Davidson Institute graciously sends me a round-up of headlines from gifted and education news every week or so. These stories are usually all over the map -- a profile of a contest winner here, a closure of a gifted program there, often a Jay Mathews column -- but this week there seemed to be a ton of pieces on early or dual enrollment.

The basic idea is that sometimes course work is offered at the high school level or college level that isn't offered at the level below it, and sometimes students are ready for more advanced work in certain subjects, while still desiring a similar-aged peer group. Especially if educational institutions are near each other (a middle school is across the street from a high school; a community college is around the corner from both), why not allow students to take classes at any institution they want?

In Colorado, students can enroll simultaneously in community college and high school classes. The number of students taking college classes, according to this article in the Denver Post, has risen to 6,473 in 2010 from 1,750 five years ago.

Meanwhile in Chicago, according to a brief write-up in the Chicago Tribune, officials are moving toward a gifted middle school program that would enroll 7th graders, and allow them early admission to Lane Tech High School, one of the city's top public schools.

Over in Michigan, another article from ABC local news talks about a Carrollton program which partners with Delta College to allow students to enroll simultaneously in both. Students can graduate in four years with both a high school diploma and an associate's degree. If that's where you want to stop, you already have a credential for job hunting. If you wish to go on to a 4-year college, you can save lots of cash by having the first two years paid for.

Indeed, there are now so many dual enrollment programs in operation that the National Consortium of Early College Programs, which takes a slightly different tack, met last fall to "provide clarity of the traditional mission and purpose of early college." These programs, like Mary Baldwin's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted and Simon's Rock College, have students leave or skip high school completely to enroll in a 4-year college program.

I think all these programs have their places. The community college dual enrollment programs are sometimes aimed at helping at-risk students develop career interests but they can work perfectly fine for gifted high school or middle school students who want more enrichment and advanced course work too. And then some students are prepared to sail over high school, and so traditional early college programs are a great option for them. All of these are great options. And broadly, they help the public and the educational establishment see that just because you are 13-14 years old doesn't mean you have to be in 8th grade, learning a set group of things that only 8th graders are supposed to learn. Better to use all a community's resources.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Standards vs. Personalized Education

I apologize for the lapse of time between my last post and now. I'm deep in the weeds on book writing at the moment, which is always fun. It is the experience that feels most like "flow" for me -- the word that references being completely engrossed in one's work and unaware of time. I start in the morning, look at the clock and it is 4pm. Good stuff.

But anyway, I am emerging a bit tonight! I just read an interesting essay by Ronald Wolk in Education Week arguing that the pursuit of common, high standards is a waste of time. You can read the essay by following this link. Instead, education needs to be more personalized. On one level this is a very appealing idea, especially as we completely leave the factory era. Once, standardization was a virtue, everyone focused on the same thing. Now, every major employer seems to be searching for people who "think outside the box." Personalized education also recognizes that all children learn differently, and at different paces. In the context of this blog, personalized education recognizes that some children learn a lot faster than others, and that age has no more to do with what work you're ready for than height.

On the other hand... after reading Wendy Kopp's A Chance To Make History, I'm a little wary (as she is) of silver bullets in education in general. Personalized education is good, and so is some amount of testing. It's really hard to solve a problem if you can't even diagnose it, and Wolk's complete aversion to testing is a good way to create a world of no standards. Also, does he think that top-down teaching is even the norm anymore? Education schools everywhere are gripped by a "child-centered" approach to learning where we all discover the Pythagorean theorem on our own. That's one idea, or you can recognize that children don't know much, and need information crammed into their little brains. That's a big reason I read books -- to learn things I don't know. It's also why I attend speeches, which is roughly the equivalent of teacher lectures.

So my general thought is... all things in moderation. Yes, we need more personalization. We also need high standards, and probably some assessments too. All of this can work together to create a better education system than we have now.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Write Start and Rip the Page

Long time Gifted Exchange readers know that nurturing the talents of writers is one of my biggest interests within gifted education. Often, we focus on talented young mathematicians as the obvious geniuses among us, and schools in general are more prepared to do acceleration in math than in other subjects. But good writing also requires training, discipline and challenge.

So I thought I'd share two books that crossed my desk over the past year (after their publisher, Trumpeter, sent them to me). The Write Start, by Jennifer Hallissy, features a series of activities designed to make young children comfortable expressing themselves in words. These include everything from writing love notes and press releases to making scrapbooks. Each activity can be adapted for four levels of young children: scribblers (very little ones), spellers (those who can write their letters), storytellers (those who can express ideas in writing), and scholars ("writers who have also become readers"). Hallissy is a pediatric occupational therapist, and believes that pen/pencil/crayon writing is a very important brain development step for young children. Since I learned writing and reading back in 1984 with an early computer program called Writing to Read, I tend to think that learning to write on computers is fine too. But either way, the more children come to believe that writing is fun, the better.

What happens once they get older? That's where Rip the Page! by Karen Benke comes in. This book for 8-12 year olds is billed as "adventures in creative writing." Children do various activities such as re-writing cliches, writing fortunes for Chinese fortune cookies, composing acrostic poems, writing a biography for a color, and writing in the same style as different poets. All can spark the imagination, and hopefully will start young writers in creating their own longer stories.

How have you nurtured your young writers?