Friday, August 24, 2012

Religious schools and gifted ed

Close to 5.5 million American children attend private schools. The majority of these schools are religious in nature. Over 40% are Catholic, another 15% are "conservative Christian," and a smaller proportion are Lutheran, Baptist or Jewish.

While 5.5 million sounds like a lot of kids, the number of children attending Catholic schools in particular has declined precipitously over the past few decades. Many have closed, and some are trying to reinvent themselves.

One possibility? Take a page from the playbook of a Queens, NY Lutheran school, which just reinvented itself as a school for gifted kids.

Lutheran School of Flushing & Bayside was struggling to attract students. But the folks in charge noticed something. NYC tests and identifies kindergartners for its gifted programs, but then doesn't actually have enough seats in the programs for all the kids identified. So now the school is enrolling children who meet the NYC standard but don't have a seat in the public schools in a program designed to meet their needs.

I think it's a neat idea. In large metropolitan areas, a school for gifted kids offers the best of all worlds: ideally, the academics are tough enough to cause kids to stretch, and they can learn in an environment with their intellectual peers. Because the high population means there's likely a concentration of gifted kids, you can actually fill a school.

NYC has some gifted schools (think Stuyvesant) but not nearly enough. A private Lutheran school is obviously not the perfect solution: plenty of gifted kids aren't Lutheran (and their families won't want them taught as such) and there's the matter of tuition. If public schools exist for kids, and especially when they identify kids as gifted, it's crazy that they then don't actually have to do anything about that fact. But, given that we don't live in a world where that's happening, having other schools around that do try to meet gifted kids' needs is a major plus.

Obviously not all religious schools could or should reinvent themselves this way. But if there were 10 Catholic schools in a city, why not designate one to have gifted & talented education as its niche? If there are 6 Protestant schools in a town, maybe they could have a gifted program at one of them and share some teachers and courses for 2 days a week. This would give parents of gifted kids more options. Because the sad truth is that it's usually assumed that if you can afford private school, that will solve all educational problems. But parents of gifted kids soon learn that even being able to pay tuition is no guarantee that an appropriate education is there in your town for the taking.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Does algebra for everybody help anybody?

Over the past two decades or so, there's been a push to raise standards in schools with the goal of increasing the number of kids who graduate college and career ready. There are certainly logical reasons to do this. In California, for instance, entrance to the state universities requires a certain set of courses. Yet many students, over the years, have graduated from high school without having taken those courses. If students later want to try college, they need to take remedial classes to do so.

One form this push for higher standards has taken is "algebra for all" requirements. The idea is that all 9th graders will take algebra, so they have the background for college prep math and science in later grades. But some studies have found that requiring students to take algebra doesn't actually result in higher college enrollment rates. And now a new study finds that algebra-for-all has a downside: less progress for higher achievers.

You can read the Education Week story on the study, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, here.

In essence, what happened is that schools eliminated remedial courses. By putting lesser prepared students into the same 9th grade math classes as more advanced students, the schools created more mixed (heterogeneous) groups, skewed toward a lower level of preparation than before. Teachers naturally teach to the middle of the group. An experienced teacher who can see that half her class hasn't quite grasped the concept she introduced is going to spend more time on it, assign more homework on it, and so forth. But there is a limited amount of classroom time, and so the teacher doesn't delve into more advanced topics, or move as quickly as she would if she could see that 70% of the class had mastered the material. Students who could handle more didn't get more.

As the article notes, any talk of grouping students by readiness (some say ability, but I prefer readiness) causes controversy. It is certainly possible that one could create a mixed-readiness class that met every child's needs. But doing so is very, very hard to do in real life as opposed to in educational political theory. Worse results for high-achievers without corresponding gains for students who needed more help doesn't sound like a result anyone would aim for.