Monday, December 16, 2013

Stronger peers, and more misunderstanding of gifted children

To many people, gifted education is perceived as a life boat. In struggling schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. The kids are supposedly well-behaved, and they'll keep standards high. So the push is always to expand a little, to take the hard-working kid who's on the margins and "reward" him with the gifted class. He'll be better off, right?

An interesting new study out of Michigan State University shows that may not be the case (here's a link to the full paper). Scott Imberman and colleagues looked at the test scores of children who were right on the margins of qualifying for gifted classes. They did not do any better on standardized tests than children with similar qualifications who were not placed in gifted programs. As Imberman said in a press release about the study, "This paper is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that just because you have stronger peers doesn't necessarily mean you are going to perform better."

The press release itself goes on to hint that this is a strike against gifted classes. After all, they have no effect on one group of children vs. a control. So that's a problem, right?

Well, not so fast. Is the purpose of GT programs to raise the standardized test scores of marginal students? I think most of us would say that the point is to meet the needs of children whose needs can't be met well in a regular classroom. Ideally, scores in all classes will be rising as every kid is pushed to learn to the extent of their abilities. Gifted kids aren't learning proportionally more -- every kid is being challenged. Gifted classes aren't meant to be "better." They're meant to meet outlier children's needs.

It is interesting to note that stronger peers don't give kids an extra boost, though. One reason GT classes sometimes wind up being watered down or expanded (to take in 25% of kids, in some districts) is that it is viewed as a reward. You're giving a hard working kid a little extra that will help him. But perhaps one's peers aren't quite as critical as some believe. And if having students more on the margin in these classes causes the teacher to aim to a different level (many naturally teach to the median) this could wind up changing the class in ways that wouldn't necessarily help anyone.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The wrong argument for gifted education

Here are four statements that are true: 1. Some gifted children grow up to do amazing things. 2. Some gifted children grow up to have rather quiet lives. 3. Some children who do not score multiple standard deviations above the norm on IQ tests grow up to do amazing things. 4. Others with similar "average" IQ scores do not.

None of this is particularly profound to say, but occasionally people trot out points 2 and 3 of the above statements to make a point about giftedness, or gifted education. Even people generally sympathetic to the cause make such points. I was reminded of this while reading Jay Mathews' recent column on "Why geniuses don't need gifted education."

The point? Much of what passes for gifted education doesn't particularly nurture gifted children's talents. And many adult high achievers didn't have much in the way of gifted education as kids. All true. But so what?

Often, advocates for gifted kids try to appeal to the public's self-interest of why such children should be identified and served. The reasoning goes like this: "These kids will make the future scientific discoveries that will save us all!" or "These kids will be the future Nobel prize winning novelists whose work we'll all read" or something else along those lines.

But I think this is the wrong argument for gifted education. No one knows what anyone will do later on in life. All children deserve to be challenged to the extent of their abilities. They deserve to be treated respectfully. Done right, gifted education doesn't require extra or special resources. If you're going to have 5 sections of a grade, it doesn't cost anything extra to concentrate children according to their level of preparation, so people can be taught right where they are. If you're going to have 13 years of available public schooling, it doesn't cost anything to have people go through that in, say, 10 years. Indeed, it costs a lot less.

Mathews argues that potential geniuses need room to explore, and shouldn't be confined to grade level classes. And that's true. But what should be done? Given that most parents aren't going to home school their children, schools need to do something for these kids. Likewise, there are certain skills that it helps to learn from other people. Gifted writers need space to write. But they probably need teachers to help them learn grammar, too.

There are many factors that come into play when we're talking about outsized achievement as adults. But whether gifted kids become those achievers or not has nothing to do with whether schools can't also do their best by these kids. I wish the arguments over gifted education wouldn't take this form. Instead, it should be about all children receiving the education they deserve.