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.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

If a marginally qualified student is placed in a gifted class with "stronger" (i.e. more qualified) students, he is not in a class with his peers. They are simply the same age cohort.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Most of the research on cooperative learning is very careful to separate gifted kids from everybody else. Gifted kids mess up the benefits of mixed groupings. It makes sense what you're saying about the effect on the marginal kids not being the effect we want to be measuring-- we want the effect on the gifted kids themselves.

That said, there are a lot of watered down crummy gifted programs out there that I can believe have no effect on anybody.

Also, there is a big body of evidence showing that peer effects are important when you're talking about behavioral problems. Moving a kid from the "good kids" college prep class to the gifted class probably doesn't change much for those kids in the way that moving a kid from the BD class to the GT class would.

Anyway, I haven't seen this paper presented, which is a shame. I suppose I could read it.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Read/skimmed the paper. The outcome they are using is the SAT. I'm not sure why we should expect g/t vs college prep curriculum to change SAT scores. Even though they don't have ceiling effects because the discontinuity they're measuring is in the 70th percentile of the SAT. More interesting would be seeing what the long-term outcomes are.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

One quote I like from the paper "Further, the lottery results are consistent with a district that desires to maximize GT exposure intensity until there are no further educational gains." Sounds like the authors felt that the GT program had been watered down about as much as it could be.

If you want to see if a GT program is working, you have to compare students in the program to students who match the characteristics of those in the program but aren't in it.

Comparing marginal admits to the GT program to marginal rejects only tells you that the GT program is not help the students who only barely made it in. Unless the program is grossly undersized, that is not the target group for a GT program.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

To nicoleandmaggie—the test they were using was the Stanford Achievement Test, which is not normally called the SAT (a totally different test). It was foolish of the authors to abbreviate the test name that way—it obviously confused some readers.

nicoleandmaggie said...

@gasstationwithoutpumps, Thanks! I did get that cognitive dissonance with "Huh, is that what SAT stands for?" but didn't think hard about it.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Oh hey, that's the same one they use at my son's private school. Given that I'm totally not buying the lack of a test ceiling-- when he misses one question his stanine drops to like 7 (70%) and when he gets a perfect he doesn't always have a score of 99% (or even a stanine of 9) like he would on the ITBS. But maybe it's better for the test ceiling for older kids who they can ask more questions. According to Wikipedia, the abbreviation for that test is SAT10.

Anonymous said...

There's something wrong with this. Surely there's an advantage to being taught more advanced material. Why isn't this being seen?

Maryann said...

There's only an advantage to being taught the advanced material if you are in a position to understand. The advantage only shows if you are tested on it.

Celi Trépanier said...

Great post! When many watered-down gifted programs for gifted students only consist of enrichment for a maximum of 3 hours a week in only 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, how can anyone think this can make a difference in test scores, or in the educational progress of any gifted child? It's discouraging!

Anonymous said...

I never really understand the idea of a gifted child being on the margin. To my experience, you are either gifted or you are not. If anything, I think school's may not be catching the distinction between gifted and profoundly gifted. The advanced classes are necessary for the following reasons: The gifted kids learn incredibly fast. They can understand quickly. These children have the intellectual capability to go very deep into subject matter with their critical thinking than other children would even want to go. Their interests are likely different as they are drawn to topics that other children may not care for until they are adults. When the role of education is to develop the child's brain, having the gifted kids coast through regular classes can likely lead them to do the minimum and teachers might not even realize that they have not even touched the surface of what that child can do. That is often why parents have to speak up and advocate even though it can be very uncomfortable to try to explain the difference when a child is 30, 40, 50, 60 or 70 points from the average IQ of 100. Sometimes facts that are uncovered in science (of the brain) is not socially acceptable and goes against the current culture. As it is, I think scientists are still about 10 years away from having the complete mapping of the brain (similar to the way they mapped the genome). So, we are in a dilemma at this point in time. But, if people are willing to be honest, you really can tell whether a child needs gifted classes or not as long as you are paying attention.