Thursday, March 21, 2013

Should gifted classes be open to all?

Slate magazine ran a story recently by Sarah Garland on who should be in gifted programs. Garland attended a magnet school in Louisville, KY, shortly after desegregation. Southern school districts (as mine did, in Raleigh NC) discovered that by putting a gifted magnet program at a school in a predominantly lower-income neighborhood, you could keep middle-class kids in your district. Indeed, you wouldn't just keep them in your district, you'd keep some of them in what might otherwise become the most stressed and under-funded schools.

Garland seems to have a problem with this. She notes that her gifted program had fewer African American students than her school at large (though certainly not zero; the numbers she cites are 11% vs. 20-40% in the school district). "The problem was that gifted programs tended to foster racial separation inside schools, undermining the very goal they were supposed to support." Maybe. In my school, the gifted classes were only for a few hours a day, and everything else -- including art, music, PE, lunch, recess, etc. -- was a non-tracked undertaking. All parents would be in the same PTA; the parents of more privileged students who wound up in these schools would still be advocating for better staffing, would be volunteering in the schools, would be noticing maintenance problems, etc.

Since I tend to think that was a smart move by these districts, I have to say, I did not have high hopes for Garland's article. But after she got the usual complaints about gifted programs out of the way, she raised a rather interesting question: what if parents and kids can simply self-select into them?

The upside is that this would remove all possible questions about testing bias -- about whether intelligence tests measure intelligence or are measuring other things. One could also imagine that open-enrollment gifted programs would have more political support. It's not a lifeboat strategy, really, if anyone who wants can get on the lifeboat.

The downside, though, is that the point of gifted education is to challenge and meet the needs of children whose needs can't be met in traditional classrooms. Teachers naturally instruct toward the middle of their classes. Good teachers are constantly assessing how many children have figured things out and how many have not, and if most are confused, the teacher will stay on the matter at hand until she or he gets a satisfactory percentage of students over the hump. The challenge would be to make sure that the rigor of such classes remained as high as they should be.

Garland discusses some pilot programs in Washington DC that take such an approach. There are two realizations that the pilot programs have involved: first, they have to be well-staffed, so if kids are struggling, something is done about that. Second, there also needs to be a lot of outreach and some explanation of what a gifted program is. Not all parents are familiar with the concept, and whether that would be something for their kids to try.

I'd also add a few other thoughts. First, such gifted programs should not be the only "good" programs at a school. You want parents and kids to opt into gifted classes because they think they need them, not because it's the only way to get a class with few discipline problems. Second, there also needs to be a seamless and non-judgmental way to transition out of them. Frankly, all gifted programs suffer from this problem. In districts that do have gifted programs, if you're identified once in an early grade, sometimes you're in for good, even if it turns out that wasn't the right placement. There should be some good way to move in and out of programs, evaluating every year what is the right fit.

What do you think of the concept of open-enrollment gifted programs?


nicoleandmaggie said...

This is a really difficult problem. When I was volunteering in an inner city fourth grade, there were a couple of girls, one black, one Hispanic, who were clearly gifted, and yet their teacher had not identified them as such. In fact, the black girl was always getting into trouble for shouting out the (right) answer without being called on. (I found out later that her older sister had been id'd by our boarding high school as a recruit-- a problem since she was the only thing keeping the homeless family of 3 girls and their mom together.) A smart, but probably not as smart Filipino boy (who looked Asian) was teacher identified. Teacher identification can be full of biases.

Would open enrollment have helped these girls? I don't know. The Hispanic girl was quiet and may not have had the self-confidence to put herself forward. Her parents may not have advocated for her either, generally trusting the school system.

Then you have connected folks who don't care about gifted education but want that designation on their kids' transcripts. But they don't want the lower grades their kids would earn in those classes on the transcripts, so they complain, and the classes get watered down. Or so I've heard people complain (I don't know if this actually happens, or if people just think it happens.)

And, there's some argument that some of the things that work for gifted kids in the regular classroom work for all kids in the regular classroom (pre-tests, differentiation, etc.)

Not an easy question.

Catherine said...

I see the potential benefit, but I have also seen the downside. I went to 11th and 12th grades in Fairfax County, VA, which has a pretty robust GT program. The problem was that although supposedly you had to test into GT, tons of parents strong-armed their kids in, or the kids had been identified as gifted in early elementary but weren't really gifted in high school. The GT classes were probably a little more rigorous than the regular classes, but they weren't really full of gifted kids. I feel like they should have just been called "honors" meaning "slightly more difficult than regular."

I didn't think the classes were ideal for anyone. You had a lot of kids who worked hard and could have gotten As in regular classes, but who didn't get As in GT classes, and then you had kids getting easy As in GT classes who could have used more challenge rather than treading water until college.

I agree with you that a better solution would be to make all the classes better, but maybe even more ideal would be to have some way to individually track kids by ability level, like what Sal Khan advocates in his book "One World Schoolhouse."

hush said...

Yes, this is an exceedingly difficult problem. My short answer to your question is yes, with the caveats you mention @Laura. For that matter, I'm also in favor of giving low SES parents/of color in particular wide latitude to be able to make real school choices for their children, including private school tuition vouchers and access to charter schools. I do realize when argue I in favor of these ideas, I'm accused of advocating for the theft of the brightest minds and the best resources from the most in-need public schools.

The reality is there are already de facto "open-enrollment gifted programs" and they're called private schools. And if the main concern is "breaking the cycle of privilege" then, until we fix these school problems, gifted kids of means will continue to go wherever they are best served, if they can. So public schools need to keep doing something to identify and retain these gifted students.

I, too, am the proud product of GT public magnet schools. Garland's piece perpetuates an irritating false dichotomy: "Determining whether a child is actually more intelligent than her peers or whether she’s just the product of more affluent, ambitious parents..." Well, obviously one can certainly be, and often is, both. So why is this sort of either/or dichotomous thinking so prevalent in these discussions? Perhaps it's a kind of sloppy shorthand for the proposition that we have a lot of unidentified, hidden gifted kids out there, of whom many are of color - I agree. I guess the real question is do we want to over-identify, precisely identify, or under-identify gifted kids (which is our current regime)? I'm in favor of over-identifying, on a sort of "rising tide lifts all boats" logic - and I'm skeptical of the ability of testing to precisely identify gifted kids.

... "is a difficult task for school systems interested in breaking the cycle of privilege that gifted education tends to fuel." Oy. I disagree with Garland's causal mischaracterization of public gifted education. If, years ago, 11% of the GT students at Garland's alma mater were black, then that's actually not terribly far off from the approx 13% of Americans who identified as black according to 2010 census data. My former classmates of color for whom GT was a real educational fit have, in their own actual lived experiences, broken the proverbial cycle. If the GT program at my urban public school had been jettisoned in favor of a plan with more vaunted "equality" would I or my peers have had the same outcomes? No way, and certainly there's no proof that any of the underperforming students would have done any better either.

Anonymous said...

Apparently I have a very different definition of Giftedness, at least as applied to Educational Settings. Gifted=Having Educational needs due to intellectual strengths that are unlikely to be met without accommodation in the regular classroom.
So that would mean that in lower performing schools, their might be kids who score lower on nationally standardized tests who still very much need accommodation. This accommodation might be cluster grouping, subject acceleration, pull out programs, or self contained programs depending on the nature of what an individual student needs. It seems obvious to me that each child who is performing in the top 3% of Students in their Economic group needs to be looked at carefully and offered a range of alternatives for accommodation. In this context, Performance should include screening tests, teacher evaluation,parent evaluation, self and peer evaluation. A short screen to ask 'Do you think your schoolwork is usually too hard, too easy or just right? Do you thing you are usually learning too much, not enough, or just right? Is your homework usually too easy, too hard or just right? What might you be able to do differently to learn more? What do you wish our school would do to help you learn more?' We could call it the Goldilocks report.
my .02

Richard Mankiewicz said...

I ran an open gifted maths club. Those who found it too hard left, but I also found a number of keen students who hadn't been identified by teachers.

The students who stayed thus had a mixture of intelligence and motivation - it worked well. If the school had had an actual gifted track then those students could easily have been put into it without any further testing.

When the school decided that it would decide on who was gifted using 'standard' assessments - depressingly flawed and useless, but that's another story - those chosen students didn't really know what they were doing in a special class!

My lessons: use open clubs to sort out the truly gifted; ability plus motivation are important; group by abilities not by age.

Parentoftwo said...

When I was growing up we had self selected classes of different difficulty levels. But that was before ability grouping became a dirty word. The High School offered four level of courses and you picked with parental approval which classes you wanted to take. Now, there are only two levels of difficulty offered, gifted and everyone else. Parents whose children are bright or even on grade level are trying to get their child in the gifted program because their only other option is to be in a class with students who may not be motivated or who learn at a much slower rate. We must move back to offering classes at a variety of difficulty levels.

Our school district solution was to call every class advanced; 8th grade advanced science, advanced reading, etc... Advanced compared to what? Calling it advanced doesn't make it so.

Anonymous said...

A couple of comments: 1st of all, a gifted classroom is not necessarily free of discipline issues. Gifted children do not behave any better than anyone else. Put a bunch of children with overexcitabilities into the same classroom & see what happens. 2nd, identification can be very simple. Put a child into a room with a piece of string and/or a ball (for the extremely gifted, having both will be too much for them) and watch what they do. How long can they entertain themselves? Maybe that methodology seems way too goofy to be useful, but as the Mom of a profoundly gifted hs senior, having been around all kinds of gifted children for almost 18 years, I think it would be pretty accurate.

Anonymous said...

My high school didn't have a self-selective gifted program, but the standards to get into the program were so low that basically anyone with a good work ethic could qualify. There was also an honors track that was self-selected. In my experience, upper-track classes that are self-selected, are easy to get into, or only require that the students be "motivated" actually increase socioeconomic segregation. The problem is, many low-income parents are not college educated themselves and do not realize that their kids need to be in upper-track classes to look good on college applications. Hence, they don't push for their kids to be in upper-track classes, or even request that their kids be in lower-track classes, for fear their kids will be overwhelmed with work, or because they erroneously believe that the upper-track classes are only for students who are really, really good at school. I know, because my own mother was not college-educated, and she did not want me to take upper-track classes. By contrast, wealthy parents advocate for their kids and self-select them into the highest classes they can possibly qualify for, even if the kids are neither particularly smarter nor better prepared for a more class more difficult than the regular one. As a result, the upper tracks had to be dumbed down to cater to "motivated" students who really just wanted to look good on college applications, the lowest track was a dumping ground for kids with significant attitude and behavior problems, and the biggest difference between the tracks was the socioeconomic status of the students you were with. The classes would have actually been more integrated (and better to meet individual students' academic needs) if the school had tracked bases 100% on standardized test scores.

Anonymous said...

Gifted people self-educate. It would be great if 'educators' understood them.

Bostonian said...

Ms. Vanderkam,

Do you think IQ tests such as WISC and Stanford-Binet are racially biased?

Anonymous said...

Raw Reading Ability,
Raw Math Logic,
Natural Processing Speed
Equals 99% Test Score
(Original Eve Is From Africa)

Nother Barb said...

In our community of high-achieving parents, there is a strong desire to have kids in the highest level of classes, even though you do not have to be in the gifted elementary program to take honors and APs in our high school. (Well, there is one math course where that's true.) It probably helps for applications to private high school.

But if you are in the gifted program at your public school, you can get into other gifted programs, such as Talent Developments at universities or Davidson Summer Institutes. So, what happens to the eligibility for those programs? Does it change?

necessarygrace said...

Our district recently opened a STEM high school. Admission is by lottery, not ability. There are a number of gifted students attending, but also many average students. While I think *all* students should be encouraged in STEM, it is frustrating as the mother of a gifted child to see the school teaching to the lower abilities and not even offering more challenging coursework in things like computer programming. I think the concept of "fair" has been taken much too far in most school districts and as a result, many kids are not able to work to their potential.
Self selection might work, but it has to be with the understanding that the classes will be truly challenging and not watered down.