Young, gifted and neglected

Very smart kids don’t have enough opportunities to soar, argues Checker Finn in a New York Times op-ed. Low achievers are the priority.

First, we’re weak at identifying “gifted and talented” children early, particularly if they’re poor or members of minority groups or don’t have savvy, pushy parents.

Second, at the primary and middle-school levels, we don’t have enough gifted-education classrooms (with suitable teachers and curriculums) to serve even the existing demand.

. .  .Third, many high schools have just a smattering of honors or Advanced Placement classes, sometimes populated by kids who are bright but not truly prepared to succeed in them.

With Jessica A. Hockett, Finn wrote Exam Schools, a look at public high schools for very bright, very motivated students. Only 1 percent of students attends an exam school, they found. Almost all turn away many qualified applicants.

Why do we provide high-quality learning opportunities only to high-IQ students, asks Sara Mead. She agrees with Finn that our schools don’t maximize the potential of talented low-income and minority students. She believes in “differentiating in schooling to meet the needs of students with differing aptitudes and interests. ”

But the grim reality is that in practice the gifted and talented label–and special programs for youngsters who wear it–often has less to do with meeting specific and unique needs of especially bright youngsters than with rationing access to a limited supply of quality educational options. That’s why parents in places like New York City (where “gifted” children may gain access to specialized placements as early as in kindergarten) are spending exorbitant effort and money to get their kids identified as gifted.

Implicit in many of Finn’s arguments seems to be the assumption that we can’t possibly provide academically demanding, safe, high-quality schools staffed by excellent teachers for all of our kids, so we’d best focus on those who are likely to amount to something some day.

It’s excellent students — not excellent teachers — that make exam schools so good. It should be possible to create good schools for motivated, not-gifted students.  But can it be done for everyone?

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Comments

  1. I’m not in favor of schools for the super-smart; tracking is far more efficient.

    Checker Finn is afraid to come out in favor of tracking, although he used to talk about it all the time, because it messes with his accountability message. He wants his movement to be utterly untainted with anything that could give rise to the “racist” charge. So instead of calling for tracking, he calls for charter schools for the smart.

    • In some schools there are not enough students for a high track. My district there is a centralized school for high school students to go half the day. This school offers vocational programs and accelerated gifted programs. This allows the district to offer programs that wouldn’t have enough interest in one high school or would be to expensive to offer only one section at a high school. It is a bit weird and I’m not sure its better than exam schools, but it is politically acceptable.

      I wonder about what can be offered in even smaller towns and rural areas. My lab partner is from a high school where the graduating class was 44 students. The only way to have tracking in these areas would have to be online, regional high schools, or maybe even boarding schools.

      • If you have only 44 students in a graduating class differentiating should work. Otherwise figure out how to make tracking work. Not sure I trust online education…the kids deserve it…

        • You would think that they would be better able to meet students needs. However, it what little second hand information I have received (friends in high school, lab partners at the community and local colleges) the small rural schools are really bad at meeting smart students needs.
          They usually only have enough students for one class, they have trouble attracting qualified teachers to teach advanced subjects, there isn’t a lot of community support for more advanced learning, etc.

          I think this is also the problem of not having many gifted students. With that few students, there might only be one gifted student in the whole high school. A student that could be super advanced in math can be even more rare.

  2. That’s why parents in places like New York City (where “gifted” children may gain access to specialized placements as early as in kindergarten) are spending exorbitant effort and money to get their kids identified as gifted.

    There’s the result of a government monopoly – gaming the system. Just think if those parents were spending the same money on actual schooling instead. But we can’t have a voucher system because it would benefit the rich…

    • No, it’s not a result of a “government monopoly” It’s education philosophy: the gifted (and merely above average) will “succeed” no matter what you don’t teach them.

      You can learn this philosophy in private schools of education.

      • Eric Jablow says:

        Do you really think that the “gifted” can survive neglect? In the early 1970s, I learned high school algebra when I was 7 and the differential and integral calculus when I was 8. The NYC school system didn’t have any resources, teachers, or motivation to help me, and I would have gone mad with boredom had my parents not reached out in desperation to the Chairman of the Brooklyn College Math Department, whom they did not know. A Professor there, George Booth, agreed to tutor me, and I managed to escape the school system 3 years later when B.C. accepted me as an undergraduate.

        The sad thing is that my having missed courses from Junior High and High School did not hurt me at all in college.

        Is it fair for a school system to provide no useful services to the knowledgeable and motivated minority of students?

        • Eric,

          You completely missed my point. I was replying to AOG who blamed everything on “government monopoly”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Schools are the way they are and operate the way the do because this is what teachers and administrators are explicitly taught to do. This training is the same whether at public or private schools of education.

          I did not promote the idea that the gifted can figure it out for themselves; this is what many teachers and administrators are apparently taught to believe and they act on it.

          • Why would parents of the gifted kids pay for private schooling that grossly failed to meet their kids’ needs?

      • Not only can they figure it out themselves according to many edu-policy makers, but they can do a better job of educating their less fortunate peers than the teacher can, so you van just throw group work at them and play Angry Birds at your desk.

        • A teacher who turns over teaching to the bright kids has just admitted that his years of education classes and certificate are worthless – or else he is simply not doing his job.

          • >> A teacher who turns over teaching to the bright kids has
            >> just admitted that his years of education classes and
            >> certificate are worthless –
            >> or else he is simply not doing his job.

            No, such a teacher is doing precisely what his education classes taught him/her. In other words, this IS what the job entails.

            Or, he/she is being observed.

            Teachers who don’t do this don’t have jobs for long.

  3. One big problem with high-level learning opportunities for the working-class smart kids is that those “proles” have a disturbing habit of not wanting what the elites have determined they SHOULD want. The workers want practical education, leading to some vocational skills before graduation.

    The elites want ALL students to go to college, preferably to major in a “meaningful” course of study, followed – hopefully – by extended study in grad school.

    Since those students who truly aren’t all that interested in academics usually have mediocre grades, they don’t qualify for scholarships. Therefore, their education costs have to be paid by them, personally, either at the time, or in the form of loans.

    So, the elite plan burdens the proles with debt, yet does not provide them with a realistic way to earn a living.

    Win-Win.

  4. The idea that smart kids will do fine on their own has probably been around for almost a century. My late FIL, who began teaching HS in the 30s, said that mindset was around then and had been in existence for the older teachers’ whole career. At least then, schools weren’t pretending that the severely disabled (cognitively, physically &/or emotionally) belonged in a regular school setting. Now, schools are spending far more resources on that group than on the opposite end of the academic curve. So, one group of students deserves, and is required to be given, special services tailored to their needs but the rest of the kids deserve, and are required to be given, nothing whatsoever – including a safe and orderly classroom. We’ve gone right down the rabbit hole…

  5. Sara Mead wrote:

    But the grim reality is that in practice the gifted and talented label–and special programs for youngsters who wear it–often has less to do with meeting specific and unique needs of especially bright youngsters than with rationing access to a limited supply of quality educational options.

    I often note this shift when the topic of education for the brightest kids. There’s a fallacious assumption built into this argument.

    Some students are ready for Trig or Calculus in 8th grade. That does not mean that every child is ready for it. The top 1% (0.1%?) of students in the country can move that quickly, but reaching Trigonometry in 8th grade isn’t possible for most students. Thus, it isn’t a marker of “quality educational options.”

    Mead writes:

    Implicit in many of Finn’s arguments seems to be the assumption that we can’t possibly provide academically demanding, safe, high-quality schools staffed by excellent teachers for all of our kids, so we’d best focus on those who are likely to amount to something some day.

    This really misrepresents Finn.

    Given the same resources, all students do not reach the same milestones. Allowing a few students to learn at their natural pace doesn’t slow anyone else down. As a matter of fact, you could probably teach the exceedingly bright in large lecture halls, and they would still learn more than everyone else. Grouping them into specialized schools makes sense in districts large enough to fill such schools, because Trig in 8th grade, etc. is not the norm.

  6. Crimson Wife says:

    The problem is that there are two competing beliefs about the purpose of schooling. One camp thinks it should be about “social justice”, using education to reduce societal inequalities. The other camp thinks it should be about maximizing the individual student’s potential, even if that means some students will have far greater achievement than others. That is what makes tracking, GATE programs, exam schools, and so on such a “hot button” issue. The “social justice” camp can’t stand anything that helps high achievers because it’s not enough just to have equality of opportunity- they desire equality of outcomes as well.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      It’s not that simple. It’s about the use of resources. Most of the kids who end up in GATE programs or test schools are from middle class or affluent families who usually have both the financial and social resources to supplement their kids education without making more demands on public education. Would it be more appropriate to use those tax dollars to supplement the educations of disadvantaged kids?

      I really do wish that public education was means tested.

      • I’m not buying the resources excuse. It doesn’t cost significantly more to do ability tracking or cluster all the bright kids into a single school. There just has to be the political will to do so, and that’s what’s lacking in most districts.

      • Ze'ev Wurman says:

        I am with Crimson Wife here. Gifted education not only doesn’t cost more, it often costs less, as the kids are motivated and engaged when taught content at their level. Proper gifted education can frequently support larger than average classes w/o discipline issues. It is the philosophy of equalizing outcomes rather than opportunities that has driven gate education away, using budget cuts as a constant excuse. After all, there is no “maintenance of effort” mandate for gate kids.

        • lightly seasoned says:

          Ha. You haven’t been in a gifted class lately, have you? These kids are extremely high maintenance, often “doubly gifted” with Asperger’s and various types of anxiety disorders. Their parents often take a lot of time and attention as well.

  7. Stacy in NJ says:

    Yes, but what’s the purpose of public education? It wasn’t originally meant to meet the needs of all (across socio-economic status) kids. Its purpose was to provide basic literacy, numeracy, and civics to poor and working class kids. As it was captured by the middle class – as almost all public entitlement programs are- , its purpose morphed into meeting the needs of less needy kids.

    Middle class families now feel entitled to all kinds of extra services beyond basic education from the public schools. They pay the taxes after all. They want to get what’s coming to them. The schools have been happy about that expansion – more money, more power, more jobs, more influence. But they do all those jobs – whether it’s educating the low or high performers – poorly.

    In the military it’s called mission creep.

    • It wasn’t originally meant to meet the needs of all (across socio-economic status) kids. Its purpose was to provide basic literacy, numeracy, and civics to poor and working class kids.

      I think there’s a regional difference in the origin of universal education. In New England, it certainly traces to the Puritans’ desire to maintain their faith. Many schools and colleges founded in the colonies were intended to educate ministers.

      There were certainly schools supported by private charities, but they weren’t the only schools. Each town was responsible for its own school, which might be private or public.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        I’m thinking of Horance Mann and the argument he used to promote public education on a national level.

    • Ze'ev Wurman says:

      There are many purposes, and there have been many purposes over time. CM captured the current major conflict of objectives quite well with her “reduce societal inequalities” versus “maximizing the individual student’s potential.”

      Two centuries ago it was about God, faith, and character. A century ago it was about preparing working bees for the industrial society. Half a century ago it was about inculcating shared vision and maximizing individual student’s potential. Now it is mostly about equalizing outcomes.