Baltimore County nixes ‘gifted, talented’

The “gifted and talented” label is on the way out in Baltimore County, reports Liz Bowie for the Baltimore Sun. The district eliminated accelerated classes for the brightest elementary students last year.

Replacing “gifted and talented” with “advanced academics” isn’t popular with parents of high achievers, writes Bowie. They fear their gifted children’s needs will be ignored.

Teachers say it’s challenging to meet the needs of high, average and low achievers in a single classroom.

One fifth of Baltimore County students have been chosen as gifted in third and fifth grades “based on achievement and other, more subjective criteria, including personality, creativity, curiosity and ability to concentrate,” she writes. (Most districts designate a much smaller percentage of students as gifted.)

In the elementary grades, teachers now teach different levels of students in the same classroom. They break students into groups by ability, and then work their way around the classroom, instructing each of the groups according to its level. Educators say the small-group model allows them to move students in and out of groups more easily.

Advanced students are placed in separate classes for fourth- and fifth-grade math and in middle and high school.

“Baltimore County school officials say too many children, particularly minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were relegated to lower-level classwork” under the old system, wrote Bowie earlier this year.

Johnathan Miles, a second grader, reads a book in Jessica Owens' class at Lyons Mill Elementary School. Baltimore County no longer has separate classes for gifted and talented students.

Johnathan Miles, a second grader, reads a book in Jessica Owens’ class at Lyons Mill Elementary School. Photo: Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun

“If you got the golden ticket, you would ride the train from third grade to 12th grade. If you didn’t, then chances are you weren’t going to step onto it later in your academic career,” said Wade Kerns, the school system’s coordinator of advanced academics.

However, the new policy hasn’t qualified more disadvantaged students for advanced academic work, writes Bowie.

In the 2012-2013 school year, before the program change, 21.15 percent of black children in the sixth grade were labeled gifted. Last school year, that declined to 19.69 percent. The percentage of Latino gifted students increased slightly.

For economically disadvantaged children, the percentage of sixth-graders labeled gifted declined from 19.41 percent to 18.73 percent.

Jeanne Paynter, a former head of gifted-and-talented education in the Maryland State Department of Education, told Bowie teachers may not recognize children with high aptitude or know how to differentiate instruction for very bright students.

She also said high-achieving black and Latino students often attend struggling schools with inexperienced teachers focused on raising low achievers’ test scores. “Generally what happens is the advanced group is going to wait and wait and wait until the teacher gets to them,” she said. “Every child should have the right to be instructed and grow and learn.”

Can gifted ed survive the Common Core?

Can gifted education survive the Common Core? ask the folks at Fordham.

While some say the new standards will challenge high achievers, others fear they’ll be used as an excuse to “do away with already-dwindling opportunities” for talented students.

In Common Core and America’s High-Achieving Students, Jonathan Plucker discusses how Core-implementing schools can serve gifted students and make differentiation “real.”

Disrupt and personalize

Online learning can personalize instruction — and make it less boring — says Michael Horn in a Reason TV interview. Horn is co-author of the new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Differentiation is a failure

Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students,” writes James R. Delisle in Education Week. A consultant on gifted students and a part-time teacher, Delisle is the author of Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back).

Differentiation sounds great, but “is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back,” he writes.

Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them. That is a recipe for academic disaster . . .

. . . the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It’s the in-the-trenches educators who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential.

Dismantling special classes for gifted kids, struggling learners and disruptive students has “sacrificed the learning of virtually every student,” argues Delisle. 

I volunteered in my daughter’s classrooms when she was in elementary school in Palo Alto. Nearly all the students were being raised by highly educated white or Asian-American parents. Yet, in what may have been the least diverse school in California, there was enormous variation in children’s abilities to sit still, pay attention, follow directions, write letters, read fluently, etc.

I predict “blended learning” — using technology to personalize instruction — will expand rapidly as a way to help teachers manage classrooms in which students have a wide range of skills. But it has its limits.

Here’s another hit on the myth of learning styles.

Personalized learning — without fairy dust

Like many high-poverty middle schools, Oakland’s Elmhurst Community Prep is trying to reach students who are all over the map academically. One third are working at grade level in reading and math, says Principal Kilian Betlach. Another third are one to two years behind. The remaining third are three or four years behind — or more. “You can’t teach them by aiming for the middle and providing these little supports,” says Betlach.

“Teachers are told to sprinkle your differentiation fairy dust,” says Betlach. With 32 students in a class, and no aides, “it’s not possible.”

What is possible?

A foundation-funded experiment is testing whether “blended learning” can personalize instruction in eight Oakland schools. I write about how it’s working in Beyond the Factory Model in  Education Next.

Core compatible? ‘High low’ books

When a teenager has a Green Eggs and Ham reading level, what’s a teacher to do? “High-interest, low readability” books used to deal with adult themes in very simple vocabulary and short sentences, writes Christina A. Samuels on Education Week. The second-grade level was the starting point.

Now Saddleback Educational Publishing’s Teen Emergent Reader Library offers books that start at a pre-kindergarten reading level.

What is a pre-k reading level? Well, every page has “full-color, riveting photographs.”

The publisher claims “this series offers middle and high school teachers the solution for differentiating instruction while still teaching grade-level content and meeting Common Core standards.”

For example, they can read a book on homelessness — or look at the full-color photos — and discuss the issue. But how does that meet Common Core standards, which call for students to read — and read closely — “complex literary and informational texts?”

“Picking books that appeal to an older audience and use lower-level vocabulary is a really sound concept for teen readers,” said Barbara Stripling, the president of the American Library Association. “They don’t want to be reading about dogs and cats, they want to be reading about Beyoncé.”

Sophisticated knowledge does not always have to come with long words and complex sentence structure, teachers say.

. . . For example, Soldier’s Heart, a book by Gary Paulsen about the devastating effects of the Civil War on a young Union soldier, is appropriate for middle school students but uses language at a 2nd grade level of mastery, (Professor Teri) Lesesne said. Night, Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of the horrors of a Nazi death camp, is written at a 5th grade level, she said.

If students have reached their teens without being able to read . . . Isn’t this make-believe?

Of 183 University of North Carolina basketball and football players a tutor researched since 2005, 8 to 10 percent read below the third-grade level, writes New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. Sixty percent read between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, says Mary Willingham, a reading specialist turned whistle-blower.

Many were eligible for college sports because their high school grades were good enough to outweigh very low SAT scores.

If you could design a school …

“If you could design a school what would it look like?” In Milpitas, a middle-class district near San Jose, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka asked teachers and principals how they’d redesign their schools, reports EdSurge News. Propsals had to “integrate technology, use data to inform instruction, be student-centered and flexibly use space, time, and student grouping.”

As a result of the design challenge, two-thirds of the district’s elementary school classrooms are now using “blended learning.” Students spend part of the day using software that adapts to their individual learning needs and produces data for teachers.

Some plans were patterned after Rocketship, a charter network with five schools 10 miles south in San Jose with deep experience in experiment with technology–including teaching 90 student in one space at a time. Other schools, such as Marshall Pomeroy Elementary School run by Principal Sheila Murphy Brewer, instead focused on addressing the diverse needs of a school where fully half of the  506 students are English language learners. “Blended learning came out of the necessity of reaching all abilities,” she says.

Some classes use a one-to-one model, each student equipped with a Chromebook. Others rely on in-class rotations with some students on computers, some doing independent or group work, and others getting direct instruction from a teacher.

All blended classrooms use iReady, an adaptive reading and math program. Other popular tools include Khan Academy, Edmodo, Newsela and No Red Ink.

Burnett Elementary School’s learning lab relies on a huge garage-style door that slides up to divide the space into two rooms–and to harkening back to the days when Silicon Valley startups began in garages. The space is meant to be used for mixed purposes, offering soundproof areas for students to work on projects, while others can quietly work on the computer or receive direct instruction in small groups.

In classrooms, students are also doing classroom rotations. In the fourth grade math class, students rotate every twenty minutes between Khan Academy, group work on Common Core performance tasks, creating their own videos on Educreations, and peer coaching. Students put their name on a ‘peer coaching’ board, to volunteer to help other struggling students. Their teacher, Allison Elizondo, stands by to help struggling students and ensure that all goes smoothly.

“When you give kids freedom, they just go for it,” says Elizondo. “I don’t see myself as a traditional teacher, I see myself as a coach.”

The Hechinger Report looks at blended learning in an Aspire charter elementary school in Los Angeles.

On a recent Monday morning inside Freddy Esparza’s second-grade classroom, . . . a small group has gathered on the rug to hear Esparza read “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse.”

The remaining students log into their computers. One student reads a non-fiction book about beluga whales. Another takes a quiz on synonyms and antonyms, posting a perfect score. “Yessss!” he whispers, pumping up his little fist.

I’m attending (and tweeting!) a conference on blended learning today at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. I’m also finishing a freelance story for Education Next on a blended learning experiment in Oakland elementary and middle schools. Oakland Unified teachers typically have 32 students of widely varying achievement, aptitude and English proficiency levels – and no aide. Without adaptive software, differentiation is “fairy dust,” as one principal put it.

Stop ignoring the smart kids

Americans think high achievers don’t need any help to reach their full potential, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. He’s the author of Closing America’s High-Achievement Gap, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Educated, well-resourced parents can provide special help to their gifted children, writes Smarick. The “talented, low-income child” depends on support at school. And teachers pay much more attention to struggling students than to achievers.

When a high-potential child isn’t challenged, she misses “the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.”

. . .  the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

. . . new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools).

. . . We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

“We should care about all boys and girls,” Smarick concludes.

Busy with the move to Common Core standards, teachers have even less time for gifted students, reports Education Week. “In order to differentiate, you have to understand the standards and know what they entail. That’s ground zero,” said Jared B. Dupree, a Los Angeles Unified administrator. “Quality differentiation” for gifted students may be  “three or four years down the road.”

It’s time to debate ‘mainstreaming’

It’s time to debate whether debate whether mainstreaming special-education students is fair to all students, argues attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, author of Fixing Special Education, in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

When teachers focus on students who need more attention, other children get less attention, writes Freedman. Yet parents of regular-education students rarely challenge policies that place high-need children in mainstream classrooms.

The special-education system in the U.S. is highly regulated by law, expensive, and sometimes marked by litigiousness. Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it—including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials.

Fourteen percent of students are in special education today: 70 to 80 percent have mild or moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, social and emotional disabilities, ADHD, etc. While federal regulations govern special ed, 80 percent of funding comes from states.

Students with disabilities have the right to be in the “least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent “appropriate,” with added resources such as computers, large-print or recorded books, and personal aides, if needed.

Look into the research on inclusion and you will find that this policy is generally based on notions of civil rights and social justice, not on “best education practices” for all students. The effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities varies—some groups and individual students benefit; others don’t. This is one reason why inclusion remains controversial in some segments of the disability community.

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students—whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching. Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct.

Educators and parents should join a “robust, inclusive and frank national discussion” on how to fix a broken special education system, Freedman concludes.

I’d be very interested in what teachers really think about inclusion. How many are getting the supports they need to do it well?

America’s math problem

In America’s search for education equality, we’ve watered down math instruction, argues Jacob Vigdor in Education Next. That’s hurt high achievers without helping low achievers.

In the early 20th century, American high-school students were starkly divided, with rigorous math courses restricted to a college-bound elite. At midcentury, the “new math” movement sought, unsuccessfully, to bring rigor to the masses, and subsequent egalitarian impulses led to new reforms that promised to improve the skills of lower-performing students. While reformers assumed that higher-performing students would not be harmed in the process, evidence suggests that the dramatic watering down of curricular standards since that time has made our top performers worse-off.

. . . America’s lagging mathematics performance reflects a basic failure to understand the benefits of adapting the curriculum to meet the varying instructional needs of students.

When Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools placed below-average-performing eighth graders into algebra, they proved more likely to pass algebra by 10th grade, but less likely to pass geometry or advanced algebra ever, Vigdor notes. By contrast, Chicago improved success rates for below-average students by giving them a “double dose” of  algebra tailored to their needs.