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.”

The dangers of IQ tests

Testing a child’s IQ can pin on a permanent label that denies future learning opportunities, writes Jessica Lahey in an Atlantic review of Scott Barry Kaufman’s Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. The Truth About Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness.

As a failing elementary student, Kaufman was tested by a psychologist, who decided he had a low IQ and was “seriously learning disabled.” His parents gave up their plan to send him to an elite private school and instead sent him to a school for children with learning disabilities. “My fate was sealed by a single test,” writes Kaufman.

(Not really. He earned a doctorate at Yale and became a cognitive psychologist. But it wasn’t easy.)

Intelligence changes depending on environment, Lahey writes.

. . . people who believe intelligence is fluid, and can be increased through hard work, are much more likely to put in that hard work and show that intelligence is fluid. Unfortunately, children who believe their intelligence is fixed are far more likely to avoid challenges and simply allow the label to speak for itself. Put simply, children who believe they can become smarter, become smarter through effort and persistence.

Labeling all kids as “gifted” doesn’t work, however. Students who think their intelligence is fixed, whether they think it’s high or low, don’t work as hard as kids with a “growth mindset,” according to Stanford’s Carol Dweck.

For “gifted” kids, that can mean that they are so worried about marring the shiny veneer of that label that they never risk failure, and for the “seriously learning disabled” kids, the grungy tattiness of their label can lead to apathy and hopelessness.

Analyzing learning disabilities can identify what sort of help different children need, Lahey concedes. “I have even recommended intelligence testing for students who, despite their persistence, diligence and effort, are not succeeding in school.”  However, all too often, “a label signals a death knell for future effort, learning, and academic achievement.”

 What if we praised our students’ efforts to learn and grow and improve rather than praised them for showing up at school or on the soccer field, label affixed and prominently displayed? What if we watched those kids carefully, and taught them that they are not the measure of their IQ, but of their efforts to do their very best with what they have?

Yes, but some kids have more than others to work with. Kaufman wasn’t just a slow kid who worked hard.

Kaufman found a book on intelligence in the library and looked up the IQ he’d been assigned at the age of 11. The chart said: “Lucky to graduate high school.” He didn’t believe it, even though his teachers did. Finally, a learning resource teacher said she’d noticed he was bored. ”You don’t seem to belong in this classroom,” she said. “Why are you here?”

He left the learning resource room with “his growth mindset and his well-honed skills of grit, diligence, and persistence,” Lahey writes. Now an adjunct psychology professor at NYU, he writes the Beautiful Minds blog on Scientific American. Here’s Kaufman asking Is Your Child Ungifted?

Ability grouping is not tracking’s evil twin

Flexible ability grouping is not the evil twin of tracking, argues Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, president of the National Association for Gifted Children and a professor of education at Northwestern, in Ed Week.

If committed educators could be easily trained to implement a low-cost intervention that boasted consistent learning gains for all students, headlines would herald the discovery of the educational holy grail.

That low-cost intervention is here and readily available. It’s called ability grouping.

As classrooms become more academically diverse, grouping students by ability — and regrouping as they improve — helps everyone, she writes. A 2010 meta-analysis found benefits in reading. A 2013 study found significant improvements in math and reading for high- and low-performing students.

Tracking sets students on a defined path, writes Olszewski-Kubilius. It’s often permanent. “Flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student’s readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time.”

A stupid way to pick ‘gifted’ students

Our system for identifying “gifted” students isn’t very smart, writes Andrew Rotherham in The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child in Time.

New Yorkers were outraged to learn that “behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs,” he writes. “Scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified.”

But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

New York City uses a test to determine who’s gifted. Some programs require a score at the 90th percentile; others require the 97th percentile.

. . . does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

Affluent, educated parents hire tutors and test prep services to help their kids qualify as gifted.

Rotherham offers three proposals:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. . .  .

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. . . .

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

Numbers 1 and 3 seem like no-brainers. But expanding the definition of  ”gifted” has limits.  Many non-genius kids would do well in enriched, challenging classes. But once the reasonably smart kids are in with the exceptionally smart kids, what do you do with the average, slow and very slow students? What happens to unmotivated, poorly behaved students?

“Gifted” hadn’t been invented when I was in high school, but we had five tracks in English, three in most other subjects. I loved Level 1.

The case for ability grouping

Let’s Go Back to Grouping Students By Ability writes Barry Garelick in The Atlantic. The drive for equity in the ’60s and ’70s eliminated tracking. Most K-8 schools now ask teachers to teach students of diverse backgrounds and abilities in the same classroom, using “differentiated instruction,” writes Garelick, who’s starting a second career as a math teacher. In high schools, what used to be “college prep” is now called “honors.” Courses labeled “college prep” are aimed at low achievers.

Unfortunately, the efforts and philosophies of otherwise well-meaning individuals have eliminated the achievement gap by eliminating achievement. Exercises in grammar have declined to the point that they are virtually extinct. Book reports are often assigned in the form of a book jacket or poster instead of a written analysis. Essays now are “student-centered” — even history assignments often call upon students to describe how they feel about past events rather than apply factual analysis.

Math classes are now more about math appreciation and being able to explain how a procedure works rather than the mastery of skills and procedures necessary to solve problems.

Gifted programs can relegate late bloomers to the non-honors track as early as third grade, he writes. By contrast, ability grouping can be flexible, letting students move up quickly when they’re ready.

A recent analysis of Dallas students found sorting by previous performance “significantly improves students’ math and reading scores” and helps “both high and low performing students,” including gifted and talented students, special education students, and those with limited English proficiency.

Schools are reviving ability grouping and tracking, according to Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.

He suggests a few possible reasons for the reversal: The emphasis on accountability, started by No Child Left Behind, may have motivated teachers to group struggling students together. The rise of computer-aided learning might make it easier for them to instruct students who learn at different rates.

Differentiating instruction for students of widely varying abilities — not to mention motivation and English fluency — is exceptionally challenging.  The “2008 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher reports that many teachers simply find mixed-ability classes difficult to teach,” notes Garelick.

Gifted and racially balanced education

School districts are looking for ways to end racial inequality in gifted education, writes Sarah Garland on the Hechinger Report.

As a second grader in 1975, she was bused from her middle-class neighborhood to inner-city Louisville, Kentucky. Her school was integrated. Her accelerated “Advance” class was mostly white and suburban; 11 percent of Advance students were black. “From second grade until my senior year in high school, my classes never had more than two black students at a time,” Garland writes.

More than two-thirds of black middle and high school students who did well on the Advance exam were denied admission by teachers and counselors who made the final determination, a 1990s lawsuit brought by black families showed. Only a third of whites were rejected.

Can gifted education be racially balanced?

Washington, D.C. public schools have reintroduced gifted education — in part to entice more middle-class whites into public schools, Garland writes. One gifted program is an affluent neighborhood. But another is at Kelly Miller, a middle school in a low-income black  neighborhood with a growing number of Hispanic immigrants.

Unlike traditional gifted programs, which usually require a test to get in, the D.C. programs are open to any student who wants to enroll. D.C. is aiming the program both at students who are book smart and those who may struggle on traditional measures of achievement but have other extraordinary talents that are harder to measure with a test.

The principal at Kelly Miller, Abdullah Zaki, explains that the idea is to expand the concept of giftedness. “If there’s a kid who is not reading at grade level but has the gift of gab and can argue you down in a heartbeat, they’re obviously interested in debate,” he says. “We can take their natural gift and talent and hone and polish it.”

Black parents haven’t rushed to enroll. Zaki now calls it an “honors” program, because parents don’t get “gifted and talented.”  Teachers are struggling to reach high achievers and low achievers in the same classroom.

Kelly Miller is also offering a more traditional version of gifted education, with a track of accelerated math and literacy courses for students who score well in those subjects.

D.C. officials will evaluate the ”schoolwide enrichment model” at the end of the year, Garland writes.

She’s the author of Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation

Here are the demographics of the class of ’17 at New York City’s super-elite Stuyvesant High, which uses an admissions test only:

—Stuyvesant offered admission to 9 black students; 24 Latino students; 177 white students; and 620 students who identify as Asian.

The other elite academic high schools also are majority Asian. Asian-American students make up 14 percent of the city’s public school enrollment.

Gifted or test prepped?

Test prep for four-year-olds keeps escalating in Manhattan, reports the New York Times. It’s a game played by well-to-do parents eager to get their kids into public gifted programs or into selective private schools.

The New York City Education Department changed part of its admissions exam for its gifted and talented programs last year, in part to minimize the benefits of test prep. A test prep company “posted the news with links to guides and practice tests for the new assessment,” reports the Times.

The day Pearson announced changes in the exam used by many private schools, another company explained the changes in its blog:  “word reasoning and picture comprehension were out, bug search and animal coding were in.”

Schools worry that intensive test prep has made the admissions test invalid.

Nearly 5,000 children qualified for gifted slots in the city’s public kindergartens this year, double the number five years ago.

Natalie Viderman, 4, spent an hour and a half each week for six months at Bright Kids NYC, a tutoring company, working on skills like spatial visualization and serial reasoning, which are part of the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, or NNAT 2, the new gifted and talented test. She and her mother, Victoria Preys, also worked every night on general learning, test prep and workbooks, some provided by Bright Kids.

Natalie’s brother, a Bright Kids graduate, tested into a gifted program. Natalie just missed the cut-off for a gifted school that uses an IQ test but hasn’t heard if she’s qualified for a gifted program that uses the NNAT 2.

Dance by numbers

Gifted fifth graders in Virginia are learning about patterns by dancing, reports PBS.

Carrie Lewis and Kelly Steele’s fifth grade students slide and spin across the classroom floor, doing the hustle, the robot and the running man. . . .

“Dances are patterns,” Lewis said. “We had identified that our students had trouble with patterns and this was a way to get them involved in it.”

On the Pillsbury Dough Boy website, students analyze the cartoon mascot’s six dance moves, assign each step a number and chart the patterns in his dance.

They also watch America’s Best Dance Crew to chart the repetition of dance moves.

Students then choreographed their own dance routines, repeating at least five moves.

Using stopwatches to clock the average time of their routine, students were asked to then calculate how many times their pattern would repeat throughout the course of the song, and then turn the resulting data into a graph.

“If your song is 100 seconds, how many repetitions will you do of your dance?,” Steele said. “If you use the extended version of your dance, 200 seconds, how many repetitions do you need to do? They are using their graph to figure that information out.”

When each group performs their routine for classmates, they freeze midway through the dance. Students must predict the next move in the pattern.

Gifted + talented = separate + unequal

“Gifted and talented” classes are mostly white and Asian, even at predominantly black and Hispanic schools, reports the New York Times. At P.S. 163 on the Upper West Side, black and Hispanic students make up two-thirds of the student body but only one third of gifted students.

Once schools could set their own criteria for admissions to gifted classes, but since 2008 only students who test very well can qualify. In low-income neighborhoods, schools don’t offer gifted classes because not enough kids ace the test.

(Critics) contend that gifted admissions standards favor middle-class children, many of them white or Asian, over black and Hispanic children who might have equal promise, and that the programs create castes within schools, one offered an education that is enriched and accelerated, the other getting a bare-bones version of the material. Because they are often embedded within larger schools, the programs bolster a false vision of diversity, these critics say, while reinforcing the negative stereotypes of class and race.

Students in gifted classes have a much easier time qualifying for the city’s selective middle and high schools. Only 15 percent of seats at  specialized high schools go to blacks or Hispanic students, who make up 70 percent of enrollment.

Sara K. Bloch’s triplets go to P.S. 163. Leon is in a gifted class, Jason in general education and Felix in “an integrated co-teaching class, which mixes special education students with general education children like Felix.”

“To be completely honest, we feel that this class is probably similar to a regular fifth-grade class,” she said on the day she visited Leon in Ms. Dillon’s class. “Math is the same; all three — they have the same book.”

But Leon does seem to be pushed harder, Ms. Bloch said. He is asked to think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party. She also said that the relationship between the parents and the teachers was more intense at the gifted level, with an expectation of parent involvement and connectedness.

A fifth-grade teacher at the school tells the Times she’d never let her own kids take general education classes at P.S. 163. There are too many kids from “the projects.”

Do charters serve fewer disabled students?

Charter schools are doing a better job serving special-needs students than reported, according to a New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Nationwide, charters serve fewer special-ed students, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report. However, the New York study finds “important variations in the enrollment patterns of students with special needs,” said Robin Lake, CRPE director.

In New York, charter middle and high schools enroll more special-needs students than district-run schools, according to CRPE. Charter elementary schools enroll fewer.

Some district-run elementary schools offer programs for special-needs students, the report noted.

Charter schools at the elementary level might also be less inclined to label students as needing special education services. This raises a troubling question: are charter schools under-enrolling or under-identifying students with special needs, or are district-run schools over-identifying them?

Instead of setting statewide special education enrollment targets, policy makers should set “school or regional targets that pay careful attention to those very specific factors that influence such enrollment choices as locations, grade-spans, and neighborhoods,” the report advises.

Setting targets assumes that every school should include the same percentage of disabled students. I’d like to see more schools (charter or district-run) designed for students with specific special needs, such as attention deficit disorder or autism, and more designed for academically gifted students.