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.”

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.

The smart path

Demarquez Grissom grew up in an Atlanta neighborhood where “it was cool to be dumb.” But he figured out that was stupid by eighth grade. A teacher got him into a gifted program that led to Syracuse University.

DoE seeks equality in AP, gifted classes

Tracking students by academic performance creates a separate and unequal school system, according to the U.S. Education Department, reports Sonali Kohli in The Atlantic.

Black students to be afforded equal access to advanced, higher-level learning opportunities,” the DoE’s Office of Civil Rights proclaimed in announcing an agreement with a New Jersey school district, South Orange Maplewood.

Proponents of tracking and of ability-grouping (a milder version that separates students within the same classroom based on ability) say that the practices allow students to learn at their own levels and prevent a difficult situation for teachers: large classes where children with a wide range of different needs and skill levels are mixed together. In many districts, the higher-level instruction in “gifted and talented” or advanced placement (AP) classes is what keeps wealthier families from entirely abandoning the public school system.

But . . . many education researchers have argued that tracking perpetuates class inequality, and is partially to blame for the stubborn achievement gap in the US educational system.

South Orange Maplewood in New Jersey will hire a consultant to examine why more whites than blacks are in advanced courses as part of a resolution agreement with the DoE.

In California’s Elk Grove Unified, 16 percent of students are black, but only 6 percent of gifted and talented (GATE) students are black. The district entered a DoE agreement to make GATE enrollment reflect enrollment.

Notice that Asian-American students are the most over-represented in GATE classes.

Gifted classes help achievers

Gifted classes help disadvantaged students with high achievement scores but average IQs, according to a study of urban fourth graders.

Non-disadvantaged students with IQs of 130 or higher did not benefit. Neither did lower-income students and English Learners with IQ scores of 116 or higher.

Students who “miss the IQ thresholds but scored highest among their school/grade cohort in state-wide achievement tests in the previous year . . . show significant gains in reading and math, concentrated among lower-income and black and Hispanic students.” Math gains persisted in fifth grade. Students also showed gains in fifth-grade science.

Gifted classes are “more effective for students selected on past achievement – particularly disadvantaged students who are often excluded from gifted and talented programs,” researchers concluded.

Mixed-ability algebra classes hurt higher-skill students, concludes another study on Chicago’s algebra-for-all policy, adopted in 1997.

Chicago moved poorly prepared students into algebra classes without additional supports for students or teachers, researchers found. “Simply mandating a college-prep curriculum for all students is not sufficient to improve the academic outcomes of all students.”

Who’d have thunk it?

The case for closing elite schools

At New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High, 71 percent of students come from Asian families, while 2.9 percent are black or Latino. Does it matter?

Elite exam schools like New York City’s Stuyvesant High should be closed, argues Reihan Salam, a Stuyvesant alum, on Slate. “Mayor Bill de Blasio, state lawmakers in Albany, and the United Federation of Teachers have called for scrapping Stuyvesant’s current admissions formula,” which relies on an entrance exam.

Seventy-one percent of students who made the cut-off in 2014 were Asian, often from immigrant families. Only 2.9 percent were black or Latino.

Some want to admit the top-testing students at each public middle school, ensuring that more blacks and Latinos — and fewer Asians — qualify.

Others would emulate the college admissions process, adding teacher recommendations, grades and portfolios of students’ work.

The politicians and the education experts who are so fixated on the racial balance at Stuyvesant neglect the fact that Stuyvesant is not built to support and nurture students who need care and attention to excel academically and socially. It is a school that allows ambitious students who know how to navigate their way around a maddening, complex bureaucracy to connect with other students with the same skill sets.

Hyper-competitive students thrive in the sink-or-swim environment. Others struggle to stay afloat. Salam wants to “spread gifted and talented kids across a wide range of schools offering different instructional models.” No school will be considered the best.

What’s wrong with letting very smart, very competitive students go to school together? Those who want a smaller, more supportive school have other choices.

Gifted kids are neglected, argues Checker Finn.

Separate and gifted?

Eliminate gifted tracks in New York City, argue Halley Potter of the Century Foundation and David Tipson of New York Appleseed in the New York Times Room for Debate blog.

Seventy percent of the city’s gifted and talented (G&T) kindergarteners are white and Asian, while 70 percent of students are black and Latino, they write.

“Segregation” harms the education of low-income students. they argue. “At the same time, affluent white and Asian students in the city’s separate G&T classrooms are also denied the cognitive and social benefits that socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms offer.”

Gifted children won’t “be fine” in mixed-ability classes, responds Rick Hess.

. . . we’re putting much at risk when we simply hope that overburdened classroom teachers can provide the teaching and learning that gifted children need. Anyone who has watched a teacher labor to “differentiate” instruction in a classroom that encompasses both math prodigies and English language learners knows it’s unreasonable to expect most teachers to do this well.

Students do best in classrooms with students of similar ability, researcher Bruce Sacerdote writes. “We know from data, from theory and, most important, from decades of experience that ability grouping or tracking can have a big payoff. . . . High-ability students benefit the most from high-ability peers.

Differentiation: How well is it done?

Differentiated instruction — individualizing teaching for students at multiple levels in the same classroom — is much revered, writes Checker Finn. But “how well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances?”

He’s concerned about educating high-ability children from disadvantaged families. He keeps hearing that special programs for gifted kids aren’t necessary because “we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”

Is that really happening? Is it possible without genius teachers?

“Teachers are expected to be all things to (almost) all youngsters,” Finn writes.

They may engage in some form of “ability grouping” within the classroom—which may well be what teachers “hear” when someone says “differentiate,” though it’s surely not what the gurus of the field intend. Or, if they stick with full-class instruction, they pitch much of their instruction to kids in the middle 60 percent or so of the achievement/ability/motivation distribution, doing less for pupils who are either lagging far behind or surging ahead.

Middle-class parents may pressure teachers to focus on the needs of high achievers, writes Finn. In schools with lots of disadvantaged children, there’s little or no pressure to focus on the “smart kids” and lots of high-need students demanding the teacher’s time and attention.

Gifted kids are left behind

Gifted children are left behind if they don’t have “education-minded, ambitious, pushy,” connected and confident parents, writes Checker Finn in Defining Ideas. High-ability students need someone to “work the system” or buy a place in suburban or private schools, he writes.

Smart poor kids seldom have sufficiently pushy parents. Their neighborhood schools are apt to concentrate on educating low achievers.

Poor parents may not know what their children are capable of and probably lack the resources to purchase supplemental courses, educational software, weekend and summer programs, and much else that similarly gifted youngsters from more prosperous circumstances are apt to have showered upon them.

Worry less about elitism and more about identifying and educating high-potential children — including those without pushy parents, Finn argues. Even then, “surprisingly little is known about what strategies, structures and programs work best in educating high-ability youngsters to the max.”

Brooklyn school picks diversity over gifted program

A Brooklyn elementary school is dropping its popular gifted program because not enough black and Latino students test into gifted classes, reports the New York Daily News. More than two-thirds of students are black or Latino, while Asian-Americans make up 18 percent and whites 10 percent.