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.

Homeschooling in the city

When dad’s a part-time professor  and editor and mom’s a laid-off journalist, there’s no money for private school and no motivation to schlep the kids from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a public school with a “gifted” class. Paul Elie writes about the joys of homeschooling in the city in The Atlantic.

Homeschooling isn’t just for “religious traditionalists and off-the-grid homesteaders,” Elie writes. For middle-class parents — with a stay-at-home mom or dad — it’s “a practical alternative to New York’s notoriously inadequate education system.”

The city’s public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and perpetually in turnaround. District boundaries governing enrollment change from one year to the next, as do standards for admission to gifted programs and “citywide” schools, accept­ance to which is determined by children’s scores on tests whose educational relevance is questionable.

. . . Some of the parents in our (homeschooling) circle are “unschoolers,” convinced that early education should follow a child’s interests and initiatives rather than shape them. Some of us aspire to offer something like a classical education: logic and rhetoric, mythology, Latin. Most of us are put off by the public schools’ emphasis on standardized tests and their scant attention to the visual arts, music, religion, and foreign languages.

New York City offers a “gorgeous mosaic of intellectual and cultural offerings,” Elite writes.

On a normal day in our Brooklyn apartment, I teach math first thing, then go to an office space in a different neighborhood. Lenora picks up from there, teaching American and world history, language arts, geography, and penmanship, depending on the day. She and the boys then set out into the city for science at the Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; history at the Queens County Farm Museum or the Wyckoff Farmhouse, in Brooklyn; or art at the Metropolitan Museum.

Homeschoolers can find free programs or affordable classes, such as one that “teaches children the history of a place—­medieval Europe, Federal-era New York—through its architecture.”  He pays $5 a week for a homeschool soccer program led by a coach who can’t find other work during regular school hours.

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?

Life’s a carnival

Bellringers is hosting the Numero Uno 2012 edition of the Education Buzz Carnival.

Nancy Flanagan of Teacher in a Strange Land contributes Re-Gifted: The Prickly Politics of the Academically Able.  “Are we cheating the gifted?” she asks. “Not any more than usual.”

January is “Get Organized Month,” writes Dee of Time4Learning, host of this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling.