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. 

‘Scary smart’ — and invisible

Exceptionally smart students “are often invisible in the classroom, lacking the curricula, teacher input and external motivation to reach full potential,” writes Science Daily, citing a Vanderbilt study that followed gifted students for 30 years.

 The 320 high-IQ students went on to become business leaders, software engineers, physicians, attorneys, and leaders in public policy, reports Who Rises to the Top?, published in Psychological Science.

Despite their remarkable success, researchers concluded that the profoundly gifted students had experienced roadblocks along the way that at times prevented them from achieving their full potential. Typical school settings were often unable to accommodate the rapid rate at which they learned and digested complex material. . . . This resulted in missed learning opportunities, frustration and underachievement, particularly for the exceptionally talented, the researchers suggest.

To reach their full potential, the “scary smart” need “accelerated coursework, AP classes and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers like Peabody’s Programs for Talented Youth” said Harrison Kell, who collaborated on the study.


Bored in class? Deal with it

Nancy Flanagan writes about bored students and boring teachers at Teacher in a Strange Land.

Boredom isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, she starts.

If you’re bored, see it as an opportunity to figure out why. In addition, bear in mind that many excellent life habits are established through repetition and plodding along.

Boredom isn’t a sign the curriculum or teaching has been “dumbed-down,” Flanagan adds. “Practicing almost anything can feel boring, at times.”

Buying into kids’ boredom as valid reason for disconnecting or misbehaving corresponds to another fallacy: the idea that “good” teachers should make every lesson novel and entertaining to kids. True, there is a strong acting/entertainment factor in dynamic teaching. Great teaching should inspire learning through more than attention-grabbing, however.  Reminder: the person who does the–hard, and occasionally monotonous–work of learning is the student. It doesn’t matter how many white-lab-coat chemical explosions they witness, or if their fifth grade teacher dresses up like Amelia Earhart–there is no learning without diligent effort on the part of the child.

Boredom is not a sign of giftedness, Flanagan writes.

Students who “own their boredom” can find ways to deal with it, she advises.

I went through school before the invention of “gifted and talented education.” There was no tracking till high school. I read in class, which made it possible to go through 10 books every two weeks. (When the library gave us three weeks, I started reading longer books.) It’s the core of my education.

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?