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.

'Gifted' classes produce few gains

Gifted students in special classes and magnet schools don’t learn more than students who just missed the cut-off for special programs, concludes a working paper (pdf) by the National Bureau of Economic Research. From Education Week:

The University of Houston researchers who conducted the study found that students in these programs were more likely than other students to do in-depth coursework with top teachers and high-performing peers. Yet students who barely met the 5th grade cutoff criteria to enter the gifted programs fared no better academically in 7th grade, after a year and a half in the program, than did similarly high-potential students who just missed qualifying for gifted identification.

“You’re getting these better teachers; you’re getting these higher-achieving students paired up with you,” said Scott A. Imberman, an economics professor

The large, southwestern district provides enrichment, rather than acceleration, to gifted students. That typically means “more detailed and in-depth course materials, taught by high-performing teachers, with other high-performing peers.”

Students qualified as gifted based on high grades, teacher recommendations or scoring above the 80th percentile on a standardized exam.  However, students with average academic performance — as low as the 45th percentile in reading and the 55th percentile in math — could qualify if they had disabilities or limited English proficiency or if they lived in poverty.  About 20 percent of students were designated as gifted, an unusually high number.

‘Gifted’ teaching leads to gifted students

Low-income children taught with “gifted” techniques were more likely to be identified as gifted a few years later in a pilot experiment in high-poverty North Carolina elementary schools. Project Bright IDEA trained K-2 teachers in techniques used for gifted students.

The study found that within three years, the number of children identified by their school districts as being academically and intellectually gifted ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent, compared to just 10 percent of children in a control group. The year the project began, no third-graders from the schools in the study had been identified as gifted.

Black and Latino students are more likely to get “dumbed-down instruction,” said William “Sandy” Darity, professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “So one of the exciting things about Project Bright IDEA is the premise that you provide this high-level curriculum and instruction to all the kids.”

Can differentiation work?

With the demise of tracking, teachers are supposed to “differentiate instruction,” tailoring instruction to advanced, average and struggling students in the same class.  It’s not easy, writes Mike Petrilli in Ed Next.

The idea, according to Carol Tomlinson of the University of Virginia (UVA), is to “shake up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.” Ideally, instruction is customized at the individual student level.

Holly Hertberg-Davis, also at UVA worked with Tomlinson on a large study of differentiated instruction which included teacher training and ongoing coaching. 

 Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. “We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.”

Petrilli visits Piney Branch Elementary in Takoma Park, Maryland, a  high-achieving school with a very diverse student body.  How does differentiation work?

First, every homeroom has a mixed group of students: the kids are assigned to make sure that every class represents the diversity of the school in terms of achievement level, race, class, etc. Then, during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level. (Redbirds and bluebirds are back!)  . . .

For math, on the other hand, students are split up into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third. This means shuffling the kids from one room to another (a process that can be quite time-consuming for elementary school kids). But it allows the highest-performing kids to sprint ahead; one of the school’s 3rd-grade math classes, for example, is tackling the district’s 5th-grade math curriculum. . . .

The rest of the time—when kids are learning science or social studies or taking “specials” like art and music—they are back in their heterogeneous classrooms. Even then, however, teachers work to “differentiate instruction,” which often means separating the kids back into homogeneous groups again, and offering more challenging, extended assignments to the higher-achieving students.

. . . All kids spend most of the day getting challenged at their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that’s entirely segregated by race or class.

The school also offers the ”highly gifted” curriculum for very bright students in the same class with students who are working at grade level. Completely integrating the gifted class didn’t work. The performance spread was too wide.

What Piney Branch calls “differentiated instruction” looks a lot to me like fluid ability grouping for academic subjects.  Teachers, how does differentiation work in your school?  

Differentiated instruction is a fad with no basis in research, argued Mike Schmoker in Education Week.  

When it’s done properly, differentiation helps students learn, responds Tomlinson, in  a letter.

But, again, can it be done properly by the average teacher with a class that includes a wide range of abilities and disabilities?

Good schools only for the 'gifted'

I think Sara Mead is exactly right in The Real Problem with NY’s “Gifted” Tests for Kindergarteners on her Ed Week blog.

She links to a New York Times’ story on “how the city’s gifted assessment serves to lock in educational inequities between low-income children and middle-class and affluent families who can pay to prep their youngsters for the test.”

But the core issue here is NOT the use of test prep providers by middle class parents, the validity of the “gifted” designation for kindergarteners, or the developmental appropriateness of the tests used. The real problem is that New York City — and too many other places — use the “gifted” designation as a way to ration access to quality educational opportunities, and that kids who don’t win the “gifted” lottery too often don’t have access to good public schools that enable them to fulfill their potential.

What she said.

Do boys need single-sex schools?

Boys are more likely to be labeled disabled, less likely to be in gifted classes and much less likely to earn a high school diploma, New York City schools have found. The city is looking for ways to help boys succeed in school that probably will include “more single-sex schools, as well as mentoring, tutoring and other after-school programs,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

“A high level of physical energy and impulsivity tends to be devalued or even punished in schools,” says Steve Nelson, head of the progressive Calhoun School, a private school.

Charter schools are opening boys-only schools in low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The Eagle Academy, which started in the Bronx in 2004, was aimed to combat citywide graduation rates of 30% or lower for African-American males. Although the school has an 83% graduation rate this year, up from 80% in 2009, citywide numbers for African-American men are in the mid-40s, and are still “very, very troubling,” said (David) Banks, Eagle’s president and founding Principal of Eagle Academy.

. . . Young men who want to attend the school are selected by lottery. Mr. Banks — whose schools feature mandatory parental involvement, longer school days and Saturday classes — wants to open four more schools in the next five years.

“All-boys schools create safe environments in which boys can learn,” concludes a recent report on single-sex schools (pdf) serving black and Latino boys, notes Susan Sawyers on HechingerEd.  “An emphasis on building strong relationships among the boys, teachers, and staff proved important to engaging the boys in the learning process,” said New York University professor Pedro Noguera, an author of the Black and Latino Male Schools Intervention Study, at a conference in April. The study looked at seven schools that were traditional public, public charters and private schools.

The authors found that all-boys schools nurtured their students social and emotional development; challenged stereotypes about African-American and Latino male identity; infused strong academic expectations and college preparation as part of the boys’ social identity; and made strong efforts to shore up basic academic skills before moving on to more challenging offerings.

However, Noguera also said that the push toward single-sex schools for low-income boys is “an intervention in search of a theory” and named the report just that. Unlike all-girls schools, which are based on the theory of expanding gender role options for girls, all-boys schools are not based on a “shared understanding” of what boys actually need.

But it’s clear they need something more than they’re getting now.

Quirky kids shut out of 'gifted' classes

Gifted classes exclude very smart children who are good at math and science but weak on social skills, wrote Katharine Beals of Out in Left Field. Kids who are good in reading, writing and group work are preferred. Girls are much more likely to be placed in gifted classes, reports the New York Times.

. . . research has shown many gifted children (male and female) to be developmentally skewed or “asynchronous” (see, e.g., here and here), and, in particular, often socially, emotionally, and/or organizationally immature.

As I discuss in my book, the reasons for considering global maturity may have more to do with current fashions in education than with what academically challenging programming intrinsically requires. Today’s classrooms, and gifted classrooms in particular, increasingly emphasize collaborative work, reflections about personal feelings, and organizationally demanding projects. At the same time math–an area of relative strength for boys–has become less and less mathematically challenging (and increasingly infused with language arts).

In a follow-up, a reader adds the story of twin boys tested for the gifted program in elementary schools. Only one boy was accepted. The mother was surprised to see that the rejected boy had higher scores than his brother. He was “more socially shy and awkward.”

Another mother writes of her school:

Good behavior was “rewarded” by being admitted into gifted classes. When I subbed in emotional support and autistic support classes, I would see lowered expectations and some very brilliant insights. When I taught in gifted classes, I would see well-behaved kids who were great at regurgitating concrete facts.

It takes highly quirky, intelligent teachers to work with highly quirky, intelligent students, Beals writes. They may not be the sorts to make it through “dissent-crushing education schools, much less avoid getting fired for insubordination by today’s line-toeing principals.”

Gifted at 4, ordinary at 17

I want to thank Diana Senechal for guest-blogging for meso ably while I was on vacation. 

New York City parents prep their four-year-olds for IQ tests that will decide who gets into a “gifted” school, reports New York Magazine. But IQ tests aren’t very reliable for young children, especially at the high end of the scale.

Chance figures more prominently into high scores—a good night’s sleep, comfort with the tester—and lucky guesses on tough questions are worth more points than answers to midrange questions. In 2006, David Lohman, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, co-authored a paper called “Gifted Today but Not Tomorrow?” in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted, demonstrating just how labile “giftedness” is. It notes that only 45 percent of the kids who scored 130 or above on the Stanford-Binet would do so on another, similar IQ test at the same point in time. Combine this with the instability of 4-year-old IQs, and it becomes pretty clear that judgments about giftedness should be an ongoing affair, rather than a fateful determination made at one arbitrary moment in time.

Lohman estimates that only 25 percent of 4-year-olds who scored 130 or above would do so again as 17-year-olds.