Gas station without pumps

2011 October 8

Debate about how schools treat gifted students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:50
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In the NY Times, about a week ago, a debate was started about educating gifted students: Are Top Students Getting Short Shrift? – Room for Debate.  The two sides each have very simple positions.

On one side, there are those pointing out that NCLB (no child left behind) forces the schools to focus most of their resources on those children who are near the threshold of competence that NCLB dictates.  Given the very limited resources of most schools there is little attention left for those students who a well past that threshold and need more.

On the other side, there are those who claim that differentiation works, and that any teacher should be able to teach students where they are at, no matter how large the disparity in skills between different students in their classes.

As you can probably tell by the way I have summarized the two positions, I fall strongly on one side of the debate: most public schools provide far too little education for the brightest students. The debate should not be about whether the schools are doing a good job for the gifted students (in most places, the answer is a resounding “no!”), but what the role of a public school is.

For some people, the purpose of a public school is to move the bottom up as high as possible.  These people tend to focus on the “achievement gap”—the difference in performance between different groups of students (often defined by race or economic status).  Reducing the achievement gap is seen as the primary goal of a public school—maximizing equality of outcome.  Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to reduce the achievement gap by keeping the top down than by moving the bottom up, and that is the unfortunate result of many of the policies aimed at maximizing “equity”.  The goal here often seems to be like in “1984”—to make everyone as much the same as possible.

For some people, the purpose of a public school is to prepare students for a useful role in society.  This means that every student should get the skills necessary to do productive work and be able to make rational decisions when voting.  In this view, it is not necessary for public schools to provide a great education to anyone—good enough to get a job is all that is needed.  Unfortunately, the loss of unskilled jobs that pay a living wage has raised the bar over the past 50 years, so that what used to be good enough no longer is.  There has also been an unfortunate tendency for schools to steer kids away from blue-collar skilled jobs (plumber, auto mechanic, electrician, … ), and force everyone onto the college track.  If college were cheap, this would just mean a delay for entering the work force, but with colleges having all moved to the high-fee/high-loan model, the result is a generation saddled with enormous debt.  (I could also argue that the California initiative process and the success of the Tea Party shows that schools have failed miserably at creating citizens capable of rational decisions when voting also.)

For some people, education should be fitted to each student, with each one getting as much education as they want and can use.  The goal in allocating educational resources is not to make everyone the same, nor to make everyone minimally productive, but to get the maximum total return on the investment.  Although I’ve expressed this as if it were a financial question, one problem is that the return is not monetary but cultural, and so almost impossible to quantify. In this model, a fairly large amount of effort is spent on making students near the bottom self-sufficient (since otherwise there is a huge cost later on in supporting them), but another large amount is spent on students at the top, who can make the most productive use of college and grad-school education.   This was pretty much the model for educational spending before NCLB chopped off the top end, and it worked fairly well for society.

Of course, all the above arguments are from the standpoint of society—where should we as a society be putting our educational investment.  But in addition to education as a public good, there is also the view of education as a private good (which unfortunately is becoming the driving model in university financing).  In the private-good model, education is a personal or family investment, and the goal is to optimize the return on the investment to the individual.  Each parent wants to have the best possible education for their child, provided free, but wealthier parents are often willing to invest in private schools, summer educational camps, after-school classes, SAT coaching, and other tools to get an advantage for their children.

As the parent of a very smart child, I have tried many different forms of education, trying to get the best education I can for him (the private-good model). We have done public school (for K–3 and 9th grade), private school (4–6, 7–8), and home-schooling (10th grade).  We have also supplemented a lot with books, computer programs, after-school activities, educational summer day camps, and even some online courses.

We have generally found that the schools did not have available programs and courses that were at the level and pace he needed, but that flexible schools could be made to (sort of) work.  For example, for K–3, we had him take Spanish literacy classes with the native Spanish speakers, although he initially had no Spanish, since the English literacy classes were way below the level he needed.  We also bought the Singapore math curriculum for him, and had him work a year or two ahead in that, rather than plod along at the pace of the rest of the class.

For 4–6, we had him in a private school that prided themselves on small class sizes and adapting to the individual students.  That worked fairly well—for example, they taught everyone in the school math at the same time, so that each class scattered to different math groups, and one math group might have students for 3 different grade levels in it. Differentiation worked at this school, in part because all the students were above average and classes were quite small (no larger than 16).  This private school cost about $8–9k a year, about the same as the per-student spending at public schools.

The private school for 7–8 was less flexible overall, but did do math placement by initial testing and allowed middle-school students to take high school classes (so he got geometry and honors algebra 2 in 7th and 8th, plus high-school level Spanish and computer programming).  This school did have a couple of phenomenal history teachers for the middle school—better than any history teacher I ever had. Although they were willing to place him in math at the right level, their science instruction was weak and the pace of many of the courses too slow.  Unfortunately, the school was more than we could comfortably afford ($18k a year), and they laid off his favorite math teacher (which the teacher attributed to him being too strict on the grading).

The public school for 9th grade was not a very good fit—classes were enormous and the teachers had no time for differentiation, as their workloads were enormous even if everyone was doing the same thing.  Science worked out ok (after he was moved at the teacher’s recommendation from freshman bio to honors physiology), but the math course was a disaster (see Trig and Anal Geo) and English was worse (not the teacher’s fault, just a mismatch between my son and the teaching style).  Theater was ok (though half the class was just taking up space, having no interest in acting) as was video production.

I’ve seen what is available in public and private education in a small city, and none of it is really optimized for gifted students (the school he was in for 4–6 was the closest approximation).  I believe that the public schools could do a better job for gifted students by clustering students by their current achievement level (see Placement by achievement) and encouraging subject acceleration, without spending any more than they currently do.  But this would require moving from a “raise the bottom” model of public education to a “fit the education to the student” model, which would require a change in educational politics and some changes in teacher training.



  1. Placement by achievement would not work for another reason: the private-good advocacy of parents. Since most parents seem to view high school as four years of building a college application package, and increasingly view middle school as the launch pad to high school, and elementary school as a preparing ground for middle school, a surprising number of parents are actually concerned about how their child’s placement in 1st grade will affect the child’s chances of getting into a good college. (NYC Type A parents take it to an even higher level:

    So any attempt to divide children by achievement will result in most parents insisting their child be in the top group. (It’s the Lake Woebegone effect on steroids: most children are in the top 10%.)

    Comment by Dan — 2011 October 10 @ 05:14 | Reply

    • I have heard of the insanity of the NY system of determining a child’s future by where they go to preschool, and that is not what I mean by placement-by-achievement. What is required is an annual placement test, with students being placed in each subject each year by the results of the test. If a student has to take the same course three times or skips over three classes, fine. The parents’ money and political connections should not enter into it. There would probably have to be some mechanism for handling the students that are not properly measured by the test, but hopefully that would be a small percentage.

      Damn, I can see the mess that New Yorkers would make of that system. They’d create expensive test-preparation courses for distorting the achievement tests, so that their kids would be placed in the wrong level classes. It is hard to make a good measurement tool if people’s main goal is to cheat rather than to make decent measurements.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 October 10 @ 08:47 | Reply

  2. […] Debate about how schools treat gifted students ( […]

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  3. Unfortunately I agree with the comment above, but I’m in a different city and state. In our town 20%-30% of all school children are tagged as being gifted. I have difficulty understanding why acceleration and grouping by achievement level are used so rarely, they are inexpensive solutions. I heard from the gifted coordinator at my son’s school that if they moved my son ahead, “all parents would want the same thing”, and this would be bad for the school. We have struggled with appropriate school placement my children’s whole school lives. We too have tried private and public school options. The one factor that seems to determine the amount of flexibility the schools have is the size of the school, the smaller the better. I understand bringing the bottom up, but I have trouble understanding why the top must be capped at the same time. My goal, like yours, is to have all student’s education fit their needs–hopefully without extra parental expense.

    Comment by mousewoman — 2011 October 10 @ 06:43 | Reply

  4. […] political insistence on focusing all educational resources on the students at the bottom (see Debate about how schools treat gifted students), but not with an educational model that insists that all students be […]

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  5. Some focusing school education on the lower achieving students I don’t think is a bad thing. However neglecting the high achievers is so very wrong imo. All children are different and all need to be educated. When you have one child that is reading at 2 1/2 and another that doesn’t recognize letters at 4, do they belong in the same class? Maybe on a social level yes. But that higher achieving child needs to be challenged, that won’t happen in a typical classroom. I believe what our education system needs is more teachers and much smaller classroom sizes and much more flexibility. I can see the advantage of having different levels in the same class but all need to have their needs met. If it requires a different class for reading, math, whatever, let it happen. Let them work at their own pace, one of my kids went through 2 1/2 math books in a year. IMO NCLB is a frikking joke, it has a very narrow focus which I think is very wrong.
    I have advocated for my children for many years, have been blessed with understanding educators. My latest fight is I think going to be my hardest. My youngest is a junior in high school, has been getting pretty much straight A’s since elementary school. He has been forced to take study hall which he doesn’t need. I want then to let him take the academic classes he needs instead and let him graduate early so he can move on to college. This is a child whose chose a graduation project that will require him to do independent learning on the internet. Clearly he wants to learn beyond what high school is teaching him. Our system needs to change imo, In the mean time for our high achievers it is going to take parents to fight for their needs.

    Comment by LoAnn — 2011 October 11 @ 08:39 | Reply

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