Sunday, August 22, 2010

Inflationary pressures and gifted education

Education blogger Walt Gardner's recent post about how the U.S. education system is failing to meet the needs of education students inspired me to post a comment recapping my general take on gifted education:

Why not simply offer highly challenging classes-- and by this I mean classes that are much more challenging than what today's schools typically offer, with tough, consistently enforced standards--and let anyone who wants to go ahead and enroll in them. (And make sure they are well-publicized so that all students and parents know about them). At the same time, make it easy for students to switch to less challenging classes if they find themselves floundering.

This not only gets rid of problematic labels, but places the power to choose classes where it should be: with the students and their parents.

This is how things worked at my relatively large (size is key!) high school--multiple classes at multiple levels of challenge, open to anyone who wanted to give them a try.
Walt then pointed out to me that some people would object to this on the grounds that students who enroll in classes they aren't able to handle may not always drop out when they can't achieve: "Marginal students will force teachers to devote inordinate time to them, diluting the overall quality of the gifted classes." He noted that something similar happened with the City University of New York in 1969, when it granted admission to every high school graduate in New York City, with the idea that students who couldn't handle the coursework would drop out.

I replied that at my high school what seemed to deter students from remaining in classes they couldn't handle were the tough grading standards. But as I wrote this, I realized that we're living in a different world. Today's teachers are besieged by parents and students whenever they give out low grades. I've heard some teachers say that find these exchanges so unpleasant that they preemptively give out high grades to everyone. I certainly feel these pressures myself--they are extraordinarily powerful and hard to resist. Even when I think I'm resisting them, part of me suspect I'm not. The result is a cycle of inflation in which even today's B's are considered bad grades.

In such a climate, a free market of classes of different difficulty levels and grading standards is no longer possible. And so, instead of being able to dispense with the gifted label as my high school once was, schools are under increasing pressure to give it out--along with all those A's.


kcab said...

Hmmm. What about siting an exam to gain entrance to the class? Also, I wonder what the grading policies are in other countries. I've looked briefly at entrance requirements for colleges in one foreign country (the schools in question are well-regarded) and was surprised to find that the requirements are basically a high school diploma and certification of language skills. Apparently some of the classes are "weed-out" classes though, and are tough and graded hard.

FedUpMom said...

My warning is that first you have to have a school that defines "difficulty" in a useful way. In our district, classes are "difficult" not because they are intellectually challenging, but simply because they assign a high workload (and it might just be busywork) plus high-pressure tests.

FedUpMom said...

I want to add that another bad (and common) way to make a class "difficult" is to not really teach it, but expect the students to teach themselves.

Anonymous said...

Another way to make a class difficult is to hide some of the criteria for top grades and then expect the "top" students to deduce it on their own (aka "going beyond the standard").

Anonymous said...

I'm from one of those countries (The Netherlands) that only requires a high school diploma to go to university. But, we have different high school diplomas. Only about 15% of students go to secondary school for 6 years and get the pre-university high school diploma. And we have national exams that count for 50% of the grade for receiving that high school diploma, and schools where the school grades are too different from the national exam grades get audited.