Monday, June 3, 2013

The Great Levelers: Death... and Education

Around the country, school districts are eliminating programs for the most academically advanced students.

Some districts have changed the requirements for gifted programming to include non-academic skills, thereby excluding many highly capable students who aren't deemed by their teachers to be sufficiently socially or emotionally mature, sufficiently curious, sufficiently well-organized, or sufficiently "well-rounded" in non-academic ways.

Some districts allow only a tiny fraction of students into gifted/advanced classes, keeping everyone else in the same, mixed-ability classrooms. Citing official definitions of "giftedness" that are in fact arbitrary, mistakenly assuming that these are based on a well-defined, scientifically principled notion of giftedness, they decree that only a miniscule, pre-specified percentage of their students are "gifted" (1-3% is typical). And they studiously ignore the role that external circumstances play in determining what proportion of their students are, in fact, capable of more advanced work than what they offer them. In the case of school districts with large numbers of highly educated parents and/or highly dumbed-down curricula, this may be, in key subjects like English and/or math, as much as 40% of the student body.

Finally, some districts are simply eliminating gifted programs entirely, arguing that they are too expensive, that students at the other end of the academic spectrum have needs that are of much higher priority, that gifted programs are unacceptably elitist and unacceptably widening of achievement gaps, that many students turn out not to benefit from accelerated courses (perhaps only because they were selected primarily for their non-academic skills)--and/or that one can just as effectively meet the needs of academically advanced students by placing them in heterogeneous ability classrooms and "differentiating instruction."

Fantasies about differentiated instruction extend down the academic spectrum to the weakest students, including those with learning disabilities and other special needs. Somehow, teachers are supposed to be able to meet a whole spectrum of needs simultaneously by putting students in mixed ability groups and assigning them different tasks.

Similarly fantastical is the notion of what sort of free and appropriate appropriate education for special needs children is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Quoting the Wikipedia article on FAPE, this includes the provision that the child receives

access to the general curriculum to meet the challenging expectations established for all children (that is, it meets the approximate grade-level standards of the state educational agency, to the extent that this is appropriate)
That final qualifier, "to the extent that this is appropriate," is routinely ignored, such that many special needs students end up not receiving appropriate instruction at their actual ability levels, but only at their calendar-age-grade levels. The fantasy that all students can access grade-level work if only given appropriate supports has resulted in such wrong-headed practices as teaching dyslexic kids medieval history through an "arts-based approach that includes costumes, games, activities" and that minimizes reading practice; putting high school students who read significantly below the standard college-prep level in postmodernism seminars; and expecting students like J who are several years below grade level in language arts to somehow "access" Shakespeare instead of undergoing the kind of remedial reading instruction that would actually improve skills.

In other words, the fantasy that all students can access grade-level work if only given appropriate supports has become an excuse for accommodating rather than teaching.

Ironically, then, these one-grade-level-fits-all policies end up completely backfiring vis a vis some of their stated rationales: narrowing the achievement gap and helping society's most vulnerable children. These, I should add, include not only children with special needs, but also poor but bright kids who have always lacked access to extracurricular enrichment programs, and who, now more than ever, are getting less and less appropriately challenging instruction in school.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I agree with most of what you say, except that any school that is putting 40% of their students into a gifted program is making a mistake. If that many need more advanced instruction, then they should move the "regular" level up.
When gifted instruction is used, it should be for those who really are so far from the rest of the class that special instruction is needed. (Whether that is 5% or 10% of the class depends mostly on the size of the class—it can be expensive to offer special instruction for too small a group.)

There is also the problem that some students may be gifted in some fields, but average or behind in others (like math and science experts with challenges in literary analysis). Students should be chosen for their strengths and the match to the gifted program. (Our local school district one summer did a "gifted" program that was just music instruction—a talent that is not that highly correlated with what the entrance to the gifted program measured.)

Auntie Ann said...

And widening the gap, because parents who know what is going on make sure there kids are in Kumon or at the Mathnaseium or Syvlan after school.

Katharine Beals said...

Right, Auntie Ann, about the Kumon, etc!

And right, GWP, about the issues of the 40% and subject-specificity.

Really what we need is graded instruction at multiple levels, per subject. Academic capability is a gradient, and the top 5% or 10% only looks way ahead of everyone else if you compare them to the average of the other 90-95%. Everyone should have appropriately challenging instruction, including those closer to the middle. And with today's curricula, even those right at the middle aren't getting what they need.

Anonymous said...

There is also the issue of funding. Many programs to help students at both ends of the spectrum are being cut, not because the teachers or schools think it is a good idea, but because they simply do not have the funding. Education in this country is not deemed worthy of tax dollars.

lgm said...

I disagree anon. I think we all want education, but we don't see how to pay for it. That real estate bubble almost doubled home values around here, raising school taxes much more than wages were raised, even though we all know there weren't enough buyers to sustain that valuation. Giving the school employees compensation raises of 8-10% per year is not sustainable when the people who are paying for it have stagnant wages. And yes, the district here has suggested that those people sell their homes to those who do not have stagnant wages, but then what? What district is controlling costs? How many families need to be living in each single family home, holding public fundraisers for their medical needs, before the compensation increases stay under the tax cap that Cuomo has implemented?

Anonymous said...

Maybe they should not tie funding for a school to the taxes of people only in that area, and having to raise money to fund medical costs is actually a related issue. It is going to be difficult to have good education and meet the needs of diverse students in the current economic and political situation. I guess my point was that we can all say what we really need in schools, but it won't happen without a change in the political and economic structure of thus country.

Auntie Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Auntie Ann said...

It's not the spending. It's the curricula and the lack of teaching:

Test scores vs Spending

Anonymous said...

I think both may be involved. The fact that it is difficult to accommodate different levels of learning. An all-inclusive classroom where students with fairly severe behavioral issues must be included, thereby disrupting the rest of the class. The need to differentiate over a very broad range. For some students, it does not matter what curriculum is used, they get it. For others, it is more important what curriculum is used. I think Singapore math is a good curriculum, but any curriculum needs to be adjusted and potentially supplemented. Some students thrive on the puzzle types of word problems, others need more time on concrete introduction. Plus there are many other factors affecting the ability to learn, including home life, and there is lack of funding to deal with those kinds of issues. There is an awful lot teachers have to deal with on their own besides teaching.