Thursday, March 21, 2013
Should gifted classes be open to all?
Slate magazine ran a story recently by Sarah Garland on who should be in gifted programs. Garland attended a magnet school in Louisville, KY, shortly after desegregation. Southern school districts (as mine did, in Raleigh NC) discovered that by putting a gifted magnet program at a school in a predominantly lower-income neighborhood, you could keep middle-class kids in your district. Indeed, you wouldn't just keep them in your district, you'd keep some of them in what might otherwise become the most stressed and under-funded schools. Garland seems to have a problem with this. She notes that her gifted program had fewer African American students than her school at large (though certainly not zero; the numbers she cites are 11% vs. 20-40% in the school district). "The problem was that gifted programs tended to foster racial separation inside schools, undermining the very goal they were supposed to support." Maybe. In my school, the gifted classes were only for a few hours a day, and everything else -- including art, music, PE, lunch, recess, etc. -- was a non-tracked undertaking. All parents would be in the same PTA; the parents of more privileged students who wound up in these schools would still be advocating for better staffing, would be volunteering in the schools, would be noticing maintenance problems, etc. Since I tend to think that was a smart move by these districts, I have to say, I did not have high hopes for Garland's article. But after she got the usual complaints about gifted programs out of the way, she raised a rather interesting question: what if parents and kids can simply self-select into them? The upside is that this would remove all possible questions about testing bias -- about whether intelligence tests measure intelligence or are measuring other things. One could also imagine that open-enrollment gifted programs would have more political support. It's not a lifeboat strategy, really, if anyone who wants can get on the lifeboat. The downside, though, is that the point of gifted education is to challenge and meet the needs of children whose needs can't be met in traditional classrooms. Teachers naturally instruct toward the middle of their classes. Good teachers are constantly assessing how many children have figured things out and how many have not, and if most are confused, the teacher will stay on the matter at hand until she or he gets a satisfactory percentage of students over the hump. The challenge would be to make sure that the rigor of such classes remained as high as they should be. Garland discusses some pilot programs in Washington DC that take such an approach. There are two realizations that the pilot programs have involved: first, they have to be well-staffed, so if kids are struggling, something is done about that. Second, there also needs to be a lot of outreach and some explanation of what a gifted program is. Not all parents are familiar with the concept, and whether that would be something for their kids to try. I'd also add a few other thoughts. First, such gifted programs should not be the only "good" programs at a school. You want parents and kids to opt into gifted classes because they think they need them, not because it's the only way to get a class with few discipline problems. Second, there also needs to be a seamless and non-judgmental way to transition out of them. Frankly, all gifted programs suffer from this problem. In districts that do have gifted programs, if you're identified once in an early grade, sometimes you're in for good, even if it turns out that wasn't the right placement. There should be some good way to move in and out of programs, evaluating every year what is the right fit. What do you think of the concept of open-enrollment gifted programs?