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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Five Things We Should Stop Doing to High-Ability Students

Now that my kids have all made it through public elementary and middle school, I’d like to get some things off my chest: the things we really need to stop doing to high-ability students.

But first, a word about words. “Gifted” is often used interchangeably with “high ability.” I think that’s very unfortunate. Talk about a word that reeks of elitism. "Gifted" is like saying, “The heavens opened and dropped blessings upon my child, but not upon yours. Sorry.” That said, I do think there are kids who should rightly be called “gifted.” The young Mozart and Einstein. You know -- prodigies. I don’t know what exactly got dropped on their heads, but it certainly isn’t what got dropped on mine or my kids'. “High achieving” describes kids who consistently master grade-level material with ease and quickly move beyond, and I’m sticking with that.

And now, back to --


1. Group projects. For some reason that passeth all understanding, the Powers On High seem to have decided that group projects are SO GREAT that kids need to do them all the time in every class. This is not exaggeration. I have been told by middle school teachers that they have explicit instructions from the administration: They MUST do group projects in every class. Now, I have nothing against the occasional group project, but here’s a news flash: They’re highly problematic for high-ability kids. Teachers want the groups to be “balanced” so that they all have an opportunity to succeed. This means they usually put high-ability kids in groups with some or all low achievers. Now let’s put the message in realistic kid language, from the high-achieving kid’s point of view: “Do all the work or get a sucky grade.” Or in other words, “We are punishing you for being a good student by giving you extra work.” (This is kind of an ongoing theme. More on that later.)

2. Crappy differentiation. “Differentiation” is education jargon for giving individuals or groups of kids in the same classroom different work based on their ability and achievement level. It’s a very difficult thing to do well, because it means that the teacher has to prepare multiple lessons that truly tackle material at different levels and can be completed semi-independently. On top of that, the teacher must then manage a classroom where not everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, moving among students in a way that provides enough time and instruction to each to be useful, but also divides his time fairly. What usually happens instead is the teacher gives everyone the same worksheet, and the kid who does it with great speed and accuracy gets....another worksheet. Or an extra reading assignment. Or told to help a kid who’s slower. In other words, “We are punishing you for being a good student by giving you extra work.” (See, I told you this would be an ongoing theme.)

3. Contests instead of curriculum. In our school district, we actually have a special program for high-ability kids (more or less -- see number 5 below), with dedicated faculty, so we’re luckier than many. But there’s no specific curriculum. Should Quest kids be delving more deeply into academic subjects? Independently researching topics of interest to them? Accelerating through the standard curriculum? Given highly specialized instruction? There are no guidelines. It seems to be entirely up to the teacher. The teachers did come up with some great ideas (which often involved group projects -- see number 1 above and 5 below). But a shocking amount of the Quest curriculum was dedicated to participation in contests outside of school: debates, spelling bees, mock trials, model UN, and, God help us, ENTREPRENEURSHIP. (The latter is rendered in angry, yelling CAPS because this contest was run by the right-wing Foundation for Free Enterprise, dedicated to teaching youngsters that money is good and government regulation is evil; the whole endeavor offended me mightily. "Non-political" my ass. But that’s another post.) Yes, the kids learned something in preparation for these events, but the truth is, these competitions were being used in place of a curriculum rather than as complements to one -- because, WHAT CURRICULUM?

4. Ignoring their achievements. And don’t try to tell me school administrators don’t, because they do. Schools give shockingly tepid recognition to high academic performers, as though it would somehow offend the Gods of Democracy to publicly praise a kid for doing well in the arts, humanities or sciences (as opposed to, say, running fast with a ball). Yeah, these days you get a little recognition when the jazz band or the math team does well, but only when teachers and parents push, and only out of a grudging sense of political correctness. The truth is, to get football-team-level attention, an academic high-achiever has to get national-level acclaim. Working ten times harder to get the same recognition. What does that sound like, I wonder? (“You want recognition? If you’re so smart, DO MORE WORK.” There’s that theme again.)

5. Low standards. This problem affects kids at all achievement levels, but we tend to consider it only as it affects low achievers. We talk about the problem of social promotion, where standards are set so low that kids move from grade to grade, and ultimately graduate, without having become truly proficient. But we rarely talk about the effect of grade inflation on the high achiever, who may have mastered material well above grade level, but gets the same A as a kid who is proficient at grade level. We don’t acknowledge how demoralizing it is when a high achiever is placed in an honors class, or even a Quest class, only to discover that the class is moving slowly because so many kids in it are not really ready for accelerated work. A few highly self-motivated kids will grab the bull by the horns and seek out opportunities commensurate with their abilities. But far more will simply conform to expectations, producing mediocre work that meets the standard they’re given, whether or not it’s the best they can do.

It’s hard for parents of high-ability kids to get up and talk about this stuff, because frankly they’re worried about sounding immodest. Like, “Excuse me, but my kid is too smart for your stupid school.” Of course, that’s not what this is at all, any more than the parent of a kid in need of remedial learning is saying, “Excuse me, but my kid is too stupid for your smart school.” We’re all just saying, “Please give my kid a program that meets her needs, is geared to her level, and helps her advance at the rate of which she is capable.”

Of course, that’s a pretty costly proposition, all that differentiation and individualization. It might cut into the standardized testing budget.