Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gifted student education--being left behind by No Child Left Behind

The New York Times article "The Pitfalls of Identifying a Gifted Child" featured essays by four education "experts," followed by hundreds of comments, mostly by former gifted students.

There's a political angle to this.

The Democratic Party is philosophically not behind gifted student education. I know many party members will disagree with this assessment, but it's true. The party has proletarian roots that leaves it focusing on what it perceives to be disadvantaged people. On the other hand it is behind more teachers, more educational specialties, lavish special ed programs, and more public education in general, so--especially in flush times--it will tolerate what appears on the face of it to be an elitist program.

The Republican Party is also not behind gifted education philosophically. It favors a traditional focus on the 3 Rs and not this fancy-schmancy educator stuff. And its Small Government focus says less public sector is better unless proven otherwise. And gifted kids are by definition gifted--let them be gifted on their own dime.

And the GOP has acquired a powerfully anti-intellectual angle courtesy of Nixon's Southern Strategy, in which the party gained the South in exchange for becoming Christian Fundamentalist with a focus on not teaching evolution and sex instead of focusing on what we should be teaching--and to whom.

I may be setting up straw man arguments here to make my point, but even if you disagree with my attaching party labels to these attitudes, these attitudes are so common they're in the majority.

Today school districts spend many, many millions of dollars on mentally handicapped children, while cutting back on gifted student programs or eliminating them altogether.

The Return on Investment for society has been almost nonexistent. It takes people off welfare rolls, or reduces their dependency at least, and the workforce gets dishwashers, box boys and nannies--something we already have in abundance.

OTOH investment in gifted kids--especially those from disadvantaged groups and/or families--not only gives us more lead engineers, innovative doctors, artists, and entrepreneurs--it helps ensure that they won't use their talents to become con artists or biker gang leaders or BP executives...or Lee Atwaters, for that matter.

That is:

Un-helped mentally handicapped kids become hapless adults.
Un-helped gifted kids become dangerous adults.
Helped mentally handicapped kids become unskilled laborers at best.
Helped gifted kids add to everyone's opportunities, prosperity and health.

In the NYTimes article, the educational experts talked about all the tests we have to identify gifted kids--used as much to block kids who (or whose parents) want to enter gifted programs.

My nonpartisan answer is: this is largely about educational administrators being control freaks and trying to stick what they regard as their expertise into an area they can't actually contribute, unless they're gifted themselves. And I guarantee you most are not, in spades.

Here's my surefire way to control admission into gifted student programs: Don't.
Let anyone enter who wants to or whose parents want them to. If the gifted program moves at the pace and intensity it will IF it's run by ex-gifted student who are now teachers, non-gifted kids will opt out.

Meanwhile you'll have given opportunities to kids who might not fit any standardized test methodology.

All students should be tested for ability periodically, or, in many areas (not just the arts) their performance--their actual output--should be surveyed for exceptionality, and ones who seem gifted should be invited to take a whack at a gifted program.

And note that one of the biggest advantages of gifted programs is that it helps socialize kids who otherwise often think they're alone--and that they don't have to work to excel.

The biggest problem with gifted student program funding is that people who aren't gifted don't want to help them, even if it's proven that helping them winds up helping all of us because they contribute so much to society when they are helped--because the human mind is so susceptible to envy that we're often willing to harm ourselves and our loved ones just to ensure that we do nothing for those we dislike.

The comment thread to this article is pretty amazing. If you read these comments, you may get the impression that the experts who wrote the essays had never actually dealt with a gifted kid, and that present and former gifted kids were not consulted when the experts were devising their programs in many cases.

One comment pointed out that people's worries were silly, since all high schools have lavish, well-funded programs for the gifted, and the gifted students in these programs are admired by the other students instead of being harassed and assaulted.

Of course the commentor was referring to school districts' football and basketball programs (with tongue firmly though accurately in cheek).

My comment was #267.
I'll include it for those who don't want to read what the others said, but I urge you to do so--they should touch you, even if neither you nor your kids were ever identified as gifted. Here it is (sorry for the duplications with what I just said here. Shikata ga nai (Japanese cosmic shrug)):

I belong in this thread because my IQ is around 150 & I established the gifted student program at an exurban high school & taught it for 2 years. Plus, besides being academically gifted (which IQ measures), I'm also artistically fairly gifted.

This is probably the only comment thread I've been in where I could say such things without looking like a braggart. Here, I'm just one of the guys/gals. Wouldn't it be something if everyone on this thread could get together for a long weekend? That would sure beat my high school's 40th reunion, where the most interesting aspect was the Dead Board.

The stories told by the commentors who were themselves gifted kids provide a statistically significant sample, & mostly we say the same things. And mostly the gifted education "experts" appear never to have talked to any of us--especially Ms. Hemphill, who was singled out by scores of commentors for the toxicity of her recommendations.

Reality check:

1. Socialization happens when you get approval if you do A & disapproval if you do B--from peers & authority figures. But outside prestigious college towns & urban magnet schools, everything gifted kids do (especially the superbright ones in the 150+ IQ zone) gets disapproval. So we don't get socialized UNLESS we can work with true peers, taught by future peers. Ungifted teachers can no more teach gifted students of any age than good mechanics can teach rocket science.

That can lead to elitism, but without true peer classes we just become even more elitist. I recommend having gifted students "pay" for their special classes by tutoring less gifted kids. That also helps forge connections with other kids in the school that wouldn't happen in normal situations.

2. Most normal kids & teachers either actively dislike gifted kids or at best tolerate them. They can’t understand us, but often don’t even understand that. Our minds work qualitatively differently from mundanes’ minds, regardless of field of endeavor.

3. Leftist educational ideologues epitomize what Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans about: that we'd replace equality of opportunity with enforced equality, due to mundanes’ envy of all but athletic superiority. Christina Aguilera was harassed by other kids too.

4. Giftedness is mostly superior genes. Some ungifted kids' helicopter parents force-feed their kids & game the system, but nothing can give mundanes the scope of thought & intellectual drive--often frighteningly intense--of the truly gifted. We can spot each other in seconds-to-minutes, can't we?

5. 95% of the money & effort spent on low IQ students produces nothing of value to society. This is political suicide to say. It is also true. Mostly they'd be happier if they had marginally smarter teacher's aides help them master basic life skills, if possible.

6. 95% of the (now vanishing) money & effort spent on gifted (both "smart" & "near-genius") kids pays society back in skilled work & innovation--and in steering bright kids away from criminal activities such as computer hacking & various cons & frauds.

Turn a dimwit into a sociopath & you get a pickpocket or a stickup artist. Turn a genius into a sociopath & you get BP's executive suite.

7. It may be the parents' primary responsibility to give gifted kids the enrichment they need, but what about those with rotten parents? I was raised by a college-dropout drunkard. My largely absent dad had a 7th grade education. For kids like me it was school or nothing.

8. The issue of elitism & of testing primarily to exclude kids can be addressed best by making gifted programs self-selecting. Few mundanes want to spend time in our company, & the few who do should be welcomed.

This is my revolutionary suggestion. But I did it myself in my own gifted class--one girl who didn't test well enough wanted in, & I went to bat for her. Why not? As some commentors have pointed out, test-taking ability is a factor (and one I excel at), but it's not the only one. And she was willing to do the work.

Give bright kids the opportunity to dive into learning & most will--while most who aren't will avoid such situations like the plague. And if the teacher is commensurately bright, he/she will drive the kids such that the gifted ones will love it & the mundanes will bail.

9. The prime socialization lesson to teach your gifted kids is that if you treat mundanes like equals they'll think you're treating them like inferiors; but if you treat them like inferiors--but with noblesse oblige--they'll think you're treating them like equals. That is, don't firehose them but don't get all patronizing either. After all, none of us did diddly to earn or deserve our smarts.

10. No Child Left Behind has left gifted kids behind, squandering tax dollars on those who largely neither want nor can use the extra help. The program hasn’t touched black/Latino dropout rates, while it’s gutted Gifted Ed. And I voted for Obama.

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