Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Educating the Gifted

Thanks to Drew at RRLS for the link to this article on the continued abuse of gifted children by the public school system. This paragraph below, in particular, resonated with me.

"At the University of New South Wales, Gross conducted a longitudinal study of 60 Australians who scored at least 160 on IQ tests beginning in the late '80s. Today most of the 33 students who were not allowed to skip grades have jaded views of education, and at least three are dropouts. "These young people find it very difficult to sustain friendships because, having been to a large extent socially isolated at school, they have had much less practice ... in developing and maintaining social relationships," Gross has written. "A number have had counseling. Two have been treated for severe depression." By contrast, the 17 kids who were able to skip at least three grades have mostly received Ph.D.s, and all have good friends."
I have so much experience (first- and secondhand) with gifted students thriving when they are allowed to work ahead and becoming behavior problems, social messes, and jaded with education when they are not. Granted, I am not aware of any of my acquaintance whose IQ's are at 160 or above, like those in the article, but I do know about children with lower IQ's who are still classified as gifted, and the response is strikingly similar.

When I was in fifth grade, I was lucky enough to win a lottery drawing that put me in a public school for gifted children. That means that *every* student in my class had an IQ in the 95th percentile or higher. This was the first year that school had been in operation; before that, every single one of my classmates had been in a regular classroom. I remember all too well the way the school year went.

In the beginning of the year, our poor teacher had an awful time of it. Most of the class were disruptive, trying to be 'cool' and uninterested in learning, and generally displaying an attitude of hating everything about school. However, by the end of the year the class was engaged, students were behaving and loving learning. I used to hate pretests. I would take them, get a good grade on them, and then have to sit through 4 weeks of instruction on the material that I had already proved to have mastered. But not in this class. The math pretests in particular were meant to group us into classes based on our ability. The lower math class covered two years of material in one. The higher class skipped one year and then covered two years in one. I tested into a bracket that would have had me skipping two years of math, and then covering two years of math in one -- but my parents felt that was too much, especially since the parents of the other child (Wyatt) who tested into that class didn't want him to skip that much math. Actually, come to think of it, my parents might have asked me what I wanted to do.... It was the beginning of the year when we took those tests, and if you remember, everyone in the class was trying to deny that they were interested in learning and that they were nerds. I remember longing to skip those two years and be in the upper math class, but being utterly terrified of the social repercussions of being the 'smart one'.

And, yes, I had plenty of experiences in my educational life that have made me jaded towards public education. I remember 4th, the beginning of 7th, and 8th grades to be particularly difficult to endure. One instance that stands out in my mind was 8th grade science. Before every unit, we took a pretest in order to let the teacher know what we needed to learn. I made a perfect score on one of our unit pretests, and I asked my teacher if that meant I could skip that unit -- but of course I couldn't. Just because I knew everything she was going to teach us about that subject matter didn't mean I was exempt from 'learning' with the rest of the class. I remember being so frustrated with that class that I just stopped trying. I think I stopped turning in homework, and I certainly wasn't studying for tests. I ended up with a C on my next progress report because of my lack of effort. I don't remember being upset by that at all. In fact, I think I blamed my poor grades on my teacher -- after all, it was 'her fault' that I had completely lost interest in doing well in that class.

But I was lucky. The elementary school I attended from kindergarten through third grade was run by an amazing principal. She organized classrooms by ability so that the teachers had students of roughly the same ability to teach. That meant that I was in my regular kindergarten class for about two weeks before being moved to a kindergarten-first grade class, where all the students already could read. It meant that I was not insanely bored for the first four years of my education, and it meant that I was not yet disillusioned with learning. Fifth and sixth grade were challenging, and after I got retested into gifted courses, seventh grade was actually hard. I was very, very lucky.

I am able to realize this because I was a witness to the complete mess the public school system made of my little sister's education. She has always had a much stronger drive to succeed than I have. We both wanted to learn anything and everything, but she has always wanted to DO something with that knowledge. She never had the strong desire to fit in that I did, which prevented me from taking full advantage of the good years I did have. My sister's early education was very solid, but also very slow. She started off enjoying school, but by the time she was in second grade the slow pace was beginning to wear on her. By the time she was in third grade, she was so thoroughly bored that she began to be angry about it. She didn't ever act out at school, but she had some very rough years at home which, now, we pretty much attribute to her complete boredom at school. She was finally able to get into a gifted school in fourth grade, and things were better -- for a bit. She started flying through her subjects at an alarming rate. She was coming to my middle school in order to take math courses that her elementary school didn't offer, and she was finally happy. But then we moved around for the next few years, and school after school refused to believe that she was that advanced in her studies. She was forced to study the same material in her math courses for three years in a row. She became very familiar with the bane of every gifted student: enrichment work. Also known as "do more busy work on the same material you have already mastered so I don't have to worry about teaching you more."

The school system as we know it short changes those at the top end of the curve. This is not a logical move for a society to make. Why would a government make decisions that turn one of the country's most valuable resources into jaded, angry, social failures? Luckily for my sister, there was the promised land of high school where classes were grouped by ability. Unfortunately for future students, I have heard that the standards to get into the top classes at that same school are now a thing of the past. Whether because of lack of funding, or a vain attempt at equality in education (God does not give out ability with equity; this is why I will never be a professional athlete, public speaker, or beauty queen) I do not know. The truth remains that students are being cheated out of the education they deserve. And, yes, I am jaded.

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5 have poured out their souls in electronic text:

  • Alan

    It makes you wonder "what if"... But still, you managed to do pretty well at Ga Tech!

  • Ewokgirl

    I can totally relate. I was classified as gifted back in kindergarten. I was in a special pull-out program at my first elementary school. I think we met for an hour every other day.

    My next school (we moved a lot) had an amazing gifted program. We took a bus to a different school twice a week for a half day. We took enrichment classes, and I loved it. By my 8th grade year, my school offered gifted core-curriculum classes. It was great.

    Then we moved in the middle of my 8th grade year. My new school didn't even have honors classes, much less gifted. That entire semester was a waste of my time. The only class I learned anything new in was art. I was bored out of my mind because we were learning concepts I hadn't had to touch in at least 2 years.

    High school was better because there were honors and AP classes.

    Now, having been a public-school student and teacher, I'm not sure that's the educational route I'd want to take should my husband and I ever have children. There is so much wasted time for the brighter students. As a student, I simply read books with my extra time, and that generally made me quite happy, but not all students like to do that.

    I do think all this business of trying to make kids educationally equal is ridiculous. Just as we don't all have the same athletic abilities, we do not have the same intellectual abilities. I don't understand why this nation refuses to recognize that fact.

  • Harmony

    I did do well at GT, and I credit that to the way you and Mom handled my education in the lower years, as well as some very good teachers in high school.

    I think I might have enjoyed some subjects more if I been exposed to a different approach about them, but I am not so smart that I'm in depression over it, and because of the college I went to I was able to actually build some solid friendships (as opposed to the two real friends I had before that - not counting my sister, of course). I managed to only be jaded about public education -- which, when you think about it, is not really such a bad thing. ;-)

    I can't speak for all pull-out programs for gifted students, but the ones I have experienced were largely pointless. We didn't learn much of anything, and we still had to catch up on the work we missed.

    My mom is a public school teacher for resource kids, and she does a good job with them. Personally, I think she'd do a really good job as a gifted teacher too, especially for younger grades (she's not too confident with her academic skills -- even though she's smart). She always made a point of trying to get us interested in learning outside of school. We were regulars at the library and museums, and we watched a lot of documentaries on public TV. She even considered homeschooling us at one point, but at that time it was not feasible for our family. I have heard it said that public school teachers are the most likely to have children who do NOT attend public school. I think that's probably true.

  • Laura

    However pointless pull-out programs are, they were the best part of school when that was all we had. Remember when I asked Mom if I could only go to school on Wednesdays?

    Of course, students learning at their own pace is the real solution, and I've only seen a few schools where the administration cooperated with that idea.

    But even at the worst school (yes, the third year of the same math), there were a few wonderful teachers fighting for students to have accelerated coursework instead of a pull-out program. By the time I was in 8th grade, they were letting 6th graders who were in the situation I had been in two years before skip to higher levels of math. Unfortunately, that isn't the direction that most of the country's schools are going these days.

  • Ewokgirl

    Most schools can't do that (letting students work at their own pace) due to the nature of the all-powerful standardized testing that has to take place. Oh, how I hated the spring when I had to stress test content and format when I was teaching!

    I don't remember much about my pull-out program when I was really young. I remember liking it a lot, but I can't recall what we did. The half-day program at another school that I did when I was older was fantastic. We actually took classes: Junior Great Books, computers (this was back when the home computer was a brand-new thing, so schools didn't typically have computers), game making, Egyptology, archaeology... We were allowed to choose our classes; it was great! I really learned a lot, although it wasn't anything to do with core curriculum.