Schools for the future: Part 1A

Before moving on to the next topic, I should stop to offer a few thoughts about the consequences of acceleration as a model for educating gifted youngsters.  I do this largely in response to a thoughtful e-mail from a Village News reader who – while he liked the idea of a STEM governor’s school – feared the social consequences for young students graduating from that school at 16, 15 or even younger.

There is nothing to fear.

Each child is unique, of course, and parents are often in the best place to make the ultimate decision, but the evidence strongly suggests that highly-gifted youngsters do very well at college – and go on to do very well in life.

The research is not as extensive as one might wish, but there’s enough of it to satisfy all but the most over-protective of parents.  The folk wisdom about very young college students leading lonely, isolated lives turns out to be a folk story – and for logical reasons.

Let’s go into that a little.

I studied Gifted Education in grad school, and had the good fortune to work with Dr. Carolyn Callahan, one of the nation’s leading experts on the education of the gifted. 

One thing I learned really stuck with me:  There are two basic models of gifted education, and in America – not surprisingly – we use the model that is both less effective and more expensive.  

The model preferred in most American school systems is the enrichment model.  In essence, students are chosen based on a range of characteristics – many of them subjective.  Those selected are put in classes with other gifted students and given a richer educational experience.  They go on field trips, hear guest speakers, and do extra reading and projects.  

In other words, they do more work – but they remain at grade level, or maybe a year ahead – graduating with their peers at the age of 18 or so.

It’s a very comfortable system for some parents, teachers and school administrators.

Some parents get the satisfaction of having their kids “identified” as gifted, but get to keep them around until they are “college age.”

Some teachers have the great good fortune of working with these bright, interested, generally  well-behaved young people.

Some administrators get to brag about these remarkable students and include their high scores in the school’s testing averages.  

As though they had anything to do with a young person’s being born brilliant.

But there are problems with enrichment.  First, it’s not good for really bright kids, because it doesn’t challenge them.  Doing more projects and going on more field trips makes school richer – but it doesn’t challenge the intellect, and it certainly doesn’t lead to the sort of competitive mindset these bright kids will need later in life.  In fact, enrichment holds really smart kids back.  They operate in low-gear, and often develop the attitude that learning is easy and that they can do anything.

There’s another problem with enrichment.  It often chooses the wrong kids.  The subjective standards used to select for gifted programs give far too much weight to things like good classroom behavior; enthusiasm for school; turning in neat, timely homework; proper use of standard English, etc.  

These are the behaviors of intelligent children from “nice families” – not necessarily the behavior of geniuses.  Enrichment-based programs routinely over-select children of middle-class and upper-middle class families, especially those who are white or Asian.  And since enrichment programs are mostly about doing extra work – rather than moving rapidly ahead to new challenges – wrongly-identified kids from prosperous, two-parent families are often able to keep up.

The alternative model, acceleration, focuses on a more objective criterion – the ability to learn hard things, fast.  It recognizes that super-gifted kids are often restless in school, because they are bored.  It also recognizes that extraordinary intelligence occurs randomly.  A genius might as easily been born to a black or Hispanic family, or to a single mother, as to a well-to-do, two-parent family of European or Indian ancestry.

Further, when an accelerated program mid-identifies a student, the error is quickly detected, because the student can’t keep up.  Acceleration works because it actually looks for the one characteristic which most clearly identifies high intelligence – the ability to learn difficult material at an unusual rate.

But of course, in accelerated programs, successful students don’t stay around very long.  Once they have mastered high school material, they are – one way or another – off to college.  Sometimes, this is done by shuttling them to a nearby campus.  Ideally, the students matriculate at a major university, where they can work with experts in the disciplines in which the students most excel.

Teaching accelerated kids is harder on their teachers.  Early departure for college can be sad for parents.  Administrators suffer the loss of bragging rights.

But then, who is education for, anyway?


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