Monday, April 7, 2008

Gifted education, the "right" kind of education, and innovation in public schools

First, my bracket is shot. I joined most of the country as a Memphis non-believer and am now impressed. I was also impressed by Kansas stomping North Carolina. I had NC vs. Texas in my final. (I started this before the game, but Kansas just pulled out an overtime win.)

More to the point…Good people disagree about education. Education is not simple. Anyone who tells you they have “simple” methods that universally work is trying to sell you expensive textbooks or was fooled by someone who is. It’s a lot like parenting—there are certain important principles generally agreed on…but even which principles those are tend to be a little different depending on who you talk to. I know certain things that work with my children, but when I’m tending relatives or neighbors, they often don’t. Some of those may be because of different temperaments and abilities, and many are because of different parenting styles and practices. I definitely see things that other parents do that I disagree with and find frustrating. I’m fairly sure some of my opinions are correct. I’ve also learned some humility as my two children grow and I see how differently they behave and respond to things, even within the same family and with the same habits and rules. Outside of certain very commonly accepted bounds, it would be rude for me to angrily demand that my friends parent the way I do, even if it would make my life so much easier. Some principles are absolute, but different people have different personalities, different ways of communicating, and different priorities.

There are legitimate improvements that can be made in teaching practice. But how many of these improvements are agreed on by education “experts,” or by students and families? One person’s “tried and true” method is another’s “outdated rote memorization.” One teacher’s “discovery unit” for independent research is then derided as “fluff based on self-esteem with no fundamentals.” How much of a body of basic knowledge do we expect elementary and secondary students to “know?” (And does “know” just mean to remember the fact, date or formula, be able to find the best multiple-choice answer using the knowledge, or an actual ability to apply the knowledge?) vs. How much critical thinking, evaluation, and learning how to find your own answers do we practice at the cost of covering more information? In other words, breadth vs. depth in a given timeframe. I have had parents demand both more and less homework for their students and read articles decrying both extremes as one of the causes of the “education crisis.” Parents also express opposing opinions on how much grammar and drill I should include in class. In the comments below an article today on education funding (more on this in another post), different persons derided the UEA or the “establishment” for both resisting smaller school districts and for resisting supposedly more cost-effective school district consolidation. How important are class size, technology, and “values” in the classroom? Who decides?

Most educational decisions and mandates, both those made with an inclusive process and in good faith (A generally applicable example being classroom reduction money) and those mandated top-down from a relatively small group with little cooperation or buy-in (Investigations Math in Alpine District, vouchers), will be roundly criticized from some quarter. Here is an example from Provo District about an issue that can be very polarizing: gifted education. The two short articles describe the school board first considering, and then approving a separate magnet school for gifted students. Read the opinions in the articles and in the comments—there aren’t an overwhelming number of comments like in the previous article.,5143,695264138,00.html,5143,695264718,00.html

Good people disagree on the general and specific principles. Are special programs for gifted students discriminatory favoritism or a form of “segregation” as one commenter opines? The counter-argument declares that those students have just as pressing of individual needs as special ed. kids and have the right to learn on their own level. The best and brightest should not be held back from great achievement. Beyond that, if you support programs for gifted kids, what is the correct way to administer that program? Can you meet both their academic and social needs in a separate class or school, or is a variation of the normal school program better? Does a special program stigmatize gifted students or under-prepare them to work with all types of people in the real world?

My opinions have evolved over time. I experienced some different forms of gifted education as a child, and I have worked with both gifted classes and special needs students as a teacher. Some of my educational beliefs from my own experience have not held up as universally applicable in the face of the incredible variety of students I teach. I won’t go into specifics right now as that’s not my focus. The point is that everyone who doesn’t believe the same as you about the “right” way to educate gifted individuals is not ignorant or mean. Their views are shaped by their own experiences and those of family or friends. In all probability, they want the best education possible for their own children and for Utah’s students in general. The same reality applies to most other educational programs and theories as well. A balance between inclusive vacillation and bull-headed determination to do it “my way” has to be found, and there will automatically be opposing viewpoints.

Therefore, there are no “easy” answers.

And unlike many rightwing commenters, both nationally and locally, I see the bull-headedness mostly from public education critics rather than the “education establishment.” Even with No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, and other conformist influences, teachers still practice a huge variety of teaching styles and methods. The individual personalities of the teacher and the students play a huge role in classroom activities, discipline, and atmosphere. Teachers generally appreciate the differences and love to bounce ideas off each other when they find time to do so. I have strengths and weaknesses as a professional and love to work with the other teachers in my department and school. Within some basic parameters, change and innovation are encouraged and admired. And, just like any profession, teachers themselves don’t always agree which also leads to an increased variety of methods.

I have improved by incorporating practices in my classroom from local and national sources. Do I end up hitting every possible individual sweetspot? I’m sure I don’t…BUT, I am also certain I have improved my methods and skills each year and reached a higher and higher percentage of learning styles and individuals in my class each year. Are there teachers stuck in ruts or that don’t care? Of course. But mandating your particular vision of what the curriculum or methods should be will not eliminate this problem from a public, charter, or private school.

It is the vocal proponents of particular programs or methodologies that insist the public schools are “doing it wrong” and that all students would learn if only the school would adopt their favored plan. They usually believe in a solid program with benefits, but in my perception, ignore all the students who don’t fit their vision. They accuse the public schools of being too uniform if their proposals are not implemented when a public school in fact allows more diversity of practice than most individual private schools. (Private schools are great by the way—the point is that they are often driven by a singular vision or theory that can’t always provide for all students.)

Public schools are often criticized both for being too monolithic and narrowly-focused on one hand, while on the other being attacked for using too many diverse methodologies that a specific commentator disagrees with. You can’t have it both ways. Utah public schools do struggle to meet each need of hundreds of thousands of diverse students, but individual teachers, as well as schools and districts, are always experimenting, observing, and improving.

This is not an “excuse” or an argument against improvement. It is a reality check about supposed ”silver bullets” that don’t exist and the diversity of public opinion on education, even within members of the same neighborhoods, political parties, or religions.


Cameron said...

Very interesting analysis. I wonder if the "no silver bullet" argument means the focus should be on finding good teachers - ones that actively search for ways to reach students, and are good at it.

As for gifted programs, I am somewhat experienced here. In elementary school I was part of a "gifted & talented" program. I was probably a middle of the road student in those classes, though I got good grades. I never felt like I was smarter than my classmates, to say the least. My teachers were great. In particular, my 5th grade teacher remains my favorite to this day.

We moved to a new school for the 6th grade. It didn't have a gifted program, and was a classic low-income, minority school. Most students were not "high achievers", and I was instantly "the smart one." I never studied, easily got straight A's, and became quite lazy academically. When I moved on to Junior High and Honors classes, I struggled a bit because of the bad habits I learned in the 6th grade.

So I get parents' desires for "better" classes and opportunities for their children. I didn't learn a whole lot in the 6th grade because the rest of the students were at a lower level than I was. In fact, I learned a lot of lazy study habits because of it.

UtahTeacher said...


Thanks for your input. I tend to agree with you on gifted education. I see it as a need rather than a "nice-to-have."

I think that good teachers should be a huge focus, along with training and a system set up so that good teachers can mentor and help OK teachers become good or great. Good teachers are born and made. There is a steep learning curve the first few years in all areas, especially classroom discipline and balancing your workload.