Gifted Education

Copyright (c) 2010, 2001 (respectively) by Kenny Felder

I have written two separate essays on this topic, both making similar points, but in different contexts. The second one, which I present here first, was printed in the "Chapel Hill News" on April 25, 2010. I wrote it in response to a different column that had appeared in the same paper a few weeks earlier. I present it here the way they printed it, which is essentially the same as I wrote it, except that they broke my longish paragraphs up into very short ones.

Maria Palmer ("No Honor in Policy," Chapel Hill News, April 4) objects to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board's new honors courses.

"Once there is an honors option," she writes, "it sucks most of the top students from the pool and the environment in the 'regular' class changes. The intellectual diversity is compromised; moreover, the system makes sure the honors courses have the best teachers, leaving the regular classes with more challenging students and less-prepared teachers."

We've come a long way in recognizing that some students have special needs. Some students need extended time on tests; some need extra curriculum assistance, or remediation; some need to have healthy lunches provided by the school.

In other words, different students have different needs—because they come from different backgrounds, or just because they are different people.

It shouldn't come as any great surprise that some students have special needs because they are gifted, or because they have a special aptitude for a particular subject. Shouldn't we be equally compassionate to the needs of those students?

If I teach a standard Algebra II class, we spend a few days plugging a, b, and c into the quadratic formula negative b plus-or-minus the square root of (b-squared minus 4ac), all over 2a.

Did you feel a twinge of fear when you saw that formula?

Many of my students do. What these students need, more than anything else, is the comfort of knowing that they can solve the problem. They need to practice, and practice some more, until they start to feel confident in the routine. Maybe we can really do this. Maybe that formula—maybe math itself—isn't quite as intimidating as we thought it was.

The same class is completely different with the kids who love math, who are good at math, and who have strong math backgrounds. After they plug in the numbers once or twice, they get it; after that, they're bored. Make them keep plugging in numbers, and they may even start to cause trouble in class, because they know their time is being wasted. What these kids need is not drill and comfort, but depth and challenge. I use my days in class to guide them, step by step, through deriving the quadratic formula.

What happens if you throw the advanced and standard kids into one class together? Am I going to "differentiate," teaching essentially two different classes in the same room? Are the advanced kids going to pull the standard kids up to their level?

It all sounds good, but I've never seen it work that way. In reality, the class will be taught at the level of the slower kids, and the faster kids will (at best) be given a worksheet of "extra credit." I watched my own son come home from fourth grade, day after day, saying, "Daddy, she's doing long division again. We've been doing long division for weeks. Please make her stop!"

When you take a ski class, they don't throw the beginners in with the advanced students. If I took a dance class, they wouldn't put my two left feet in the same class as the budding Fred and Gingers. When every student is put in an appropriate-ability class, every student receives the right instruction. The same principle applies in school.

The first essay was written as a WUNC commentary in 2001, in response to some changes going on in my school. I have to stress here—and this is really true—that the opinions expressed here do not reflect the opinions of Raleigh Charter High School, its principal, its board, or anyone else but me.

When I was very young, my parents taught me how to read, and write, and do math problems. We played games with rhymes and parts of speech, with distances and times. It was all part of fun at home, no different from checkers or bike-riding.

Then I entered the first grade. While my classmates learned how to add 2+3 at school, I was converting fractions to decimals at home. I felt like the smartest kid on Earth, and I got really snotty about it. The results were predictably ugly. My teacher had no idea what to do with me. My fellow students couldn't stand me. I dreaded going to school every day. And I don't think it occurred to anyone that that wasn't how it was supposed to work. It worked pretty much just like that for five years.

And then, in sixth grade, I joined a brand new program called the Magnet School. 50 children from all over Wake County were selected to join based on grades, test scores, and teacher and peer evaluations. And the result was a completely new school experience. First of all, I met kids who were smarter than I was. I even met some kids who lost themselves in fantasy worlds as thoroughly as I did, which made a huge difference. Second, I got assignments that were hard—science projects, lengthy essays to write, homework that actually took work. It was a humbling experience all around. But it was also fun, the way my parents had made learning fun. I learned more in that year of school than in the previous five years combined.

That magnet program in that form didn't last for more than a few years. Why not? You can pick your favorite reason. Maybe it was unfair to the other teachers that this one school was drawing out all the best kids. Or maybe it was unfair to the other students that this school was receiving special attention. Or, most likely, it's just elitist to suggest that some kids have special academic needs because they are ahead, just as some students have special needs because they are behind. For whatever reason, the word "magnet" stuck around, but the idea of culling out students by test scores and grades was strictly forbidden. By the early eighties, the magnet schools were difficult to tell from any other school.

Now let's jump ahead twenty years or so. When Raleigh Charter High School opened its doors in 1999, its charter included the phrases "demanding college-preparatory education" and "a place of opportunity for highly motivated students and actively involved parents." Like the early Magnet School, we set out to create an intense academic experience for students who were up to it. Unlike the early Magnet School, of course, we did not try to hand-pick the best students—all eligible applicants were simply put into a lottery and chosen at random.

Nonetheless, we have come under the familiar litany of attacks. Here are some policies that have been challenged recently:

The real irony of it all is that no one denies that we are offering a wonderful education. We are being criticized precisely because everyone acknowledges that we offer a wonderful education. I've heard more than one critic say that what we are doing would be fine for a private school, but is unacceptable in a public institution.

It sounds like they are objecting to wastefully spending taxpayer money. But that isn't it at all. As a charter school, we get the same amount of money, per student, as any public school would get. If we disappeared tomorrow and all these kids went back to their district schools, the taxpayers would not save a dime.

So the objection is not financial, but philosophical. The message I read is, don't ever dare to suggest that particularly intelligent kids, or particularly motivated kids, or even kids with a particularly strong background, have different educational needs. Unless, of course, those kids also happen to be rich. Then, as I understand it, it's OK.


From: Michelle Williams
July 22, 2008

Harrison Bergeron, anyone? :(

I think I was in the 6th grade same year you were. Those of us not in a magnet school were in "gifted and talented" programs. I didn't gain as much from it as you did. We did fun projects, although typically not as difficult as what you describe, while our cohorts not in the program were doing...I dunno? Remedial work? I was in a class of 7 and 5 of us were GT. The other two were left in a classroom of 30 5th graders when we left so I imagine they were doing whatever the 5th graders were doing. I can see how they may have felt bad in some way when we left them there. And there seems little on this earth with more power to sap any intelligence a parent may have had than to find out their child is unhappy. I wonder how those programs stand today.

From: Kenny Felder
July 22, 2008

I hadn't thought about that story, but it's certainly relevant! I did think about something Harlan Ellison wrote once—that the one idea that is so politically incorrect (he probably didn't use that phrase) that no one dare speak it in public, is that some people are smarter than others.

As far as I can tell, no school anywhere will touch the idea that there is such a thing as GT kids. Our principal says all the time "We label the course, not the child."

From: Michelle Williams
July 22, 2008

This used to frustrate me so much when I was volunteer tutoring. We got trained—spent two full days being trained—on the idea that there are folks who learn better by listening, some who learn better by writing, some who learn better by touching, and ways to accommodate all those learning styles. And, of course, combinations are most powerful and practice makes perfect. Today we have a much better understanding of learning disabilities (excuse me, challenges) and how to deal with them and there's so much less stigma attached than when I was a kid. So I had a student who was told as a child that he was just stupid because he found learning to read so difficult. I'm guessing he was a bit dyslexic. It's a proven fact that dyslexics can learn to read—many thousands have done so. But is there a better way to teach them, generally speaking? If so, what is it? I would expect that, if I were having difficulty learning something and someone said to me "you're not stupid, you just have this thing that has a name and we understand it and know how to help you," I would be SO relieved. And the leadership of these volunteer programs are long-time educators. Teachers for decades, many degrees per capita in all sort of areas of education, etc. But not a single one of them was willing to consider the idea of getting this guy tested to determine whether that really is his problem or tell me how to deal w/ it if it is. Because we don't want to "label" people. I didn't want to "label" him either! I wanted to help him in the most effective way possible!

I felt like saying "So this guy has headaches all the time. But God forbid we should do a brain scan. Because he might have brain cancer. And we don't want to "label" him as a "cancer patient" because of the stigma attached to the C word. So we'll just keep giving him aspirin and telling him that most people's headaches go away if they carefully spend 2 hours every night taking aspirin. And when he gets frustrated that he has religiously taken every single scrap of aspirin that we've offered him and he still has headaches, we'll just tell him to be patient, we're sure that, with continued diligent ingestion of aspirin everything will become clear over time. Brilliant. Excellent plan. I'll be sure you get an invite to his funeral." Ugh!!!

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