February 7, 2007

Ugly arguments against NCLB

There are plenty of ways I can criticize NCLB and its implementation, but to whine that it drains resources for the gifted is one of the more disturbing arguments I've read (and today's story by Joseph Berger isn't the first time it's appeared in the New York Times).  Particularly wince-inducing passages...

Even critics of No Child Left Behind say there is no educational goal more important than helping the nation's poorly performing students read and calculate competently. But in a world of scarce resources, a balance has to be struck so that programs for the gifted are not frozen out. After all, many students nurtured by such programs will one day concoct the technology and dream up the ideas that will keep America competitive.

Apart from the blatant editorializing (which source said "a balance has to be struck"?), is there any evidence that adults who were in gifted programs years earlier are the primary source of tech innovation and that, to the extent that they are, it was the existence of gifted ed that's responsible?

Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which supports educational research, said cuts in programs for the gifted hurt "low-income children with tons of potential who may not be getting the attention they deserve."

First, the wording above suggests that Fordham is like the Spencer Foundation (which really does fund education research), but Fordham is a think tank. Second, Petrilli implies that if gifted programs weren't cut, they'd be serving millions of poor students. No, they wouldn't: gifted programs serve a very low percentage of students, and the vast majority of "low-income children with tons of potential" are outside elementary and middle-school gifted programs. The better bet for advancing these children's interests is to improve general academics, not nurture boutique programs for a few.

Survival of gifted programs is not just a matter of money; they have long been a target of complaints that they are elitist, and violate the bedrock egalitarianism that created public schools in the first place.

Yes, Joseph Berger is right on the general criticism, but the history is off. I'm not Paul Violas, but to claim that schools were founded entirely on an egalitarian ethic ignores much of the historical research on the topic over the past 40 years.

Lost in the debate, champions of the gifted say, is that exceptional intellects need hand-holding as much as those below average, that they get restless or disheartened working with material they long ago conquered. Jane Clarenbach, public education director of the National Association for Gifted Children, said research shows that 20 percent of the nation's three million gifted students will drop out before graduating from high school.

There is a grain of truth here hidden by dunes of slipshod reasoning. The grain of truth is that there are plenty of children in school who are bored because they face no challenge at the moment, and some proportion of them get into trouble as a result. My spouse calls this group "Devil's workshop children," and we've known a few. An absolutely legitimate purpose of any gifted education program is to identify those children and make sure they don't have idle hands. (For those who know special education, this redefinition would be the gifted version of response to intervention eligibility criteria.)

But that's just a grain of truth. One fundamental problem with this "gifted kids will drop out if we don't give them extra services" argument is that when resources are devoted solely to students labeled gifted through so-called IQ and other testing programs, such programs commonly concentrate on elementary and middle-school years, long before anyone drops out of school.

Then there's the argument I made earlier: the better route to serving these students (and all others) is by improving the general education curriculum so that no one is bored or alienated.

Nancy Eastlake, coordinator for West Hartford's gifted programs, points out that so-called pullout programs are often criticized "as fluffy activities." Yet, she argued that "when you have children research a topic of great personal interest, that's solid, good learning."

Yes... and students outside the gifted programs don't want to learn about a "topic of great personal interest"?

I understand the parents' dilemma when gifted-education programs exist: do you hold your individual child's interests hostage to the larger principles? In general, the answer is going to be no. I know enough relatives who have been in gifted programs or have placed their children in gifted programs to understand the reasoning.

But many of the opportunities that draw parents into such programs should be available more broadly. One of my daughter's best friends is in all advanced coursework this year, but she was not in a gifted program. Another friend from elementary school (also not in its gifted program) shifted to advanced math in middle school. ("About time!" was my thought at the time.)

Irony: This story appeared one day after the release of the latest statistical report on the nation's largest challenging general-curriculum program, Advanced Placement testing. While I do not think AP programs are the be-all and end-all of academic challenges, their recent history demonstrates that a school can open up challenging opportunities by having counselors broaden rather than narrow the funnel in their gatekeeping role.

In summary, critics of NCLB need the "NCLB hurts gifted ed" argument like we need Charles Murray's "help." And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll return to correcting the first page proofs of Accountability Frankenstein.

Update: See my defense of boutique education, including gifted education, written a few days after this entry. Can't say I'm not finessing things...

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on February 7, 2007 8:43 AM |