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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

G and T: what makes some children more special than others?

Chancellor Klein announced that starting next year, all Kindergarten students would be tested for Gifted and Talented programs, uniform programs would be instituted citywide, and admissions would be based solely on testing in the 95% percentile. This is apparently his idea of equity.

My fear is that this policy will lead to even more segregated schools and classrooms -- the last thing we need. In addition, tensions will rise if the new funding system, as promised, distributes more resources to these students than others -- in the mistaken notion that only "gifted" children need extra enrichment. The truth is that all NYC students are being deprived in our schools; all children deserve the special treatment, as well as smaller classes , that too often are reserved for a special few.

Here are observations from Ellen Bilofsky, public school parent:

The saddest thing to me about gifted programs is the fact that virtually every child could benefit from the advantages that these programs offer, especially in the earliest years, when all children are mostly learning the same basic concepts and haven't had time to diverge as much as they will later.

When I first visited the gifted program that both my children later attended, I asked about the educational philosophy of the program. The principal responded, "Oh, the children in that program have the best of everything--the best books, the best materials, the best trips ..." and, not least, the best teachers and the lowest class size. (Yes, I know that many gifted programs have higher class size on the theory that these children don't need as much attention, but this program had small classes.) Some educational philosphy, huh?

What child wouldn't do better in a nurturing atmosphere with high expectations and the best material supports and enrichment experiences, rather than a large classroom with a lot of rote learning, where they taught lots of phonetics and wrote rows of identical letters over and over?

I once edited a book about teaching young children who were blind to read braille. I was surprised to discover that the author used the same methods to encourage literacy in these children, some of whom were also cognitively impaired, as my own children's teachers did. Of course, these children had the advantage of the individual attention of a braille teacher, but the point is that despite their disadvantages, they were able to benefit from the same methods used with gifted children and learn to delight in writing and reading their own stories.

Of course, testing is the other primary issue when it comes to gifted programs. Talk about high-stakes testing! These children going into kindergarten are only 4 years old, and this test may determine their entire educational future. How does it level the playing field to compare children who come from different backgrounds on the extent of their "preliteracy skills," when one might have been read to every night of her life while the other has no books in her home? Not only that, but at this age, the difference of several months in age is extremely significant in terms of development and maturity and can put the younger child at an enormous disadvantage. On the other hand, children do mature at different rates, so a child who is too immature to be tested at age 4 may be a perfect genius (assuming there is such a thing) a few years later.

My own children did not pass the initial tests they were offered. One of them simply refused to go into the room with the tester. This was back in the day when us knowledgeable middle-class parents could still work the system, and they scored high enough on a private IQ test to be admitted into a second round of testing. They each went on to be salutatorian of their elementary school, attend gifted middle schools and Stuyvesant, and the older one is at a prestigious college. I say all this not to boast, but to show how ridiculous is the idea that testing 4-year-olds can accurately predict their future educational attainment.

Instead of spreading the advantages of gifted programs to as many classrooms as possible, this administration is attempting to narrow them to smallest upper stratum, as if they were a reward children deserved for having educating parents. As usual, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, dumbing down to the lowest common denominator in the name of equal opportunity. It is a travesty that seats for gifted programs were allowed to go empty last year, rather than filled with students who could have benefited, even if they didn't take the test, or score in the 95th percentile!


Anonymous said...

One of the best articles I've read in a long time. I'm an Elementary teacher and have taught Kindergarten. You are so spot on. I had many students who came into school all ready reading and writing and several who couldn't identify 5 letters of the alphabet. By the end of the year many of my low starters where good readers and writers.

My first year Kindergarten students are now 3rd graders and some of my high starters are just average and many of my low or middle's are high achievers. With out repeating what you and this blog have already more eloquently written, testing stinks. There are better ways to assess your children and figure out how to redirect your lessons, any real educator understands this.

Sadly I don't see this ever changing. We have started down a slippery slope and I see little hope we can stop from hitting rock bottom.

The cookie cutter literacy and math programs being used in my school are horrible, but no one is willing to say so out loud to administration. They spent a lot of money buying these unproven POS's and we are producing what I predict will turn out to be our lowest achievers. Between the lousy programs being mandated on teachers (with no teacher input), the time being wasted teaching specifically to the test, the time being spent on test prep and the time being lost on administrating and scoring these tests NYC school children are doomed.



Anonymous said...

I believe Kindergarten is not when a G&T program is truly needed. Everything I have seen in my children's school, and heard from friends with older children in other public schools, is that the real disparities in children's abilities appears later -- as they are entering 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. These years are more likely to have children who are bored as teachers teach to the middle of the class, and resources system-wide are focused on helping the children who are still struggling below grade level. An alternative policy to G&T should start at these higher grade levels, and provide students who are at or above grade level with greater academic challenge.

All the new G&T policy will do is segregate out the kids whose parents have better educations -- which is highly correlated with school readiness - from kids who don't, rather than truly address the needs of kids who would benefit from more academic challenge than most public schools are able to provide.

Anonymous said...

A less segregated option is to have classes at different levels in different subjects, just as there are honors or AP classes in middle schools and high schools. Some kids may need more challenge in math but not in writing, for example. We don't have to label and segregate kids all down the line. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where kids live up to their labels.