Monday, April 02, 2007

Perhaps The Most Underserved Children

So this weekend was the celebration of my niece Alaina's seventh birthday--complete with her first spend the night party and a family fish fry on Sunday. Saturday night the girls and I made the sweetest cupcakes I've ever had courtesy of a recipe from Magnolia's Bakery, which I recently visited in NYC. I chatted with my step-sister's husband, my mom (elementary school counselor), and step-dad (former school administrator) while I ate my fried fish, hush puppies, and cupcakes (the diet of champions, no doubt), and we discussed the current state of the public school his son attends. And our discussion led me to think about something that has long bothered me--our public schools' glaring failure to serve the needs of gifted children.

As I've practiced in the field of education law the last two years, I've learned more and more about the extensive protection provided to children who qualify for special education services*. And in a more casual way, I've seen the practical effect of No Child Left Behind, which seems to ensure that No Child Gets Very Far Ahead as teachers simply do not have the time or resources to encourage or teach the children who already meet the minimum standards. In short, teachers are serving the lowest common denominator.

And I certainly experienced that in public schools myself--often bored and reading another book within my text book or writing notes to friends or sleeping. In 8th grade my parents found out that I'd been teaching my math class and demanded that I attend math classes as the high school in the afternoon. Needless to say, my educational needs weren't met; in fact, several teachers even apologized, telling me that my parents should find a good private school for me. And as many classes at my niece's school are almost half non-English speaking Hispanics who obviously require most of the teachers' attention to reach the standards required by NCLB, I assume that not much has changed. In fact, if the reports from educators are true, it's worse. In short, we're not nurturing our best and brightest students. And if we want to find cures for cancer and compete with other countries, we should start turning at least a little of our attention to those gifted children in our public schools. While I would not put it this way, one educator (at an alternative school) told me that "we're pouring all of fertilizer in what is likely to be barren soil and ignoring the most fertile." So now I'm mulling over ways I could advocate for this student population....

* While I am so glad to see the positive changes in our schools with regard to children with special needs, some of these laws are ridiculous--and compliance is sometimes astronomically expensive.

p.s. "Shut your mouth" and "Get out of town." Did this Bachelor request southern girls, specifically girls from Texas? It seems like well over half were from southern states.


brandy said...

It's interesting that you posted about this right now. I was recently teaching in my old elementary school and started talking to one of my old teachers. She said that she was happy that the school had finally taken steps to recognize gifted children since during my time there we were often lumped together. Sensitive teachers tried to accomodate students with higher learning goals, but in packed classrooms it was hard. I'm not sure what the answer is, but it's nice to have it addressed.

Oh, and seriously, I just don't think I would ever stand up and sing the anthem for a man.. I felt weird watching that.

Still just me said...

I have seen problems in the schools both with gifted children (my girls) and special needs children (my son).

I have to admit that my girls were given better chances than my son. His IEP was completly ignored, even with my constant badgering and he is now basically a 16 year old drop-out, with an education level of a 5th grader.

I personally think this country needs more alternative ways of learning. A child's education needs to be designed around their individual needs, whether those needs are for the gifted or the "special" students.

Aaron said...

Knowing SEVERAL teachers our age, I hear much of the same thing frequently. Only, there seem to be this (and many more!) issues that go unresolved in the school system. I don't know if that's because I know as many (if not more) parents with young children than young teachers who all have valid and multiple complaints.

Have you ever read anything about Montessori schools? I'd be curious to hear your opinion on such an idea.

Ruby said...

I think a good starting place would be a less horrific student-teacher 32:1? That's insane! In private schools we had a 15:1 which is still hard but it allows a teacher a bit of breathing room and the time to attend to students.

brookem said...

I agree with Ruby. Classes with such a big student:teacher ratio is tough.

PS-those cupcakes look to die for.
And I missed the Bachelor! Another Monday night show we'll need to confer about?

Trixie said...

smaller class ratios would be a great improvement as these gifted students need more attention and assistance from the teachers. with a big class, how are the teachers able to address each student's needs adequately?

i missed the new bachelor, is it any good? what happened to the last bachelor... are they still together i wonder?

Clearlykels said...

There aren't gifted programs within your public schools?

Ally said...

Brandy: I think there is a lot individual teachers could do in their classroom--if they had the time, energy, encouragement, and resources.

Still Just Me: I wonder if gifted children should have IEPs too? I'm sorry about your experience--I guess some school districts don't take those very seriously (almost requiring you to hire an attorney to enforce your child's rights).

Aaron: I've only heard of Montessori being a preschool type thing, and from what I've heard and read, it's a positive experience for children.

Ruby: That's a good point.

Brookem: Possibly so! You didn't miss anything last night--I only watched half-heartedly while doing other things.

Trixie: I'm not sure what happened. Last night was like a train wreck that you sort of hate to look at, but this guy has a fantastic body. His back is so ripped. That's the upside:)

Clearlkels: Yes, but when I was in gifted we did silly stuff like reading upside down, writing with our toes, playing French board games, etc. Even in 3rd grade I knew it was a waste of my time. Now some gifted programs pull students out for ONE subject--but that's all. And of course, many times children are gifted in all subjects or more than one.

cdp said...

As the daughter of an educator, I've had this conversation a time or three, and I agree with you on all points. Another thing that bothers me is that this sort of stuff seems to be seeping, if only by force of habit, into post-secondary education as well. I remember being incredibly frustrated in some (only some, though); of my college courses, at how it seemed that the curriculum was being "dumbed down" so that folks who were passed in high school just for the sake of being passed could continue to do so in college, too. Really pissed me off. College isn't for everyone - and there's no shame in that. But why should everyone suffer, learning less so the school can graduate more students?? But anyway, I 'm working on a rambling rant here, so I'll stop blabbering.

Good post, A.

allbilly said...

well i doubt the parents of children who aren't gifted or are poor are at work wasting time blogging, so don't expect any real backlash here.

While many problems have been noted...I see very few solutions. In the end it all comes down to economics. Education, like Justice in america, is a situation where you get all you can afford.

If your school sucks, move. If all public schools in your state suck. Private School. If you can't move or afford private my friend are screwed. Unless you supplement the education at home.

As for Ally....obviously you turned out ok. :)

Ally said...

cdp: I was certainly surprised by the caliber of students in some of my college classes--I'm sure the Hope Grant had something to do with that.

Allbilly: I think the conclusion that only people who have gifted children and/or aren't poor blog is silly. Anyway, if I accept your assertion that it all comes down to economics, I'd think that would be an incentive for us to fix these problems since it would arguably be more economically beneficial to invest our tax paying dollars in the gifted children than in those who are not. After all, they are the students who would most likely reap the greatest economic return for our nation. How do you explain that? Or do you disagree?

Clearlykels said...

Oh wow-- That is just not enough. I don't know much about the public school system here. As more of my friends become teachers I am getting insight but I'm a product of prep school where the rules are different.

allbilly said...

i think average, laboring types, such as the hispanic families whose children you want to leave behind...don't blog.

people will not want their taxes raised to help the gifted ones at your local public school. they'll say..well...they are will all work out in college.

in texas, most school districts are funded largely by property tax. that tax has a ceiling...and its there...

for the record...i like taxing business or rich folks to educate the poor and non "gifted".

Nicole Tibbs said...

Gifted children are mistreated and absolutely left to flap in the wind in today's school system. I know special needs children need special attention, and that should not be overlooked. But gifted children are often seen as irritating when they need acceleration. As a past classroom teacher, I know firsthand how hard it is to discipline, teach, remediate and accelerate. It is a lot to do that in less than an hour class periods with 100+ students in and out all day. Our schools need better programs to serve gifted children, and they should be identified earlier than the 1st grade.

Billy said...

And oh great stewards of the do you suggest we balance the needs? Fund the programs? Get more qualified teachers?

Just asking?

Ally said...

Clearlykels: It's definitely not enough! I've only volunteered at one private school, and it was quite different than my public school experience--much more accelerated.

Allbilly: So when you say it all comes down to economics, you mean it all comes down to taxation?

Nicole: I absolutely agree--bored gifted children are probably a very common thing that most teachers just aren't able to accommodate.

Billy: Well like any problem, the first step is to acknowledge that we have an obligation to meet gifted children's needs too; right now this does not seem to be an issue that is even discussed by school systems, etc. And obviously I don't know everything about the education system and funding, but from what I have seen--possibilities include taking money away from other programs (and perhaps some of the requirements to make that feasible) such as special ed and all of the different Title programs and allocating it to services for gifted children; the money spent is those areas is tremendous. In smaller school systems, one or two enthusiastic gifted teachers could get things started. A large part is connecting children with resources (such as summer camps, college classes, online classes, and just extra materials that the child could do with little instruction), and right now, classroom teachers aren't equipped to do that. In larger school systems, there seem to be magnet programs, so an answer may be in that too--I'm just not familiar with it, so I can't say.

e.b. said...

Did you catch the NY Times article today on the efficacy of the NCLB? It is the header online this morning.

Jordan said...

(back in the day) they had "special" classes for students who needed extra attention. Now they are all mainstreamed, causing teachers to focus more on the kids with need leaving other students to fend for themselves....what is a teacher to do?

I wondered that myself (about the bachelor) with all the southern girls and not one single black girl in the mix. Do they tell the producers their preference? I imagine that does play a part. I want to see a Bachelor with older people (just for comparison reasons)

Ally said...

e.b.: Thanks for mentioning it--I looked it up and read it; the article cited several of the problems I've heard about.

Jordan: It seems like they are seeking the guys' preferences more (assuming the homogenous group is an indicator)--perhaps in an effort to finding better and longer-lasting matches.

Eddie said...

i'm just thinking out loud here.
but it seems to me that the public school system's primary objective should be to serve the needs of the majority. and with NCLB, it has shifted its focus to the lowest common denominator. which in effect, actually, as you have mentioned, does not promote the gifted. and in fact, slowed down even the average student (if in case, anything has been implemented to support the laggaards).

now that being said, how is it that you determine which students are "gifted". surely not all students are gifted in the same manner?
some are artistically gifted, others are socially gifted, some are mathematically gifted, etc etc, and each serves thier society in a different manner. hopefully, most will serve thier communitites that cater to their strengths, while most, i believe will unfortunately miss thier talents and be contributing to their community in a less effective, more average manner.

in any case, what i'm trying to ask is, are our school systems "slicing up the student pie" in a non-effective way. that is to say, is putting students together by age, perhaps not the best way to meet educational needs and standards?
i don't know the answer to this, but how much variation can there be between age and ability? and does a student's gift in one area necessarily translate to a gift in another area?
my hunch is that the answer is "probably not."
so what about having students matched to thier appropriate level of class regardless of age?
i'm sure that introduces a whole new set of problems, with smaller kids getting picked on by bigger ones. but isn't that problem already there? and how much worse can it get (this is not a rhetorical question)?
or maybe does it get better?
i don't know.

all i know is this. having grown up in activities where people were grouped together by ability, and then on occasion grouped together by specific ability within an activity based on discipline, i found that many of us who participated together within an age range of 4-5 years worked well together. and those who were capable were always challenged, while those who were less capable were also not neccessarily left behind. they simply progressed at a slower pace.

should our elementry, middle, and high school programs be allowed more flexibility in thier grouping approach to mimic that of our collegiate system?

has anyone taken hard looks at other ways to group students of various gifts and talents?

Ally said...

Eddie: Currently schools adminster IQ tests to determine which students are gifted. Obviously this doesn't take into account artistic gifts, etc., but of course, our schools don't generally cater to those areas anyway. You raise some really interesting ideas and questions. I'd imagine that back in the "olden days" students of various ages were in the same classroom; I wonder how that worked? We're dealing with such large populations and whatnot now that it seems like that might be tough, but it might be something good to consider. Thanks for sharing all of your thoughts.