Monday, December 16, 2013
Stronger peers, and more misunderstanding of gifted children
To many people, gifted education is perceived as a life boat. In struggling schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. The kids are supposedly well-behaved, and they'll keep standards high. So the push is always to expand a little, to take the hard-working kid who's on the margins and "reward" him with the gifted class. He'll be better off, right? An interesting new study out of Michigan State University shows that may not be the case (here's a link to the full paper). Scott Imberman and colleagues looked at the test scores of children who were right on the margins of qualifying for gifted classes. They did not do any better on standardized tests than children with similar qualifications who were not placed in gifted programs. As Imberman said in a press release about the study, "This paper is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that just because you have stronger peers doesn't necessarily mean you are going to perform better." The press release itself goes on to hint that this is a strike against gifted classes. After all, they have no effect on one group of children vs. a control. So that's a problem, right? Well, not so fast. Is the purpose of GT programs to raise the standardized test scores of marginal students? I think most of us would say that the point is to meet the needs of children whose needs can't be met well in a regular classroom. Ideally, scores in all classes will be rising as every kid is pushed to learn to the extent of their abilities. Gifted kids aren't learning proportionally more -- every kid is being challenged. Gifted classes aren't meant to be "better." They're meant to meet outlier children's needs. It is interesting to note that stronger peers don't give kids an extra boost, though. One reason GT classes sometimes wind up being watered down or expanded (to take in 25% of kids, in some districts) is that it is viewed as a reward. You're giving a hard working kid a little extra that will help him. But perhaps one's peers aren't quite as critical as some believe. And if having students more on the margin in these classes causes the teacher to aim to a different level (many naturally teach to the median) this could wind up changing the class in ways that wouldn't necessarily help anyone.