APs are not adequate

17 06 2010

(Finals are starting and I only have 3, all of them easy, thanks to the number of APs (heh) I took this year, and I’m in a ranting mood, so once more unto the breach…)

For gifted kids, AP classes are hardly better than normal classes. This runs contrary to everything that most administrations would have you believe, but it’s true. My “top 100” high school has almost every AP class College Board offers, and by the time I graduate I’ll have taken most of them, so I speak from experience here: AP classes are easy. Straight A’s require a minimum of effort. I haven’t needed to study at all the entire year, just as I studied not at all last year, or the year before.

The problem is that there is a failure in public schools to distinguish “bright” from “gifted.” There are a great number of bright students in my school, and for them APs are wonderful. I would never advocate taking them away. The problem is that truly gifted kids are different. Gifted doesn’t just mean that you’re above average except perhaps under the bizarre definition the school system has invented. To quote SwitchedOnMom,

“I’m sorry, but I will go to my grave believing that some kids just come into this world wired differently, that they are objectively, qualitatively “gifted,” “cognitively advanced,” call it what you will.”

I’ve lived it, and I’ve seen it in other people, and god dammit, there is a difference. Truly gifted kids are something else entirely. A lot of APs are so far below many gifted kids’ ability levels that they’ll have the same problems in an AP class that they would in a normal class. After all, an AP class is modeled after an ordinary intro level college class: if a 10th grader is 3 years above grade level and smart enough to thrive at a top 20 college, the average intro level college class is a piece of cake for her.

There are students who shouldn’t have to bother taking AP classes in a subject: they should go straight into higher level college classes because they’re ready for them, and the AP class is just a waste of time. But most schools require that you finish the AP in a subject before they allow you to move on to higher level courses even if it’s clear that you have no need for the AP material.

This has nothing to do with arrogance or elitism, whatever many anti-GT people say. I think that providing enough of a challenge for the “only” bright kids is every bit as important as providing a challenge for those few are truly gifted. I don’t think that giftedness makes one more important or better or anything like that. Most of my favorite people in the world are “only” smart.

No, what this is about is everyone being challenged. When AP classes are a lot of work but easy, they are not providing “adequate rigor.” When AP classes are a joke, and students get A’s and 5s without ever opening their textbooks, they are not providing “adequate rigor.” That’s by design: they are not intended for the type of kids I’m talking about. They’re designed for the many smart kids for whom normal classes are too easy. They aren’t designed for the kids who could, if they were pushed, handle a real high level college course load as 10th graders.

If schools are really interested in giving all students adequately difficult classes, then they will end the useless linear progression that so hurts gifted students. Requiring a year stuck in an AP class before you can take a college class at your real level is just as inane a policy as requiring a year in a normal class when the student is ready for the AP class.

The Hamstrung Footballer

7 05 2009

How many high quality quarterbacks have there been? Not legendary player level, but just high quality? Many, right? After all, you don’t get onto a major football team if you’re not a high quality player?

Now, how many high quality quarterbacks have there been who never had anyone who would teach them to play football until they got to college or beyond? Not many, and it would be ridiculous to expect someone, even someone with a lot of talent, to become a high level player entirely on their own. So why the **** does this not apply to school? Why should a young, talented musician have to learn on their own rather than having a teacher who will teach them to play? Why should a budding writer be told that they have to figure out how to improve their writing on their own just because they’re a better writer than the other kids in their class?

Anyone who has ever dealt with a person with talent should know that even among very talented people, sufficient talent and drive to achieve at the height of one’s ability is extraordinarily rare. To put it differently, it doesn’t work that way. It’s one of the most bizarre and persistent delusions of all in education. It hardly makes sense even on the surface, and any substantial look at it reveals an argument that is more hole than substance.

Not only that, but when did “fine” become the standard we should strive for? “She’ll be fine.” So what? Why is it only important that she be fine, and not great? Why do GT kids in any (every) area other than sports only need to get by to please those responsible for their education? Your job is to educate, not get high scores on standardized tests. It shouldn’t matter whether giving a kid more attention will raise your school’s test scores. If you honestly care about educating children (and I think most educators do), then give kids attention based on whether it will help them. Stop worrying about the measures that everyone knows are flawed and start worrying about the reason those measures were made:


Gifted Kids Meet

30 03 2009

In my Why Magnets Matter post, I talked a lot about how important they are for gifted kids’ social and emotional needs. Eventually I’ll get around to a post more in depth about those needs, but first, I’m going to relate a bit of personal experience in this area (and yes, as I’ve said before, I know that an anecdote doesn’t prove anything, but the evidence is already out there. I’m not aiming to prove, but hopefully instead to illuminate and persuade).

Over the last 5 months or so, I’ve seen first hand what it’s like when two very gifted kids meet and become friends. Well, you know how gifted kids (and really, it never goes away) are said to be “more?” Well, it’s absolutely true. So now imagine what that’s like when they find someone who they really think they can call a true friend, especially after being lonely for an awfully long time because they couldn’t (since even in very well off areas, highly gifted (as opposed to very smart) kids aren’t exactly common), and with all the extra melodrama teenagers bring to just about everything.

Essentially, it’s the first time they find someone who they really feel “gets” it. Sometimes very, very strongly, as in, having many of the same bad or painful memories. As in, having a conversation and suddenly realizing that the other isn’t either looking puzzled or worried for their mental health. As in, they can talk to someone as themselves and still not be thought of as weird. For a lot of gifted kids, that’s a new and, really, quite a powerful experience.

And it is “just” friendship. That’s the thing that I think is missed by many people. Friendship, for gifted kids, means a lot more (and is a lot stronger) than for most other people. Intensity isn’t limited to a narrow range of things. It’s part of how gifted people function. A gifted kid may have lots of “friends,” but most (I wouldn’t generalize it to all, but certainly a large portion) do not consider them to be their “true” friends. That means a lot more to everyone, but especially I think to the gifted.

It’s hard to put into words. If you’ve seen it happen, you know what I mean.  I think this sort of thing, though, reveals the essence of giftedness much more than almost anything else. If you ever see it, take note, because you will learn something, and not necessarily what you would expect.

Why Magnets Matter

18 03 2009

When it occurs at all, by far the most common type of gifted program is separating classes based on ability (whether in pull out classes, accelerated classes, AP classes, radical acceleration, or what have you). These, when done properly, can often very successfully meet even highly gifted children’s educational needs. Well, I hate to shoot down something that does such a good job of that, but so what?

Cultures form in very, very small units. It’s pretty well known that two offices in the same company, doing essentially the same thing, can have very different mentalities and methods outlasting any individual employee. Someone’s experience in one, even with the same work, can be very different from their experience in another.

Well, this holds true in schools too. A school very much has a culture of its own. This affects policy, which is important, but it runs deeper than policy. It affects how teachers and students interact, and how students act. It affects how students perceive each others’ actions, and how they then respond. It affects attitudes and outlooks.

This can extend to the presence or lack of things like bullying, but I’m not talking about that at all. What I’m talking about is much, much deeper than that. It’s how the social unit of the school functions. The tiny, completely unconscious things that make a world of difference. The difference between a school that accepts, and a school that doesn’t reject, in many ways.

Well, extend that to gifted kids. A school made up mostly of fairly average students will have a very different culture from a school that’s very heavy in gifted kids. And I can say this from experience: a collection of gifted kids has a very different feel than a random sampling across the ability spectrum. Giftedness isn’t just intelligence, after all.

Some public schools don’t reject gifted kids. But there’s a difference between lack of rejection (and honestly, even acceptance) and belonging. Even in very well off, far above average schools, gifted kids often do not have that sense of fitting in because they don’t fit in. A magnet school draws gifted kids together, so that you have that concentration of gifted kids.

As I hope most people realize, that sense of fitting in is extremely powerful, especially for kids who aren’t used to it. It can make an enormous difference in a kid’s happiness just to feel like she is with people who really understand.

And it’s not just that. The culture I mentioned earlier is important too. It’s a culture that allows gifted kids to flourish because they can feel free to be gifted kids (strange, bizarre, and awesome creatures that they are). Gifted kids, when given the freedom to act like this, are downright strange. And that’s when they’re happiest, in many cases. But they can’t act that way if no one else does, because even if it wouldn’t actually garner negative attention, doing something that others around you do is hard because you always think it will.

And that too appears at a magnet school because, in many cases (even for very highly gifted kids), you aren’t that much weirder than anyone else, because everyone’s weird. And that matters enormously.

“Challenge” and “rigor” are not the most important things for a gifted kid’s education, although they are important. If the kid’s happy, she will learn a lot on her own, too. Ordinary schools rarely foster happiness for gifted children, though, even with pullout programs. Magnets are expensive, a pain to run, and an organisational nightmare. But they are very, very worth it.

“Everyone is gifted”

11 03 2009

“Everyone is gifted”

It’s a common phrase whether you’re talking to educators, parents or just about anyone else who has an opinion on education. It’s also flat out wrong or nonsense (take your pick).

If it’s nonsense, that’s because it’s rendering “gifted” meaningless. If everyone is gifted, then isn’t saying that someone is gifted the same as saying that they’re a human? Is gifted education created with the intent of every child going through it when they go through school? No? Then not everyone is gifted. Gifted doesn’t mean that you’re better, but it absolutely means you’re better at. That’s the point. The two are not the same thing, and people need to stop acting as if they were.

If it’s wrong, it’s fairly self evident why. Not every child is intellectually above age level. I mean, I understand not everyone is good at math, but this isn’t a difficult concept. It isn’t possible for everyone to be above average. It doesn’t work that way. And yet, amazingly, we get told otherwise by people with a straight face and, even more amazingly, with good intentions.

This is one of the biggest red flags parents of gifted kids should watch out for, I think, because when you hear this line, the problem (whether it’s ignorance of the subject or an active antipathy to gifted education) likely runs very deep. If you hear someone in charge of your child’s education say this, make sure you watch what they do very, very closely.

APs for all, reality be damned!

15 02 2009

The economy’s down the drain, our schools are far behind the rest of the world, but at least we’ve got lots of AP takers!

Many districts have adopted policies for increasing “rigor” (a magical buzzword that makes everything better in education) that amount to forcing kids into classes they cannot handle. Color me elitist, but I think that only kids who are, you know, ready for college level material should take college level AP courses. Most high school sophomores are ready for, you know, HIGH SCHOOL level material. Only kids who are intellectually gifted (you know, those top few percent who are, um, nowhere near the average) should be identified as gifted and placed in GT classes.

So what are schools doing? They are forcing every sophomore to take at least 1 AP class. They are reaching gifted identificaiton rates upwards of 40%, then using this to “prove” that the gifted “label” is meaningless, and eliminating it altogether.

Pardon the language, but what the F***?! Who does this serve, exactly? It dumbs down the classes for kids who often are already not getting challenged, it forces unfair workloads on kids who really can’t handle much higher level work, and it means that rather than learning and getting ahead, the top kids are sitting at the back of the room reading a book if they’re lucky, or more often sitting there bored to tears for 6 hours a day. Top level kids’ reading scores sometimes actually REGRESS throughout the school year, and only recover and improve over the summer, when they aren’t exposed to school.

“Rigor” should be for each student, not an imaginary, moving target kid who’s a bit above average and exactly the same ability level in everything. One student’s rigorous curriculum is another student’s spirit crushing workload is another student’s easy-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness. One size fits all fits no one in education. Two sizes fit all is barely better. Individualized education for each child is not possible, but schools can and should be far, far more flexible than they are.

Instead “gifted” is reduced to meaninglessness by districts that use GT classes to “increase rigor.” In English, that means that they put kids who have no business being there, and would be much better off in an ordinary classroom, into GT classes to be able to brag about the number of kids in GT classes, and so force down the level of the GT classes, making them worthless to the students for whom the programs are supposed to exist.

And so what do we see? We see countless kids who are barely getting by in school, and even then only with tutors. I know a lot of kids in my acc and AP classes are getting tutored and still struggling (yes, I know, anecdotes are not evidence. I’m using them as examples, not evidence.). These aren’t kids who aren’t willing to put in the work (they work much, much harder than I do in many cases), but they’re simply in over their heads. I would guesstimate that 30% of my school’s kids taking science are in an acc or AP class. Roughly the same is true of my grade in AP US history. 30% of my grade is ready for college classes? Really? I don’t care if we’re talking about here in well off, ivy league Princeton, or the inner city. That simply is not the case.

All that happens is you get many of the kids overwhelmed, and too many of the rest bored. Having kids in AP and acc classes who shouldn’t be there forces teachers to water down the curriculum. I’m very smart, but there are other kids who are much, much smarter than me. If these classes leave me bored, I can only imagine what it’s like for them.

When kids are barely managing to keep grades up to a C even when working as hard as they can, getting extra help from the teacher, and often even getting a tutor, they are not ready for that class. If that’s elitist, then I’m happy to be elitist, but I’m of the school of thought that calls it “common sense.”