Friday, December 16, 2016

Do Our Brightest Students Get What They Need?

       Public schools are good at educating the average student.  We are good in the education of above average students.  We spend a lot of time, money, and energy on the education of below average students; and while this is a difficult population in terms of bringing them up to grade-level standards, we've made numerous improvements over the years to help these students.

       This leaves the most limited students and the very brightest students.  For the purposes of this post, I'm defining the very limited as the academically weakest two to three percent of our student population and the very brightest as our top 1% in terms of academic ability.  We have laws and programs and policies to help the most limited of our students.  They may not receive a high school diploma, but we help them to learn as much as possible during their school years so that they can have a full, happy, and satisfying life.  We help them to go as far as they can in terms of skills and abilities.  But when it comes to our very brightest students, I'm not sure that we can say the same.

        Once again, I'm not talking about the typical advanced students in our public schools.  We have programs and/or courses for them that are different from the typical "on-grade-level" programs.  And we do a good job with these typical above-average students.  I'm talking about our most advanced students.  These are the students who don't just stand out in their class, they stand out in their school.  They represent the 1 out of 100 (or more) that excel far beyond the typical advanced students.

       I am a mathematics supervisor.  Mathematics is the one subject that often gets the most attention when the topic of our very brightest students arises.  Parents and policy-makers alike strive to identify these students and endeavor to find a way that best meets their needs.  However all too often our attempts to do this lead to an inadequate solution known as "Acceleration".  Acceleration (in this arena) usually means that these very bright students get the same mathematics content and the same mathematics instruction as everyone else; they just get it at an earlier age and/or they just go through this same content at a faster pace than other students.

       The problem with this solution is that it does not recognize the true abilities of these students, and it does not encourage these students to think harder or reason more.  It doesn't challenge these students to grow and to further develop their strong academic skills.  Instead, this solution only pushes these students to go faster.  Sadly, this solution is often praised by parents and policymakers because our society views "faster" as "better".  We see everything as a competition and those that go faster and jump higher and earn more credits and produce higher grade-point-averages are viewed as the "winners".

       The real danger of inappropriate acceleration for our brightest students is that we place this "speed" over our prime objective of education; which is to actually learn.  Students lose the chance to develop a deep understanding of the content that they master.  They lose the chance to do what they are most able to do which is to question conclusions, discover new solutions, and to create and develop new ideas.  Strategic acceleration could accomplish these goals if the instruction is appropriately geared toward the needs of our brightest students.

       In practice, our public schools struggle with the top 1% because there are so few of them.   We don't have enough of them to make a "class"; sometimes there may not even be one in every grade.  They are spread out throughout a school district.  So we have to figure out a way to provide instruction that meets their needs while still attending to all of our other students.  This is a challenge--and (perhaps) is part of the reason that mere acceleration is so often employed as the "solution".  We also struggle to understand the best way to help teachers to provide this ideal instruction for these students.  So much of public education is geared toward helping our average and weak students; and less attention is geared toward our brightest students.

       The National Association of Gifted Children is a respected organization that addresses the needs of our brightest students and provides resources to help school districts to tackle this problem of providing for these students.  We need to do more and we need to do it in a smarter and more responsible way.


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