Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Labels Aren't What Kids Need"


A week ago the Washington Post ran a peculiar editorial about education written by Patrick Welsh, a high school teacher, complaining that gifted kids have it too good. Really. Describing a fifth grader who isn't sufficiently challenged at school, the author writes,
"It's an ongoing comedy trying to get the school to challenge him," she says. "The school keeps saying, 'Don't worry. Your child's needs will be met.' Then his teacher says she can't give him challenging work because 'We were told not to assign above-grade-level work to anyone who isn't labeled TAG.' "

That's TAG as in Talented and Gifted. And who is and who isn't - or at least who's designated such and who isn't - has been one of the most contentious issues in Alexandria since the school system raised the bar for the TAG program two years ago. The new rules have cut out about two-thirds of the students who once qualified: At George Mason, the size of the fourth-grade program went from 17 to six last year.

Which means that a substantial number of students will now be relegated to the "regular" curriculum, where the emphasis is on ensuring that lower-income children who lag far behind in basic skills will pass the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. In Alexandria, the first group is mostly white, the second mostly black and Hispanic. Some white parents at George Mason are now demanding a special class, between regular and gifted, for the "nearly gifted" -- as they call the children who missed the TAG cut.
The problem appears to be that in its zeal to "bring up the bottom" (can you say "No Child Left Behind"?), Alexandria slashed its "Talented and Gifted" program and implemented an absurd, dare I say brain-dead policy that children who aren't "Talented and Gifted" should never work above "grade level". Is the solution to this, as some parents have suggested, offering enriched education for the near-gifted? Welsh answers, certainly not....
But of all the labels that we so-called educators give students, none seems more absurd -- and few more destructive. When we apply this tag to a tiny group of children in third, fourth or fifth grade, we are in effect saying that the rest are ungifted and untalented. We're denigrating hard work and perseverance, telling children that no matter how much effort they put forth, they just can't measure up to their special peers.

Just as bad, we're telling those on whom we deign to bestow the coveted label that they have it made; we're giving them an overblown sense of their intellectual abilities and setting them up to fall short when they face real challenges later.
So the solution is to throw gifted kids back into the same classes and programs as everybody else, where they too can enjoy the privilege of being denied permission to work above grade level?
What schools need to do is not to single out a small group as special, but push all kids to work to their fullest potential.
Which in reality means boring TAG kids out of their skulls so as to minimize the likelihood that they will reach their potential. Nice.

Welsh, though, is happy to substitute his own labels for "talented" or "gifted":
For a fairly bright child, the SOL exams aren't much more than a minimum-competency test. To allay parental anxieties, Superintendent Rebecca Perry has said that the students at the top of the regular classes - i.e., the white kids who didn't get into TAG - will help to "challenge, mentor and coach" the students struggling with the SOL material.
I see. We'll save children from the "stigma" of being told that they aren't "Talented and Gifted" by instead telling them that they aren't very bright, and need to be led by their bright and even their "fairly bright" peers. (To his credit, though, the author does see the Superintendent's cop-out as just that, describing a parent's reaction, "What else could these students be doing instead of reviewing material they already understand as they challenge, coach and mentor their classmates?")
Alexandria's school administrators are caught in a political and moral trap. They have to assure mostly white middle-class parents, who provide most of the tax dollars for the schools, that their children can progress academically without being held back by lower-income kids. At the same time, the school system cannot create exclusive schools-within-schools for upper-income students.
Beyond the question of why "gifted" is an elitist, destructive label and "bright" is not, for an author who doesn't like to label kids, we sure are seeing a lot of socio-economic and racial labeling in this piece. Once you accept that kids can be classified as "bright", "fairly bright" and implicitly "not so bright", you've given up any ground that you once had for attacking the "TAG" label. What you're left with is the objection that "TAG" kids are disproportionately white, a recurrent theme in this editorial.
Research shows that KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools are the most successful in the country at closing the gap between low-income black students and middle-class white students. But the philosophy of these schools is geared to the needs of poor children. The schools operate on the belief that to close the learning gap, children from poor homes need an education that's not just equal, but superior, to that of middle-class whites.
No "school within a school" for "upper-income" and "white middle-class" kids, but maybe separate, superior schools for "low-income black students"? But no labeling.

The funny thing is, I don't think Welsh recognizes the contradiction in his editorial. He truly seems to believe that if you don't tell a child, "You're 'Talented and Gifted'", the child won't figure out that he's (to use Welsh's word) bright. It doesn't seem to occur to him that even the "fairly bright" kids who yearn to work above grade level are implicitly able to see that (in some or all subjects) they are academically ahead of their peers. And Welsh believes that if you tell kids that they're "talented and gifted" you will destroy their motivation to learn, citing a single 1998 study to support his thesis.
Dweck conducted an experiment in which she gave two evenly matched groups of elementary school kids the same nonverbal IQ test. When one group of children did well, they were told that they must have worked very hard to get their results. The students in the other group, meanwhile, were told that they must be very smart to have done so well.

Dweck found that as time went on, the kids who were told that they were smart "fell apart when they hit a challenge. They lost confidence in their abilities. Their motivation dwindled and their performance on the next IQ test dropped." By contrast, the children in the group praised for working hard tended to seek out challenges and persist at difficult tasks and ultimately learned more.
The primary lesson to be drawn there would seem to be, "Don't lie to kids about their abilities, and don't mislead them about the work they must do to succeed." There is, of course, no evidence provided that this holds true of the Alexandria "TAG" program, save for one anecdote:
I've seen Dweck's theory proved time and again in my AP English classes. When an Asian student who has spoken English for only four or five years gets an A on a test and an American kid labeled gifted gets a D, the American will often do one of two things: denigrate the Asian's grade because it was achieved through hard work, or bring in his mother to argue that the test was unfair and that I should change his grade because I "know how smart he is."
Funny... I went to high school with a lot of kids who had been labeled "gifted and talented" and, even when they hit a class in which they struggled, didn't once see that happen. (I grant that there have since been some changes in how students and parents approach schoolwork and teachers, but those are hardly unique to smart kids.) Welsh is missing the most obvious explanation - the kid didn't need to be told he was smart, because he was able to coast through school and get A's without ever working. The "D" comes as a surprise because, lo and behold, he thought the AP class was going to be "more of the same". It's the consequence of never challenging a smart student, not a consequence of his being able to figure out that he's smart.

A counter-example? The author of the cited study had a sixth grade teacher who seated her class in order of IQ, highest to lowest, and overtly discriminated in favor of the higher IQ kids. (Really... some things you can't make up.) Yet she somehow managed to survive being told she was smart, and even managed to get a Ph.D. Go figure. The teacher's tactics left the smarter kids "scared of taking another test and not being at the top anymore," which explains why Ms. Dweck is so interested in this subject, but cuts agains the thesis that if you're told you're smart you become a slacker.

Welsh also cites to a student who didn't like being conspicuously pulled out of class to participate in the TAG program, and felt "set apart from other kids". There's a surprise - after all, it's so rewarding in public school to be known as "the smart kid". That's a problem of implementation, but also one that inevitably results from growing up smart in a society that doesn't much value intelligence. If Welsh has his eyes open he will have seen, time and time again, smart kids who intentionally blow tests in at least one class so that they don't suffer the stigma of... having "straight A's". Welsh's other student voice?
Shep Walker, a T.C. graduate about to enter the College of William and Mary, says the problem is that "gifted-and-talented programs get filled with white kids who have pushy parents, leaving a lot of black and Hispanic kids out in the cold and creating de facto segregation in the classes."
It's like Thomas Friedman interviewing a taxi driver - somehow Walsh managed to find a student to quote, whose views miraculously mirror his own.

Welsh has a "solution" to all of this:
But the solution isn't to mark fewer students as gifted and talented. It's to challenge all our kids, all the time.
Right. Except for the smart ones.

At least Welsh makes sense when he attacks the absurdity of Virginia's approach to its SOLs (cute name?), its standardized "Standards of Learning" tests.
When Priscilla Goodwin complained that her third-grader was bored, the principal of George Mason told her that the mandate from the central office was to get all students to pass the SOL exams. "Principals are running scared," Goodwin says. "Their reputations and promotions depend on the SOLs; they think that as long as bright kids pass these simple tests, they're doing fine. They're giving kids worksheets on facts that most children already know because they go at the pace of the slowest kid in the room. TAG or regular classes, kids aren't being challenged."
It seems that everybody in the system is SOL.

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