Monday, July 8, 2013

Gifted and Prepped

Gary Rubinstein, one of my most favorite education bloggers, has written a fantastically interesting post about his own experience with the kindergarten lottery/enrollment process in New York City. Anyone who's interested in the whether-where-high-profile-education-people-send-their-children-to-school-matters conversation should read this, as well as advocates of lottery or "choice" systems, gifted educators, and people who study school accountability and ratings. Gary has given his readers a real and honest window into all of this.

The New York City Public School lottery system, which I have read a lot about, just seems crazy. Calling it a choice system is a joke, unless you mean that the schools choose the students, not the reverse. And even for families, it's so complicated. I can't imagine most people can navigate it. And even many savvy parents don't navigate it on their own--they pay someone to help them navigate it. I remember reading an argument that this system is more fair than the previous system, and that may be so, but I don't know if that's saying much.

I also want to address the twenty children with a mediocre or bad teacher vs. forty children with a great teacher debate. I think that's a false dichotomy. First of all, as I've said here, I don't really believe in inherently great teachers (teachers are made not born) and I think that circumstances such as class size or total student load can help to make or break great teaching. Yes, some teachers are just bad at their jobs, no matter what, but good teaching is highly dependent on working conditions and other circumstances.

And then there is something Gary totally left out: curriculum. He says for his child, peer group is more important than the teacher to him, that
 I’d want my daughter, ideally, in an ethnically diverse class where all the students are functioning above grade level. 
And I totally agree with him about the peer group effect and honesty and charter schools (bolded emphasis is mine):
Here I want my daughter to be in a ‘peer group’ with kids, like her, who come to kindergarten already able to read while I seem to have a problem with charter schools excluding the toughest to educate kids and then kicking out the few that make it through their initial defenses, thus creating a peer group of motivated low-income students with motivated parents.  The truth is, though, that I wouldn’t have such a problem with charters creating this enhanced peer group if they would not lie about doing more with the ‘same kids’ as the nearby ‘failing’ school.  What this has caused is those ‘failing’ schools getting starved of resources, their schools shut down, and their teachers fired.  All because they did not try to game the system.
But for me, while the teacher and the peer group are important neither is as important as the curriculum, what my children are being being taught. Now, I do acknowledge that math curriculum works differently--after a certain point, it's very hard to differentiate a subject that is so heavily dependent on sequence, on mastering a previous skill, concept, or even set of math facts. I say this as a language and social studies teacher, though I guess I should be careful in asserting myself with too much confidence here because Gary is a maestro of math teaching. But anyway, I don't see what good it does my child if they're in a room full of above-grade level peers with or without a "great" teacher if they're learning gibberish.

Finally, I want to address the gifted identification and placement process he discusses. I have to admit though I don't advocate against it and I am relatively uninformed about it, that I have some reservations, generally, about gifted education. I think there are very few truly gifted people in the world. Hence, I am deeply skeptical of any gifted assessment(s) that would find as many as 40% of any population gifted, as the assessments do in NYC. That's not gifted-ness that being identified, it's something else. Second of all, I am deeply skeptical that you can prep for gifted diagnostic tests without invalidating their results. I understand that most people of means get their children prepped for these tests in New York City--this is not about judging Gary for following suit (and I deeply respect him for his honesty about it); the system only works as it should if no one preps their kid. As for the Hunter School and the playdates and the clipboards, that's mostly a matter of luck--what any four-year-old happened to say in that time and what the clipboard-wielder happened to denote is random. There has to be some way of choosing, but I don't see this way as being any more scientific than a lottery is.

In response to the question at the end of his post, I do not think Gary is a hypocrite for wanting the best place for his children, but I do not envy his having to be a part of a such a rat race. Most people prep for gate-keeping tests (I will write a series about my recent personal experiences with the GRE soon), but there's something obscene about preparing and assessing four-year-olds in this way--it makes it almost totally about the parents and their resources.

My father, a native New Yorker and (Gary should appreciate this) a Stuyvesant grad, often repeats this quote which he attributes to Norman Mailer, "New York has the best of everything: the best restaurants, the best plays, the best criminals. . ." and the best gifted and talented program, and the best ways to game it.


  1. I too have a lot of reservations about NYC's system of GT prep and testing, but I have no questions whatsoever about the value of GT education. I was in a GT program in school (a one-hour/week pullout that was the saving grace in a school where reading groups and any differentiation disappeared after first grade. Seriously, there is nothing more painful than having a reading level already past 12th grade in 4th grade and listening to some poor kid who was still at a 2nd grade level slowly make his way through a paragraph as we read aloud in class. That's not helpful for him or me...). My husband was also had a GT pullout. Our oldest has been identified and is lucky enough to be in a district that offers GT centers: one classroom per grade in a neighborhood school with her peers, an accelerated curriculum, and support for some of the "bonus trait" kind of socio-emotional needs that tend to be a little more common among the GT kids. It's a great fit for my daughter and she still spends plenty of time with the kids in the mainstream classes. It's also a much better fit academically. She had an advanced learning plan in kindergarten, but the reality was that the teacher was overwhelmed by the special-needs students and simply did not have time to carry out the ALP most days. This was not poor classroom management: it was a situation where there were too many kids in the classroom (24) and too many of them whose behavior completely disrupted class on a regular basis. There was only a PT aid assigned to the to the classroom, and if one of the kids was having an outburst, learning stops while the outburst is dealt with--usually by waiting for someone to come down to the classroom to remove the offending party. The worst offender has now moved on to a different school and is probably disrupting the learning of other children, but the reality remains that differentiation for children performing above grade level is something that happens after addressing the needs of the delayed learners and those with behavioral issues. There are so many hours in the day, and when pay scales are based on test scores, that's where they have to focus.

    As far as there only being so many GT kids, I think there are a very small number of exceptionally brilliant kids, but I find that a very limited way to define gifted. I was more of an average GT kid than one of the scary-brilliant ones, but that still led to me going to college on scholarships, going to grad school with assistantships, and getting a PhD with a combination of those and grants. That's more than above-average, and yet not quite at the level of a Rhodes scholar or someone like that. I'd argue, however, that I did benefit from GT education (and undoubtedly would have even more had my district been able to offer anything better in elementary school) and that my daughter is benefiting that much more. There's no benefit from leaving the kids who are capable of so much more languishing in boredom in an average classroom when they want more of a challenge, unless one hopes that they'll drop out of high school, get a GED and head to college early because they learned several years ago that K-12 had nothing to offer the kids who are advanced.

    For the record, we did not prep our 5yo for the GT tests administered by our district. With two PhDs between us, we figured she'd be just fine on her own, and it's not like either of us had entered kindergarten reading back in the day either. We won't prep our 3yo either when it comes time for her to take the tests.

    1. @realrellim Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment--my post hardly seems worthy of it.

      I do see value in G/T programs, both professionally and personally. My reservations are based more on how the G/T label can be a proxy for privileged.

      I can see this, though: "I think there are a very small number of exceptionally brilliant kids, but I find that a very limited way to define gifted." In practice, as a teacher and a parent, I can understand that some students (what you define as "average G/T kids") are ready to go at a faster clip and that there's only so much that teachers can differentiate, but I think that enrichment should be for everyone, or rather, almost every student can benefit from it. G/T often turns out to be enrichment or a richer curriculum which, frankly, non-G/T-identified students need just as much as G/T-identified students. I have taught high school students on a 1st and 2nd grade reading level, so they needed more accessible texts but who were ready for high school-level concepts, discussions, and thinking.

      There is no such thing as prepping for the G/T assessments in our district (at least not that I've heard of) and it's a pretty equitable system, which is not to say that privilege doesn't play a role. That's what I meant about being glad, in that context at least, not to live somewhere where people engage in that kind of thing.

      Thanks, again, for your comment.

  2. It's rough. My "failing" neighborhood school loses neighborhood kids because the peer group has low test scores. Because they have low test scores, they get 2 hours of reading a day and hardly any Science or Social Studies. Wham-bam.

    1. @Munkee: Bingo! It's a vicious cycle. Test scores are low, so schools think they must double down and math & reading test prep those students more, cutting them off from content until they can "read." Meanwhile, the low-scoring students (who despeartely need the enriching curriculum more) can't understand what they're reading because they're not learning anything of substance and test scores remain relatively low. The kids who started out with decent test scores get stuck in the test prep mix, too, and then some parents want to pull them out.

    2. Two hours of reading might be great if it were actual reading!

  3. Thank you for introducing me to Gary Rubinstein, Rachel. This is an interesting topic to discuss although I'd rather keep my opinion to myself for now. I just want to thank you for sharing your thoughts about this.