New options emerge to enrich gifted students' education

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 10:15 p.m. MDT

The second reason is that most modern education reform efforts are focused on "closing the achievement gap." That is, they are concerned with ensuring that students who have historically not succeeded in school achieve a minimum level of competency, according to Reis. Gifted programs have come to be seen as a practice that increases the disparity in outcomes for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Assigning students to classrooms based on performance and ability gained popularity in the mid-19th century, when public schools began enrolling large numbers of immigrant children with limited preparation or capacity for schooling compared with native children. Tracking, as it became known, quickly took on the appearance of racial segregation, said Oakes, a professor of education at the UCLA and one of the most vocal advocates for mixed-ability classrooms.

Even when low-income minority students have the ability to succeed in high-level classes, they are often not enrolled in them. For example, based on Oakes' research, an Asian student is 10 times more likely to be enrolled in high-level math courses than a Latino student with the same scores on a standardized math exams. This persistent structural inequality has led some to suggest that the achievement gap is not a function of student ability. Differences in the performance of "gifted students" and "remedial students" reflect the curriculum they are exposed to and not their ability, argues Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University.

In addition to mitigating the effects of structural inequality, proponents of mixed-ability grouping suggest it improves academic outcomes for students who have not been identified as gifted. After a year of mixed-ability grouping at Cloonan Elementary School in Stamford, Conn., teachers reported fewer behavioral problems and better grades for struggling students. Good students model good behavior for other students, according to Deborah Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. "Less motivated children learn from the more motivated ones," she said.

Mixed opinions

Of course, not everyone at Cloonan Elementary was pleased with the results of the mixed-ability grouping experiment. High-performing students complained of boredom and said they were not learning as much, according to Kasak. Herein lies the heart of the problem: while mixed-ability classrooms may be good for student outcomes in the aggregate, they are certainly not the best arrangement for the gifted.

In their study of similar ability grouping, Ellis Page and Timothy Keith of Johns Hopkins University found that gifted children in mixed-ability classrooms do not perform as well as gifted children in gifted programs. These results are especially pronounced among gifted minority children. "Whereas homogeneity has a moderate positive impact on all high-ability youth, it has a very strong positive effect on high-ability black youth," the study found.

Page and Keith also found that ability grouping had no measurable effect on the academic performance of low-ability students. "Contrary to popular wisdom," Page said, "surrounding a low-ability student with a homogeneous group of students seems to have no effect."

The trend is "killing (gifted) kids," said Carole Tieso, a professor of education at the Collage of William and Mary in Virginia. When they aren't challenged they "lose their love of learning and their desire to achieve," she said.

Most students who drop out of high school say they could have had success with more challenging coursework and engaging classroom experiences, according to a report from Civic Enterprises, a Washington, D.C., an education policy organization.

But boredom is only part of the problem. For kids, being different can be hard. Connie Byrnes, a mother from Dana Park, Calif., noticed her highly-gifted son Riley disengaging shortly after joining a mainstream fifth-grade classroom. "He pulled back and underperformed. He was made fun of for his vocabulary. … He didn't want to be different," she said.

Another issue is that many teachers aren't equipped to teach gifted students. While there are methods teachers can learn to address the needs of gifted students in mixed-ability classrooms, few receive the necessary training. "Most teachers get one hour of gifted instruction at university," Tieso said.

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