National Edition

'All the children are above average': Should schools separate gifted students?

Published: Thursday, June 19 2014 4:05 a.m. MDT

In a March 3, 2011 photo, students attend a Global History class at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, in New York.

Richard Drew, Associated Press

The debate over gifted education, which has smoldered for generations, flared again this month when incoming New York Education Commissioner Carman Fariña signaled at a town hall meeting that the city may dial back separate gifted programs in favor of personalized and more challenging curriculum for all kids in every class.

Advocates call Fariña's model the “differentiated classroom.” With the right structure, they argue, one teacher can accelerate learning for the highly gifted in an integrated classroom — without separating them from others or slighting those who lag behind.

Differentiated instruction as an alternative to gifted programs is not a new idea. The approach is widely embraced around the country, and it is widely viewed as a way of blending kids rather than isolating them, while making limited classroom resources reach further.

But not everyone thinks differentiation can serve students across all needs and ability groupings. Critics are reminded of radio host Garrison Keillor’s improbable Lake Woebegone, where "all of the children are above average."

It’s a new take on the old American conflict between equality and opportunity. If the goal is to make sure no child is left behind, how can schools also be helping others to get ahead?

The differentiated classroom

The differentiated classroom hearkens back to the rural one-room schoolhouse of American history, where different ages and abilities forced schools to tailor to students needs.

The modern form of the idea also owes much to disability law, which led to mainstreaming of mildly or even significantly handicapped students, requiring teachers to reach to one extreme of learning capacity and speed.

In an ideal differentiated classroom, curriculum is tailored to student’s skills, small group work is common and so is individualized work. Students who move faster are given enrichment materials or pushed forward, while the teacher gives extra help to those lagging behind.

Adding highly gifted students into that mix doesn’t really change the theory, but it does force teachers to stretch ever further to provide the ideal push for differing skill levels.

Fariña’s vision for New York is to give every child personalized and challenging opportunities, and she thinks the differentiated classroom can do it.

“My children did not go to gifted and talented [programs], and I think they had wonderful educations because their teachers taught all the kids in that class to the highest level,” Fariña told a parent group in Queens earlier this year, Chalkbeat reported.

Fariña aims to bring to play the theories — and efforts — of Joseph Renzulli and Sally M. Reis, the Connecticut-based creators of the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, the most widely known expression of the differentiated classroom approach.

The Renzulli SEM model of applying gifted principles to the school at large has an enthusiastic following in education reform circles, and a handful of New York public schools have formally embraced it.

“A Renzulli School,” proclaims Bell Academy, a public school in Queens, on its website, “focuses on the development of all students' unique profile of gifts and talents.”

“Learning is project-based, and students are encouraged to use the independent investigative method of research learning,” Bell Academy’s website states. “The school culture celebrates individuality, creativity and diversity to develop creative problem-solvers who feel they can make a difference in the world.”

Segregating students

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