Nobody Cares! Gifted Education in Massachusetts

Everyone is drowning; the lifeboats are full. There are no more life preservers.

The Captain says “Let those who can swim do without.”

One by one they shout for help. No one answers. No one throws them a rope from a life raft.  They bob in the water and swim for a while, only a few make it to shore. The rest are gone forever.

drowningA life raft drifts away; eventually it goes under too. Less than 10% of the passengers survive, and only a few of the swimmers. What could have been done?

Nobody cares, not really. Although something was done, a law was passed that all ships must be inspected and life preservers counted before a ship leaves port. The law can’t be enforced because there aren’t enough inspectors. But who cares? What about the responsibility of the Captain and the crew? They survived.

This is analogous to how we treat our gifted, talented and advanced students in Massachusetts (and other some other states). The common attitude is that they will swim and make it to shore no matter what. There aren’t 50 people in the entire state willing and able to give up part of one day to attend the annual meeting of the only state wide organization for bright kids (Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education, MAGE). There isn’t a penny for a child to be able to take part in a special advanced math or arts program.  There are no life preservers for these students. They can swim; no one cares how far or how rough the seas are.  Teachers and principals have limited funds and extraordinary demands placed on them just to keep their jobs.

Why doesn’t anyone care? In Massachusetts, everything is about legislation, policy and data. No law explicitly states that the needs of gifted children be met in our public schools (except as “every child” in Title XII, Chapter 69, Section 1). Policies are under local control, those in the capsized lifeboats are supposed to help them. Data measures don’t really apply to the proficient and advanced students. Districts must be focused on leaving no child behind; that’s how they are graded by the state.

Besides, the truly exemplary teachers who challenge everyone and show that many kids can do calculus are not heroes as they should be. Jaime Escalante’s highly successful model was destroyed by petty jealousies and politics and eventually he returned home to Bolivia. What is wrong with giving recognition to those who truly deserve it?

What is wrong with providing services to our gifted children? Some states understand the importance of doing this. Georgia spends over $300 million on funding for their gifted and talented students; Arkansas spends over $20 million (from NAGC Report). In contrast Massachusetts has no funding earmarked to support these students. Many other states identify these students and provide them with additional challenges to meet their potential through gifted individual education plans (GIEPs), and other programs. Except in a few of the 403 districts, Massachusetts doesn’t even identify their gifted and talented students. We are leaving behind the future innovators and leaders, the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of tomorrow. Without support, these students can become bored, singled out, isolated, bullied, labeled ADHD,  and never live up to their potential; some drop out of school; a few even become tragic villains as in Newtown Connecticut.

How can we continue to ignore these kids,  to let them swim on their own? They could help to steer the lifeboat to shore, instead we let all but a few lucky ones drown.

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Terror at the Marathon: A Painful Reminder of the Importance of Learning History

Is there anything students can learn that would help to make sense of our world? What should we be teaching in our schools? Reading, writing and arithmetic is what we heard for years growing up. But we also learned science, music, art, geography, history and current events. We all knew about the cold war from drills when we got under our desks and bomb shelters in our basements.  We were told that our soldiers went to war to “make the world safe for democracy.”

What has happened to our world? Our own country is no longer safe. Lest we forget 911, the terror at the Boston Marathon is now a painful reminder.

Boston Marathon Explosion from cbsnews.com 4-15 Photo from http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50144894n

In our schools today, with standards and testing, a need for more innovation and science and math, we have all but forgotten social studies. In Massachusetts, English language arts, mathematics and science tests are requirements for graduation, not social studies. We are allowing this generation of Americans to complete high school ignorant of the events in history and lacking an understanding of the impacts of individuals obsessed with power.  Are we doomed to repeat the lessons of history?

The Riddle of the Running Shoes: The Logic of Assessments

RunningShoe

Original Artwork by Lisa Lach, 2003

Notice: All teachers will have as a component of their evaluation, test results that measure the achievement of their students. This is in compliance with new educator evaluation regulations.

The section on Physical Education Teachers reads as follows: Running speed is the easiest measure of student performance in your class. Therefore all of your students will be tested as follows. The teacher and an objective observer from the school district will time all students as they run a mile around the track. The results will be recorded on special forms that will be returned to the state within a week of test completion. We realize that all students may not have running shoes. In order to level the playing field, these will be provided for all students a week prior to the test. Under no circumstances are students to take this test wearing their own shoes. Based upon student counts in our database, one pair of size 7 shoes for each female student and one pair of size 12 shoes for each male student will be sent to the school. This was determined from the statistically average shoe size, since it is too costly and requires too much time to provide shoes based on the foot size of each individual student.

Upon completion and receipt of the data, scores will be normalized and teachers whose students fall in the bottom quartile will be required to participate in remedial professional development. These scores will also reflect on the ranking of your school and district.

Be sure that your students are not the ones left behind in this high stakes race!

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The Results: Data from the million students in Massachusetts who took this test, shows one teacher whose students all ran in record time and placed in the top 5%. All the others show a fairly random distribution of scores. Can you guess why?

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Hint: The Principal saw that teacher sweeping the track the morning of the test.

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Reason: Upon questioning, the teacher said she had all of her students run the mile barefoot.

Question: Should the teacher be punished or praised?

DISCLAIMER: The scenario above is fictitious. It is intended as an allegory to highlight the illogical assumptions and factors that are ignored in our current educational assessments.

First Grader from Honduras Becomes a Hero

In October, a new student, Manuel, came to our school from Honduras.  On his third day, the substitute said I was coming to take students to the computer lab. When the class lined up and he was to go with them, Manuel looked at me with fear in his eyes. He crawled under the desk, watching me as if I was marching them to their execution. Then, the substitute said something to him in Spanish. Slowly he crept out and got at the end of the line. As we went down the hall, I kept looking back to be sure he was still with us.  The other students seemed to pay little attention to him, and I wasn’t even sure if he understood much English. When we got to the lab, the students took seats at their computers. They were working on addition in a program called Math Workshop.

screeen from the computer game Math Workshop

Math Workshop by Broderbund Software
http://www.uvm.edu/~jmorris/mthwk.html

In this program, the graphics put them in a bowling alley where they were given a math problem. After solving 10 correctly in a row,the gorilla bowled a strike for them and the animated pins made a funny comment. Most of the students had completed two or three sets of ten, when Manuel had done over 70 problems correctly. By the end of the half hour session, he had finished the whole set of 100. His classmates noticed and suddenly he became as big a hero as any winning Patriots quarterback in their eyes. Manuel walked proudly back to class with a huge smile on his face.

Editorial comment: How often do school staff members take time and use resources to recognize talent? This is how to build self-esteem, not through social-promotion, false praise and “being fair.”

Life is like a game of Pac-Man: Priorities in Education

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Life is like a game of Pac-man. It’s hard to remember that the objective is to clear the board of dots when you are busy running from the monsters. Take education, for example, we are busy with school security, gun control, bullying policies, teacher training, standardized testing, evaluating teachers to name just a few of the monsters distracting us from the real task of education. Because of an obsession with data, we label students, schools and districts underperforming. When the true significance of the data is questioned, the response is to collect more data, to slice and dice it longitudinally, and to try to justify it.

We have forgotten that the real task is to clear the dots, to prepare all students to be self-supporting, contributing members of society, to be educated to make their life’s work something they are passionate about, or at least interested in.  Education involves such life skills as the ability to plan ahead, to problem solve, and to work with others. To achieve this goal, it is essential that we recruit and train good teachers and provide them with the resources to teach. They will be able to build self-esteem through high standards, hard work and encouragement. The monsters of false fairness, unearned praise, social promotion and fear have kept us running for too long.

To clear the board, we need to find the talents and abilities of our students and to encourage and build on these. The more we try to make the future Isadora Duncans into scientists and the gym class klutzes into athletes, the less likely we are to succeed.