Friday, April 3, 2009

Gifted and Talented Education

This is a long response to a comment on a LinkedIn article. Basically the parent wants to know why her middle school doesn't have quality Science support for gifted children. 

In general the model for elementary schools in the U.S. is one teacher per grade teaching all subjects. This is the way one-room school houses worked, this is the way we still do it. That isn't to say it isn't the best way of doing things. In middle school the model moves from one teacher per class towards one teacher per subject. Then in high school the model moves to several teachers per subject. That isn't to say this always happens, just in general. 

The biggest benefit of having one teacher (besides the lower cost of integrating several teachers into one) is the ease with which the teacher can integrate across subjects. The low level of mastery required for teaching the subjects at the elementary grade levels makes it possible to have just one teacher for all subjects. One problem I have found is because it is possible to graduate college by basically retaking a high school course in your worst subject some teachers really don't have the needed grasp of all subjects. 

In your elementary school they have obviously decided that gifted and talented (GT) students deserve their own teacher and thus put them all in one class. Another option would be to have GT resource teacher(s). Yet another option would be to pull students out in subjects in which they are GT. Still another option would be to use differentiated instruction.

Most educators today would take the position that differentiated instruction should always be a part of the classroom. GT resource teachers can and should help teachers write these differentiated lesson plans with the GT students in mind. GT resource teachers can also pull students out or work in-class with GT students to allow them to delve deeper into the curriculum without disrupting the rest of the class. 

As we move to middle schools the general model in this country is to move from one teacher per grade level to one teacher per subject. Some schools will ease the transition by having one teacher teach two or more subjects in sixth grade. This means an elementary school running a GT program, whether it be a GT class or resource teacher, generally had to hire one extra teacher, but in middle school the same district might have to hire 4 or more teachers. 

The question "I'd be interested in whether there is research on what middle school is suppose to be "for"?" is a great question. And while there may be research out there the truth is the purpose of middle school, like the larger question 'What is the purpose of education?', is different depending on the person asking the question. 

For some middle school is seen as the transition between elementary school and high school. For others it is a transition from being children to being young adults. 

While the overall question, "What is the purpose of school?" may have an impact on "What is the purpose of middle school?" the choice of principal and teachers will have a much greater impact. The voice, or lack thereof, of parents will also have a large influence. Your school has obviously put the importance of middle school on creating a strong social foundation that will make education in high school easier and much more effective. (This may not be everyone choice, but it is still valid.)

One of the cons of the separate GT class in elementary school is the very act of separation. Our children are influenced greatly by their peers in the six years of middle and high school. Or more correctly we as parents have less influence on our children's choices. If they continue to be separated it is very likely they will be ostracized from most of their age based peers. 

In your specific school it would seem from your description that the administration recognizes this and have changed the GT program from a separate classroom into resource teachers. They just don't have anyone for Science. I would assume that, even though they won't admit it, the problem is likely money. As you said the district is underfunded. 

The addition of another teacher means, the cost of the teachers salary, the room to teach in, and in the case of Science specialized materials and possibly a specialized room. 

What can you do? Obviously you have started by getting your child involved with Lego© robotics and Science Olympiad. You can go further by going to board meetings and making noise about the lack of Science support in middle school. While you are at the board meeting you can suggest: Opening virtual classrooms, allowing your school to have advanced Science without the full cost of a new teacher and classroom. You can ask for after school clubs and activities. You can ask for a partnership with a local college or university. You can ask for a partnership with a local environmental group studying earth science. Let your imagination be your guide, but always go to a school board meeting with suggestions, then follow up month after month until something happens. 

In high school education is very different from elementary school. Some of that has to do with the history of education in our country and some has to do with the content that has to be taught. One thing is for sure if we asked one person to be expert enough in all subjects to be able to teach them at the high school level we would never have enough teachers. 

While high school education doesn't need the integration of subject matter, it is important to keep in mind how all subjects (art and music included) can and are integrated in the real world. 

GT programs in high school become almost exclusively advanced classes. This changes the focus from the student and his or her learning to the subject and what can be taught. It also changes the focus from placement by administration to choice by the student, though there are likely entrance requirements for most classes. 

School has gone from mandatory with few exceptions for home schooling to optional but most students still choosing school. Likewise, GT programs have transformed from most participants chosen by the school (Yes you can opt to create your own GT program at home or petition for your child to be accepted in the school sponsored program) to the student choosing to take advanced classes where they feel it is appropriate. (High school counselors now petition students to take advanced classes when they think it appropriate)

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