Virginia's approach to gifted education has been designed in a way that doesn't meet the needs of our most intellectually gifted kids.

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Thanks to Gov. Tim Kaine, the intermittent controversy over gifted education has once again claimed public attention. Expressing concern over apparent racial disparities in Virginia's gifted education programs, the governor has ordered the Virginia Department of Education to study the reasons for this disparity.

The governor's directive quickly aroused predictable reactions from the usual quarters.

Those whose mission it is to detect racism behind every unpleasant fact of life quickly demanded revised selection criteria for gifted programs.

Those advantaged by the present system were equally quick to detect a conspiracy to impose some new form of affirmative action. 

Educational administrators assured the public of their belief that every child deserves the best and most appropriate education possible — provided, of course, that no one actually expects them to do anything constructive to that end.

Not surprisingly, these predictable exchanges have thus far produced more heat than light.

Most Virginians — including the majority of school administrators — probably have no idea that there are actually two competing approaches to gifted education, or that the approach adopted by most public schools is supported by neither research nor common sense.

Few realize that Virginia's approach to gifted education has been designed to suit the convenience of school administrators — and to satisfy the demands of privileged parents — rather than to meet the needs of our most intellectually gifted kids.

Yet such is the case.

The approach to gifted education used in most Virginia public schools is the “enrichment model.” Under this approach, pupils identified as gifted take the same basic curriculum as other children in their schools — at the same pace. They may take some courses one year earlier, but they take the same amount of time — one academic year — to complete each course.

The basic difference between their education and that of the general population is that gifted pupils go into greater depth — through things such as extra research projects, hearing guest speakers and going on field trips. Indeed, many kids will tell you that being gifted essentially means that you have more homework.

The alternative approach — the acceleration model — rests on the assumption that what we term giftedness is essentially the ability to learn faster and absorb more. In an accelerated program, pupils are encouraged to work at their own speed, completing courses in less than the usual time and moving immediately to the next level.

Accelerated pupils tend to skip at least one grade of elementary school. Most complete high school early. Many apply to college at 17, 16, or even younger.

The research comparing the two models is overwhelming. Pupils in accelerated programs tend to advance far more rapidly than those in enrichment programs. Because they are constantly challenged — rather than merely overworked — they are less frustrated with school.  They tend to develop a stronger work ethic and better study skills. 

There is even reason to believe, albeit the research is not conclusive, that accelerated students have more humility about their intellectual gifts than those in enrichment programs.

All this makes perfect sense. Pupils in enrichment programs are, effectively, being held back. They are taking the same classes, in enriched form, as ungifted pupils. They often feel bored and overworked — but seldom challenged. Relying on native intelligence to earn easy A's, they frequently acquire a sense of innate superiority rather than developing the skills and self-discipline needed to deal with ever more challenging material.

Yet, in America, most public schools prefer the enrichment approach.

There are several reasons for this. First, many parents and teachers share a concern that kids who advance ahead of their classmates will suffer socially. In fact, the research indicates that the reverse is true. The smartest kid in class often encounters social isolation. The whiz kid among older pupils functioning at the same intellectual level ordinarily gains acceptance.

Second, school administrators are never eager to lose bright pupils. Schools love to take credit for success stories — whether or not they can justly claim any role in that success.  Moreover, bright pupils help a school's ratings on standardized tests. An accelerated pupil who graduates early is — from the administrative perspective — a lost asset.

Finally, middle-class parents prefer enrichment programs because their selection processes tend to favor kids from privileged backgrounds.

Because enrichment programs emphasize extra projects and field trips — as opposed to moving rapidly forward into ever more difficult material — they are inherently less intellectually challenging than accelerated programs. Once selected, a hard-working pupil of better-than-average intelligence — with the active support of two educated parents — can survive in an enrichment program. In an accelerated program, a pupil lacking the intellectual prowess to move rapidly through the curriculum will inevitably fall behind.

Since accelerated programs are better at identifying improperly selected pupils, they tend to evolve better selection criteria. Enrichment programs, in contrast, often develop more subjective criteria, favoring pupils who behave well in class, speak conventional English and have supportive parents. Not surprisingly, this preference usually has the unintended consequence of overselecting white and Asian students, and underselecting students of Hispanic and African-American descent.

The solution is obvious — if not politically easy. By adopting the accelerated model of gifted education Virginia would provide an appropriate education to more of her most intellectually gifted pupils.

If Kaine wishes to leave an educational legacy in his final month in office, he should redirect the energies of his study from racial disparity to a comparison of the acceleration and enrichment models.

It shouldn't take until Inauguration Day for an impartial study to reach the obvious conclusions.

'Rick Gray served as secretary of the commonwealth from 1978 to 1981. He also taught history at Midlothian High School, the Appomattox Regional Governor's School, and writes a column for the Village News in Chester.


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