Room for Debate: Gifted Tracks

The New York Times has an excellent series of articles called Room for Debate where they have various experts write an essay for or against a subject.  Their latest is about gifted education

I didn't read each article thoroughly but two things did stand out.

Professor Bruce Sacerdote had this to say:

My paper with fellow economists James West and Scott Carrell examines peer effects among students at the Air Force Academy. We found that students benefit from their peers, but that these peer effects disappear if the group is comprised of the highest ability and lowest ability cadets. My work with economists Scott Imberman and Adriana Kugler examines peer effects from the arrival of Hurricane Katrina refugees in receiving schools. We discovered that high ability students benefit the most from high ability peers. And an experiment in primary schools in Kenya, researchers found that grouping students into classrooms based on prior achievement benefits all students.

Key point?  That grouping students helps more of them and that not grouping gifted students together actually hurts their academic outcomes.

 Professor Darrick Hamilton had this to say:

All children should have access to a “talented and gifted” curriculum with teachers and administrators trained to deliver in an environment that expects excellence of all children.

Particularly pernicious is this so-called ability group sorting both across and within schools that is largely defined by race and class position at birth.  

Nonetheless, there is an abundance of case-study evidence across geography, grade-level and demography demonstrating that “low” achieving students perform better and “high” achieving students perform no worse when all students are exposed to a high level curriculum. (bold mine)

Key point? That ALL students need a great and challenge curriculum and that much of ability grouping does not reach all students across race and class.  

Professor Hamilton's last statement bumps right up against what Professor Sacerdote had to say. 

(Sacerdote) Not grouping highly capable student together hurts those students BUT (Hamilton) if all students had a "high level curriculum," then all can do well.

There are several factors that seem to be problematic for both sides and maybe the question really should be this - which one can be more easily solved to give the greatest number of students better academic outcomes.

Given class sizes, curriculum and ability for a teacher to differentiate the curriculum and teaching, our schools, can non-grouped classes work well?

Given the data on who is in grouped classrooms, should we continue to use them?

Which is the issue that can be more easily (and cost-efficiently) solved?  (I'm leaving out social factors here in favor of just talking academics.) 


Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
reposting for anonymous (you can't use a sentence as a signature)

"For the love of God.

Why are you even posting this after the reaction most of your readers gave Wayne Au and Jesse Hagopian last week when they said essentially that all children need a challenge and that tracking is harmful. High achieving children almost always start school that way.

--you already know the demographic of your readers and the victim approach they will take to anything other than what they want to hear"

Ann D
Anonymous said…
The problem is that advanced students are being given the floor from what I have read, and then the rest of general ed also gets the teachers aiming for the floor as well, and for struggling learners they might not be even aiming for the floor -- even if the student can do more than that.

I was in a G&T program for one year in middle school, then the program was dismantled. It was the only time in my school career where I received top marks in math class.

A friend from college told me how she wanted to take certain AP classes in high school but wasn't allowed because she had dyslexia. She was still spitting mad about it years later.

I saw some little boys (FRL, brown skin) in kindergarten last year doing really basic math work at the end of the year. Even if they had a learning disability or hadn't attended preschool, the teaching staff should have gotten them further in the space of an academic year than what I saw them doing.

All kids need the chance to be challenged and to grow.

Ann D
L of G, I am posting in because it is good information - from different sides - about this issue. I will have to disagree about the level of "harm" there is about tracking. Indeed, it is a subject of much disagreement.

If you read what the authors and I wrote, the issue is that ALL children do need a challenge. But the question is how best to do that?

Again, don't like a topic, don't have to read it. But that doesn't mean that others aren't interested.
Benjamin Leis said…
My counter viewpoint: I'm glad this time around for the research and background links that Melissa posted. The Wayne Au/Jesse Hagopian thread didn't provide a lot of context.

For most folks I think the educational outcomes of their children are of paramount importance. So any radical change like detracking that has the possibility of lowering quality is going to evoke strong opinions. And by that I don't mean it necessarily does so but just that this is what is motivating a lot of the comments.

Victim or siege mentality honestly has more to do with the lack of control/input most of us have on the district. I think that cuts across multiple segments of the school district from special ed students, to those concerned with inequity, to advanced learners etc.

Anonymous said…
Here we go again.

Look what they are doing at White Center Elementary, and how well it's working. Many would call it "tracking" but it's mostly temporary and results in bringing up the behind grade-level kids without slowing down the whole class. By focusing the most on the kids with the greatest needs, they have moved so many kids up the continuum, that they've essentially eliminated the "lower track" altogether and closed the achievement gap.

The labeling of these intervention strategies is stalemating us and holding kids back as badly, or worse, than unsuccessful techniques.

Minds have to open and we need to get our priorities straight. We cannot be disregarding proven successful intervention strategies because we don't like the ring to them.

Jessie and Wayne are falling into the "economic worry" trap that we all worry about in the ever-widening chasm between the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. Were I in their shoes, I might share their views. But too many of us expect our schools to not just educate, but cure all the ills in our society that thrive outside the school walls. God Bless them both, but there's a limit to what schools can do about that, at the cost of other pressing needs. No matter what I was taught and regurgitated at school, I didn't get my politics there, and I'd bet few of us did. And try as they might, in good conscience, I don't think Wayne and Jessie can change that. They can open minds, but life experience will ultimately fill them. All we adults have a sh**load of work still to do in that arena, while the best I believe we can do for our kids is make them as good at the 3R's as possible, before they step into the f'd up mess we call "adulthood."

Anonymous said…
All children need challenge - YES. But what is challenging to a child with an IQ of 80 is not challenging at all for a child with an IQ of 110. And what is challenging for a child with and IQ of 110 is not at all challenging for a child with and IQ of 130 or more.
And that is not even taking into consideration that kids through the entire range of IQs from very low to very high will have differing levels of intrinsic motivation, distractibility, parental support, special medical or psychological needs, and temperament differences that will effect their ability to learn and the level of achievement. So how do we accommodate this spectrum of human potential in a single classroom of say 28 kids with a single teacher?
I totally agree that all kids should be nurtured and pushed to be the best they can be academically. But what constitutes academic challenge varies so widely I just can not fathom how it can be implemented in practice in our current cash-strapped system (in an ideal world - yes I'm sure it could be done well, but we don't live in an ideal world).
I would respectfully ask Wayne Au and Jesse Hagopian etc how they would provide universal challenge and rigor in this kind of elementary or middle school classroom? The concept is great but the proof is implementation. Maybe it is different in high school - I cannot speak to that.
I am pro-ability grouping if it is done right. Kids are not all the same. The fact is grouping kids with similar levels of IQ and/or achievement, and/or motivation, allows these kids to receive instruction at an appropriate level and pace so that they can all be challenged but also successful. It may mean they can move faster through material, it a mean they move slower but have the opportunity to really master the concepts, it may mean they explore deeper or tangentially, it may mean a different style of teaching in the classroom - different approaches to engage the kids, it may mean more teaching assistants or volunteers in some classrooms. Of course, kids should not be boxed into lower ability tracks - any ability grouping should be designed with upward mobility in mind. At all levels the goal should be to boost performance so that at least a proportion of the kids in any group can take on more challenging material the following year. I get that it is politically distasteful that there is a tendency for grouping in this way to also stratify kids by racial or socioeconomic parameters. This is a societal problem - the only way I can see that this can be mitigated in the education system is for districts to make sure kids of all socioeconomic strata are correctly identified and given the appropriate opportunities, make sure no one is missing out because of language or financial barriers, and to provide special assistance to overcome any specific barriers that may exist to being appropriately grouped.
I'll probably get flamed for this post but I firmly believe true differentiation is not possible in large classrooms with wide ability ranges (except with an exceptional teacher or very high level support) and I think it is a disservice to kids of all levels to head down this road just because some forms of ability grouping aren't perfect.

One size does not fit all in education

Anonymous said…
I find the links quite fascinating, and the results quite complicated for making public policy decisions for a school system.

The three cites by Sacerdote seem to conclude the following:

1) study in Kenya -- where, the authors state, the teachers "have incentives to teach to the top of the distribution." In that case, the authors conclude, "the direct effect of high achieving peers is positive" but tracking can help, because teachers change their teaching methods, when they don't have those high performing students to train. The problem with applying this study to our system is whether the tailoring to student would benefit average students more than the presence of high performing peers (when there are no obvious incentives to tailor instruction to the high performing peers).

2) The Katrina study: Concludes that the presence of high performing peers increases performance and low performing peers decreases performance, with weaker evidence that there can be some benefit from being around peers of the same level.

3) The US Air Force Academy study: Wow. An actual experiment. Conclusion: peer effects are important and difficult to use to attain a particular outcome.

They designed 3 groups based on SAT verbals -- 1) random assignment, 2) low SAT verbal + high SAT verbal, bimodal group, and 3) mid SAT verbal, homogenous group

The goal was to increase the performance of the low SAT verbal group (the "low ability" students in the bimodal group). It didn't work. They did statistically worse, with a not quite significant p value (0.055). The middle group did better (p=0.04). High ability students showed no effect.

Explanation: in the bimodal group, consisting of both low & high ability students, the students segregated themselves by ability, with little interaction across the groups. In the homogenous group, the group segregated itself from the low ability students, who were no longer in their squadron.

What does one do with these studies? I'm really don't know. A lot of studies seem to indicate that peer groups can make a big difference. The question is, how to use this to do the most good and the least harm?

Anonymous said…
I think the problem here is that motivation can be intertwined with ability. I have seen unmotivated kids of high ability who drag down a class. And I have seen motivated kids of lower ability who rise above expectations. Motivation, in my opinion, is completely separate from ability yet they significantly influence each other. Most experienced teachers can teach to ability levels but motivation is hard to tackle and it may be unrealistic to expect teachers to shoulder the entire motivation burden.

Anonymous said…
I for one really appreciate that you posted this, and I forwarded the link of the 4 article/opinion pieces on to the members of the current ALTF program delivery task force (of which I am not a member but have been attending every meeting anyway.)

I think those 4 articles really get to the heart of what is being, and continues being discussed about gifted education and the opportunity gap and general education and even special education.

And I think that there truly is an opportunity for a "yes all kids need a great education, AND..." solution, instead of "yes, but all kids need to be taught the same thing at the same time and gifted ed as we know it needs to be dismantled."

Yes, all kids need quality education. AND there are kids with special needs that need specialized instruction in order for them to reach their potential. And one size does not fit all. And we have societal realities and pressures that impact how we educate our kids and if/how all kids are actually being taught to their full potential.

Yes, raise the bar in all "general education" (quotes because really, have you ever met a "general" kid? The very way we talk about education for the vast majority of kids by calling it "general" tends to invoke a sense of mediocrity in my mind, but anyway...)

AND, design our schools and programs to provide the appropriate education for all kids. Provide high quality "general education" in all schools all the time. AND design programs that ensure that the out-liers are receiving the appropriate education that helps them to continue to improve over time.

Until and unless our schools are actually providing appropriate education for highly capable and special ed kids in the "general ed" classrooms, we still need specialized programs, just like we need specialized programs for special ed.

I'll share that I have a close family friend who is an educator has an autistic child. For the first two years of his schooling she tried hard to have him be successful in the "general ed" classroom, and it just didn't work for anyone, least of all for him. He's now moved to a more specialized school and classroom and everyone is doing better.

Some groups of kids need specialized and appropriate educational environments, and our highly capable kids are some of those kids. The state has even gone as far as to say (per Randy Dorn): "Beginning with the 2014–15 school year, all districts are required to provide highly capable programs and services for students in Grades K–12."

Instead of dismantling the NEEDED programs that work for kids, the goal needs to be getting more kids that NEED the programs, into the program. And raising the bar for everyone.

Can and should we do more to make sure that ALL highly capable kids are getting the education they deserve? EMPHATICALLY YES. Single domain kids need to be able to take HC classes, extensive OUTREACH to nominate needs to be done to reach all HC kids, not just the ones whose parents can navigate the complicated identification process.

Dismantling APP before building up "general ed" is not the answer.

Building up "General Ed", and Looking at the REAL solutions to ensure that ALL HC kids are included in HC programs is where we look to close the opportunity gap, IMHO.


Educator, great point on motivation. (I actually hope you and other teachers will weigh in on another thread I hope to get up by the end of the week about expectations about teachers and how teachers feel/treat their students.)

I'm good with either - grouping by ability BUT only with the widest coverage possible OR we have smaller classes and equip teachers to be able to teach across the range.

Anonymous said…
While we talk about pros and cons of tracking or ability grouping and whether or not it is fair or perpetuates segregation perhaps we should also keep in mind this…. segregation across economic and racial lines is an unfortunate reality in the US and one that education appears to do little to rectify. (from, also cited in Mother Jones this week)

"Of the nearly 800 school kids [Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander has] been following for 30 years, those who got a better start—because their parents were working or married—tended to stay better off, while the more disadvantaged stayed poor.

Out of the original 800 public school children he started with, 33 moved from low-income birth family to a high-income bracket by the time they neared 30. Alexander found that education, rather than giving kids a fighting chance at a better life, simply preserved privilege across generations. Only 4 percent of the low-income kids he met in 1982 had college degrees when he interviewed them at age 28, whereas 45 percent of the kids from higher-income backgrounds did.

Perhaps more striking in his findings was the role of race in upward mobility. Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who’d dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts."

This is what we are up against as a society- and the problem and solutions are complicated and more political than educational.

One size does not fit all

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