by Paolo Martin
A few weeks ago, my nephew was moping around the house, depressed that he wasn't in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program at his school like his friend Evan. While my nephew takes "regular" education classes with some honors subjects in middle school, his peers take "accelerated" courses in GATE. So, he asked me, "Uncle, should I be in GATE to get a good job when I grow up?" His parents have asked me, "What do you think of these schools/programs for the gifted?" For me, these are tough and often loaded questions that I'm inclined to avoid like the plague, along with "What religion are you?" and "Do I look fat in this?"
Questions about "gifted" programs and "tracking" are difficult for me to answer because while I was one of those "minority" kids living in the lower-middle-class socio-economic strata, I also benefited from "tracking" and "gifted" programs. Tracking is a system of placing students into different class assignments within a school, often according to academic ability. The idea is that a more homogenous classroom benefits from instruction tailored to the abilities of that particular group of students. However, researchers have argued that tracking is detrimental to kids in the lower track. First, lower-track classes tend to be disproportionately composed of low-income minority students while the upper-track classes tend to be populated with higher-income White students. As such, the differences in racial and socio-economic make-up do not adequately represent the abilities of the students and may create or heighten racial/class tensions within a school. Furthermore, lower-track classes tend to be taught by less experienced teachers compared with higher-track classes which are taught by a higher caliber of teachers. Some research has also indicated that those teachers in the lower tracks expected little from their students and rarely employed assignments which required critical thinking skills, while teachers from the upper tracks were enthusiastic about their teaching, expected much from their students, and often assigned challenging work.
As a person who benefited from a tracked system of education, it's hard for me to say that the system didn't work because it worked fine for me. I don't know nor do I want to guess how my educational experience would have looked had I not been in a tracked, "gifted and talented," college prep program. But then, as an educator who has worked with inner-city schools and children who have had a history of poverty, violence, and racism/classism, it's hard to endorse tracking when it appears that tracking doesn't really help learners from these demographics. My dream is to see kids of different backgrounds and academic abilities co-existing in a classroom in which they all get some sort of individualized support. And researchers argue that that's possible!
If so, according to an article in the Washington Post entitled "‘No Child' Law May Slight the Gifted, Experts Say," the No Child Left Behind Act, with its widespread focus on increasing test scores and getting all kids to "grade level," leaves behind gifted kids who effectively operate above standard, grade-level expectations. Because NCLB is centered on helping kids meet minimum standards, some say that the high-ability kids are left behind and aren't challenged to meet their full learning potential. In an ideal heterogeneous classroom, instruction would be individualized and differentiated in a way that met the diversity of abilities - to keep all students at their maximum "zone of proximal development." The problem, according to some education researchers, is that teachers aren't really differentiating their classroom instruction. Instead, they are compelled, often by local government mandates, to teach a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The way I see it, when there isn't an attempt to explore and capitalize on what makes children unique, "gifted" or otherwise, all children are left behind.
Tags: gifted education, tracking, educational tracking