Friday, September 14, 2012

Using CCSS for Math with Gifted Learners

One of my concerns regarding Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is that as they roll out and school staff tries to understand them, the brightest students will be left behind. I imagine many responses to questions about educating our brightest learners. Some will be told that the new standards are deeper and require more from our students so that differentiating up is not necessary. Some will say that they will try and fit in expansion of the curriculum as needed, but never have the time or resources to do so. Other places will have the few resources available to our brightest further stretched because of the new standards and budgetary limitations on professional development leading to weak piecemeal approaches. While there will be teachers and places that are successful, I fear that CCSS will be a huge stumbling block for our advanced learners over the next couple of years.

Using the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics with Gifted and Advanced Learners edited by Susan K. Johnsen and Linda J. Sheffield, is a booklet aimed at providing guidance to schools to help prevent or limit the problem. The National Association for Gifted Children, National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) collaborated to produce the material. The booklet is more of a you need to do this directive than a how to manual. The resource section is extensive and useful, but this book does not offer enough to go on by itself.

This is the first place where I have seen the admission that the curriculum is not shrunk by much. While the CCSS say they are not an inch wide and mile deep, the authors of this book seem to disagree. Problem solving may be renewed in focus but that just makes it more challenging material. It took centuries for the best mathematical minds of civilization to come up with the ideas of statistics. We cannot expect our students to figure them out on their own in the 13 years we expect them to be in school. Just problem solving and inquiry will not be enough- direct instruction will be necessary as well.

Of note is the fact that the authors do not discriminate between gifted and advanced learners. Gifted is a title that is some circles has a bad rap and has a specific educational definition. Advanced learners is far less polarizing and easier to identify. Many school districts fail to provide any assessment with which to give an official label of gifted, but every teacher can identify their advanced students. I have personally avoided identifying my daughter as gifted because a) I have not had her formally tested at my expense, and b) it offends some people.  Label or not, these kids need more support to advance to their fullest potential. While many, if not most, teachers and administrators will say that heterogeneous grouping does not hurt the top and benefits the bottom, research has shown that the top does not proceed at the speed and depth they are capable of, are less likely to pursue advanced classes and have the same social issues regardless of placement when they are heterogeneously grouped (Colangelo, Assouline & Gross, 2004). If we want our brightest to be the leaders of the future, we cannot provide them with what they perceive to be a watered down curriculum.

NCTM is quoted by the authors, "Without properly motivating, encouraging, and intellectually challenging gifted students we may lose some of their mathematical talent forever." The National Science Board confirms that our system "too frequently fails to identify and develop our most talented and motivated students who will become the next generation of innovators" (p. 8). Clearly the professional boards at the top levels understand the resource that we are given to squander or develop. Merely giving them the same program or asking them to teach/tutor the ones who do not get it, is not enough to grow their skills and talents.

We know that "intellectually talented youth achieve at an impressively high level if they receive an appropriately challenging education," and "accelerated students clearly excel in subsequent math courses and perform better than their equally able nonaccelerated peers" (p 49). This tells us that addressing the needs is an imperative, not an option. The book contains some examples of how to differentiate within a class. The examples are however, quite limited. Clearly a teacher will need to spend time developing the alternate questions/assignments. This does not mean doing more work, it means doing different work. For example, let students opt into the more challenging assignment by answering the last four questions correctly. The dozen questions for the assignment can be either group a or group b, with group a having more scaffolding, less processes to integrate, lower on Bloom's Taxonomy or simply easier problems. This gives students a chance to practice material at a level appropriate for the individual.

The last critical point that I will mention is the idea that it takes a village. All kids need deep support, even gifted ones. The  authors identify five partners in the process: content experts, parents or families, outside entities, special population experts (special ed, ELL, SLP,...), and administrators. I would argue that there is a sixth partner in the process- the child. He needs to be empowered to say I am bored and not expect to be ignored, have to teach others or just get extra work; he needs to say where his interests lie and what might be doable for him; he needs to indicate his motivation and interest in various optional activities and so much more. The key for everyone is to systematize "an educational program that can provide progression within the disciples for talented students" (p. 63). It is not enough to address of the squeaky wheel parents' children; parents should not have to be squeaky for their children to be properly educated. As a system, we need to do better.

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