Thursday, January 23, 2014

Are gifted students slighted?

Are gifted kids slighted?
Alison DeNisco posed this question in her article by the same title in District Administration. As the parent of a gifted child, the wife to a gifted husband and the friend of parents of gifted children in different school districts the short answer is yes. States emphasize getting struggling learners to improve their skills. New York, like most states, does not in any way mandate or even, for the most part, think about gifted populations.
Students at the lowest end of the spectrum are allowed to take alternative assessments. Unless a student was fully accelerated by a grade level (or levels) there was no ability to test above grade level until the 2014 wavier that will now allow our 7th and 8th grade math students who will take a regents exam in algebra or geometry to not take the grade level math assessment.
In my school district alone, there are over millions of dollars spent on special education and struggling learner initiatives and a grand total of one salary (approximately $100,000) spent on all programs for enrichment.
According to DeNisco's article "A 2011 Fordham Institute study found that between 30 and 50 percent of advanced students descend and no longer achieve at the most advanced levels." As many as 30% of gifted students will drop out of school because of boredom.
When I asked about enrichment for my daughter, I was told there were some honors classes in middle school and there were AP and IB classes in high school. There were many years between first grade and the first honors class in 7th grade. The idea that our district mission about reaching individual potential was repeatedly proven false and put in the face of the administration until they changed their mission to "challenge all students to higher levels of achievement." We are, after all, sending her to the next grade- that is higher achievement. She learned what they taught her:
  • you do not have to work to be successful- studying is unnecessary
  • you will be the one who carries any group to which you are assigned
  • your needs will be acknowledged, but ignored
  • when no one else can contribute to the discussion, it will always fall on your shoulders
  • your friends are not able to talk with you about academic issues so immerse yourself in pop culture or passively observe the conversation
  • your parents are the only ones who are really going to push you.
She is lucky because her parents have consistently, and sometimes I am sure the staff thinks obnoxiously, pushed for more. Not more work, but more complicated work, work at a faster pace, and peers who might provide some kinship in being able to think at her rate. We pushed for a systematic method to access the services of our one enrichment provider. Our district, like most, continues to struggle with what to do with our brightest. Unfortunately one of the things they seem to have mastered is how to turn them off learning and working hard.
Organizations have argued that educating all students is important, but that creating a body of highly able and highly trained individuals is essential to economic success in the world today. By working as hard as we are to provide an equal education to all, we are neglecting the group that has the potential to keep our nation in the forefront of technological development. When we allow our brightest to descend to the level of the mediocre because they are not challenged. We are saying we do not want to educate our next Bill Gates. We want it to be a crap shoot to see if the person can individually overcome the daily boredom he is embraced by.
Yes, we need to address the startling lack of diversity in our gifted programs. Let us not, however, throw away the baby with the bathwater. We need to find better ways to identify the ability of our students so that there is balance in representation. We need to provide the training and support for teachers to be able to work with and develop our brightest students within their classrooms and we need to encourage use of the full spectrum of choices to enrich our brightest populations including a variety of free options such as- creating groups that a teacher can address, rather than letting them languish alone in a classroom; accelerating in subject or grade levels; and designing curriculums that do not force teachers to lock step instruction. We can do a better job, if we find the will.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making

The What Works Clearinghouse is a government sponsored activity whose stated goal is:

  • "We review the research on the different programs, products, practices, and policies in education.
  • Then, by focusing on the results from high-quality research, we try to answer the question “What works in education?”
  • Our goal is to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions."
Therefore, it is with irony that I appreciate the report Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making authored by L. Hamilton, R. Halverson, S.S. Jackson, E. Mandinach, J.A. Supovitz and J.C. Wayman. Although the authors repeatedly acknowledge that there is limited or no research supporting their assertions, based on case studies, professional judgments and studies with confounding factors, they determine that data is an important component to effective instruction. Evidence-based decisions really do not enter into the conclusions of this report.

As a special educator whose entire pedagogy is deeply rooted in data, I agree that data is an essential component of designing effective instruction. NCLB from 2004 required some thought to data driven instruction as has AIS and RTI movements. I also know that teachers who are required to provide report card grades know at least a little about data. Formative assessment ideas that have become abundant of late certainly push the concept of using data to drive instruction. Data is an integral component of teaching and as such, it is not surprising that locating what the Clearinghouse determines to be studies of adequate rigor is difficult.

While teachers use data on a limited scope, there is certainly a movement to increase the quantity and quality of data use in education. This means that teachers need to better understand data and how to collect and utilize data. Expanding capacity within educational environments to do so is essential. I should not ever go to a school board meeting where the assistant superintendent of instruction is presenting data on district-wide progress on exams and have my question about the significance of the 1% increase in scores send both the presenter and the superintendent scurrying for their statistics books. (The answer was no, I knew this when I asked, but needed the school board to know that the celebration was premature.)

My favorite piece of the report is the section relating to teaching students to examine their data and set learning goals. They propose two graphics to help students engage in self-examination.

Areas of strength and growth and areas for growth
Topic: Writing a 5 paragraph essay
Based on: Rubric –based feedback
Student: ________________________________________________

Learning from math mistakes
Test: Unit 1 operations with fractions
Student: __________________________________________
problem number
my answer
correct answer
steps for solving
reason missed
Need to review this concept?

The authors further recommend that teachers use this sort of item analysis to implement any needed remediation lessons. I think having a set form for student to use, increases the likelihood that self-evaluation will occur. With the first graphic organizer, you could easily adapt it to work with any rubric activity: reading a map, interpreting a primary source, creating a piece of art in the style of a particular artist, balancing chemical equations, etc. In the math case, students could complete the first three columns as a group then small groups could be made- one for reteaching important concepts and the other for enrichment activities. If an extra person were available- a paraprofessional, special educator, math coach, or parent volunteer- someone could supervise the enrichment group while instruction was going on or multiple instructional groups could go on at once. An amalgam of the two organizers could be used with any short answer, true/false or multiple choice test- the first three column headings could remain the same, the steps for solving could be changed to explanation of the correct answer, the reason missed could be eliminated altogether and the last column could remain the same.

For me, the biggest challenge of the report relies not in the fact that the level of evidence is low, but in the complete lack of how this strategy could be used to impact the education of kids who get it. There is a sum total of one sentence about enrichment for kids who scored well. Every comment limits educational experience to the grade level benchmarks. This is an inadequate benchmark for probably at least 10% at the top of the class. It also is not sufficiently precise to pinpoint problems and inform instruction for the bottom 10% of the class. If we want to really enable data to drive instruction, we need tools that are sensitive enough to assess skills, without a large number of students hitting the ceiling or failing. Perhaps this means having multiple tools, accelerating high students to benchmarks at higher grades and allowing struggling students to aim for benchmarks that have been broken down into smaller substeps. Repeated administration of sample tests might enable growth to be shown for the middle 8 deciles, but is unlikely to inform instruction on the ends and thus is a waste of those student's time and the multiple educational resources that go into the assessment (ex. paper copies, instructional time, and teacher grading time).

Data can and should inform instruction, but we need to be sure we are collecting data that is meaningful and actionable.

Monday, January 13, 2014

selective mutism treatment guide

Ruth Perednick's The Selective Mutism Treatment Guide: Manuals for Parents Teachers and Therapists: Still Waters Run Deep unique approach to a treatment guide truly is three books in one. It has three main parts, one each for parents, teachers and therapists. Although the author suggests that reading the entire manual is important, each group can understand the parts of treating selective mutism through reading only their section. As a result of this approach, there is some duplication. For example, defining the disorder occurs three times. The book is easy to read. The language is straight forward and not full of jargon. A good choice to share with people unfamiliar with the disorder.

The author walks the reader through the desensitization and shaping required to address selective mutism. Her advice for working with older(teenage) students is to use more of a cognitive process and less of a purely behaviorist one. While this treatment approach has been emphasized in all the works that I have read on the topic, this one does the best job of highlighting the importantance of beginning therapy in the location where the child speaks and slowly injecting the therapist into the child's comfortable location. Changing one variable at a time- who is in the session OR where the session is- is another critical component of therapy. Another aspect that the author emphasized as important is the therapist and the parent having planned what will occur in a session prior to bring the child into the session.

For the most part, teachers tend to view parents as homework helpers, cheerleaders and enforcers. Some teachers and therapists will work with parents to teach them how to help their child. This could be the reading specialist who under Title I has a welcome night and teaches parents how to do paired reading or a Common Core night where parents are introduced to the vocabulary of the math curriculum and shown how students are expected to answer problems demonstrating place value knowledge and multiplying by factors of ten or a speech teacher who sends home word lists to practice a particular sound. Parents in these situations, however, are very passive recipients of partnerships. With selective mutism, that pendulum must swing to a more involved in decision making role. The parent, as the most likely verbally communicative partner of the child, has the best chance of helping a the therapist breakdown the wall selective mutism and teach socially appropriate interaction patterns. Parents need to be involved in inviting a favored peer over to develop and reinforce speech. They need to become available to meet with the therapist at the beginning of treatment and plan a low stress introduction activity between the child and the therapist. They need to become available to assist with transitioning to a new setting. This is no longer the teacher or therapist leads the way. This is together we problem solve how to accomplish the next baby step goal.

As a teacher, I think it is important to understand what my role in this process is. I need to make the child as comfortable as possible, communicate with the others on the team, and continue creating a positive learning environment for the child. Although I am not the person responsible for trying to get the child to interact verbal across settings, I am the one who needs the child to respond effectively in a learning environment.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators

Few special educators recall that, at least in New York, the gifted population is part of the field for which we trained. That being the case, if a single chapter in four years of undergraduate training was devoted to giftedness, it was a lot. Assumptions such as the "smart kids will succeed regardless of what instruction is provided" and giving them extra work is enough to meet their needs abound in education.

The goal of federal education policy appears to be to narrow the gap between the brightest and the most struggling. The graph below demonstrates achievement gap comparing a low performer who achieves, an average 8 months of academic growth per year, with a high performer who achieves two years of academic growth per calendar year. While it is important to increase the performance of our lowest achievers, many of who do not actually reach eight tenths of a year's academic growth in a school year, it is also important to ensure that our high achievers are reaching their potential growth rate, which may vastly exceed two years per year. Further, research indicates that for the gifted population the line should be curved upward in an exponential growth rate not a linear growth rate. Based on innate learning characteristics captured by IQ, the gap will widen, not shrink. 

In Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators by Harrison J. Kell, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow point out that a "nation's gross domestic product is directly influenced by the aggregate accomplishments of its residents with high ability in science, technology, engineering and math" (p. 648, emphasis added). This means that as important as it is to increase the performance at the low end of the continuum, it is at least as important to increase performance at the high end of the continuum. The high achievers are the movers and shakers of the economy and the country. Furthermore, the highest of the high achievers are significantly more capable than their high ability peers. The authors refer to Cambridge University research that points out that the highest ranked of the top 40 of its 100 honors students of math performs demonstrates twice as much knowledge as the second ranked student and approximately four times more than the lowest of the top 40 (p. 657).  Our highest achievers deserve attention and focus, much the way our struggling learners do. Lubinski is interviewed at this location and there is a link to the article as well.

So what does this mean for teachers? It means that adolescents with extraordinary talent benefit from learning environments that present information at a level on pace with the rate at which these students learn. High ability students need more complex work presented at a faster rate than their peers in order to stimulate their motivation, work ethic and interest. Extra work that is just busy work, peer tutoring that just holds them steady with their classmates is often frustrating, and differentiation that only allows for appeals to multiple intelligences, does not make the grade. That "they will learn if they are left in a room with a rock" reasoning is not only wrong, but detrimental to their productivity and the future productivity of the nation. We need to change how we approach gifted education as a national necessity, not a whim of the elitists.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Asperkid's Secret Book of Social Rules

For people working with Michelle Garcia Winner's Social Thinking programs, Jennifer Cook O'Toole's book, The Asperkid's Secret Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome, is a beautiful complement. The author is an Aspie, married to an Aspie with three Aspie kids. Consequently, she is well versed in Autistic Spectrum disorders. One of the things that she brings to the table is the fact that she is trained as a guidance counselor and teacher and thus has learned how to share her advice in a kid-friendly, adoptable manner.

Two major themes can be found in the book. The first is the three big traits she sees in Aspies: mind blindness, black or white thinking and catastrophic thinking. Most of her rules surround at least one of the these ideas, many cross over them. She emphasizes using cognition to counter the results of these characteristics. The second theme is Socrates's triple filter: truth, kindness and necessity. Using these filters, a person can determine if and what should be shared. Again, stopping, thinking  and applying the filters helps a person be a friend.

The book is designed to be for the teen or tween to use as a tool to help learn how to function better in social situations. The 31 short chapters are easy readings and the author advises that they be read and reread as necessary. Bullet points abound, summarizing the main points in a way that is easy to access and refer to. If a person were in a social skills group, the readings could go home and reinforce the message of the group. Having the book as a resource means that in times of challenge, a person could take the book off the shelf and refer to it.