I am in the middle of wrapping up 30 hours of state-mandated “Gifted and Talented” professional development. I don’t know how useful it is to call it such given that many of the practices are just plain good practice for any student (encourage creativity! open-ended questioning!), and it’s a bit disconcerting that it is brought up in the context of GT students only.
This, of course, led me to start making connections to other domains of education that concern me: special education and charter schools.
First off, why are 30 hours of GT training mandated for general education teachers but zero hours of special education training are mandated? Warning: unverified speculation alert. I have a feeling this policy is due to some well-connected Texans with high-flying kids who were bored at school and whose parents turned around and screamed bloody murder that their kids’ potentials were not being fully realized. Just a theory.
This is troublesome for a number of reasons which should be obvious: students with special needs are among the most vulnerable to failing, being retained, dropping out, not going to college, etc. For these students to reach their potential requires their teachers to understand their needs and to be trained in strategies and methods that will allow them to access the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers. This isn’t happening right now! The majority of students with special needs are in mainstream classrooms and many of them are languishing because they are “treated the same” as their non-disabled peers despite having a different set of needs. Let’s be clear: the mainstream classroom is in most cases the appropriate setting for these students, but they will not receive the full benefits of this arrangement if general education teachers are ignorant of best practices. Even if you are fortunate enough to have a co-teach setting, general education teachers are still responsible for the content of their classrooms being accessible to all.
But America tolerates high degrees of inegalitarianism. What we don’t tolerate is the idea that exceptionally bright students (as measured perhaps by precocious verbal dexterity and/or computational fluency) might not be given all the tools in the world to conquer said world. Many of these gifted students when left to their own devices will lapse into a spell of auto-didactic activity, but we must have training to ensure that self-driven learning is…done right? I don’t even know! I can’t even to pretend to figure out the hierarchy of priorities that leads us to specially train teachers to reach one set of well-suited students and not reach a particularly needy set of students.
Now I have a bug up my butt about this and I want to know more. I suspect there is a positive correlation between a child being identified as “gifted” and family income. I suspect there is a negative correlation between a child being referred for learning disabilities and family income. Then there’s the pernicious social environment that associates students of color with academic struggle and white and Asian students with academic competence. This is all adding up in my mind as a deeply regressive and unjust practice.
I found an unexpected connection when I was speaking with a friend of mine/co-worker whose child is about to enter kindergarten. Though he and his family live in a more affluent neighborhood than we work and they are zoned to go to some of the better public schools in the city, he’s been scouting out charters, particularly Great Hearts which is new to San Antonio. If you read my little ditty on Edushyster in August, you’ll know that Great Hearts engages in practices which would certainly be barriers to students from low-income households. For this, they were denied a charter in Dallas though they had previously been granted one here in San Antonio. Go figure.
I asked my friend what the motivating factors were seeking out a school like Great Hearts. He cited the college-prep kind of environment, their strict attention to discipline, and their ability to kick out unruly kids. That last reason struck a chord for me: if the way these and other charter schools of their ilk achieve excellence is at the express expense of equity, then how do we respond on policy?
I sense that this desire to expand choice so that middle class families will further segregate themselves from neighborhood schools is of a kind with our desires to see that the exceptionally bright students not be held back by the neediness of other children. Inequity is a feature of this system, not a bug. This ensures that children of well-to-do parents will have a stranglehold on access to college as well as the network to navigate higher ed and the subsequent job market that ossifies our class system.
This set of policies does not serve the greater interests of civil society if inequality is what we seek to correct. The focus should not be myopically trained on excellence. Instead, if we focus first on equity, excellence will follow as a by-product. In the absence of equitable inputs, there will continue to be inequitable outcomes and a greater divergence between the haves and havenots and policies that emphasize the needs of the less in need are neither prudent nor just.