Friday, April 10, 2015

Ability Tracking and the Gifted Child

        I grew up in a small town with one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school.  The students who were in my classes the day I started at the small private kindergarten that housed 3K, 4K, and 5K were the same ones in my advanced college classes when I graduated.  They are bankers, doctors, and  teachers.  I run into some of them in town even today.  At that time 5K was a half-day program in the public school and my mom had me enrolled in the private 5K in the morning and the public school 5K in the afternoons.  I credit my early high reading level and ability to do well on standardized testing to that private kindergarten which followed the Abeka program (but that will be a different topic).  All through elementary school I was challenged!  I had the best teachers and our class was known as 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, and 5A.  I consistently scored in the 96th-99th percentile on standardized tests.  I'm sure it helped that my parents were educators.  My mom a teacher and my dad a principal.  They made sure I could read before I entered school.  They made sure I behaved at school.  And they made sure I did my homework when I came home. Not doing and not behaving was not an option and the teacher never had to call home about my behavior or grades.  However, leaving the elementary and going into the  middle school brought a lot of changes to my life.

      Ability tracking was no longer the thing to do. Studies were saying that it hindered the lower level kids.  They were kept down.  They were not challenged.  Because of ability tracking they would end up in the vocational tracking when they entered high school.  Did anyone ever look at where those particular kids started?  The kids in the lower levels entered school without any reading readiness school  The parents assumed it was the school's responsibility to teach everything including basic skills, manners, and how to behave, skills that should be mastered long before entering school.  Children are taught to socialize by watching their parents, not in school.  In fact socialization is often frowned on in the public school.  Students are to be quiet during lessons, not socialize with their peers.   Behaviors such as following directions and showing respect are also taught early on by the parents' interactions with others and with the child.  Yes, they can be enforced in the classroom, but they are not directly taught.  The children in the upper level classes had a huge head start on their peers, not because of the class they were in or because of the teacher that they had, but because of their parents.  According to Harden, "Of the environmental influences, the family arguably has the most profound impact on child development" (The Future of Children 31).These parents had stability in their lives.  They read to their children.  They played with their children.  They disciplined their children and provided a foundation that would help them be successful in school.  They had bed times that were enforced.
      Do I have a study that shows ability tracking helps students perform better?  I have my experience.  Let's go back to the sixth grade.  None of my friend's were in my class.  I was alone with a bunch of kids I didn't know.  I didn't talk to anyone.  They scared me.  I tried to hide in class.  As a result teachers didn't call on me.  I fell in my academics.  I did enough to get by and not get noticed.  I still performed very well on standardized tests and as a result I was placed in the English I and Algebra I classes in eighth grade.  I was back with the kids I had grown up with, but the ones who were lucky enough to be placed together had surpassed me.  Not using ability tracking may help bring the lower level students to a higher level, but what does it do to the higher level kids?  What does it do to their ability to have friends from childhood.  This generation growing up moving to a new class of peers each year will not have the ability to have lasting friendships.  Each year new friends will be made and then lost.  No long term friendships or bonds will develop.  They will be kept on par with their classmates even if they have the ability to soar above and beyond.
      I have worked with my son since he was born.  I have read to him since he was little.  I taught him to read.  Every summer I teach him the curriculum for the next year so that he is prepared for the school year and will be a joy to teach.  He knows how he is expected to act and that homework is part of the learning process.  I've always asked his teachers for his weaknesses so that I can work with him on improving those and looked for ways to challenge him myself.  He attended that same small private kindergarten for 3K and 4K and then entered public school for 5K and now 1st grade.  He could read before he entered public school and had already mastered the math standards for 5K.  As a teacher in the neighboring county, I choose for him to attend school not at the small school in the town we lived, but in one of the high performing schools in the district I teach.  I choose the school, but I can't choose his teacher.  I can't choose his peers.  When we went to his first grade class I was disappointed to find out that only two of the kids in his class had been in his class the previous year.  I worried about who he would have as his friends.  Where is the stability that is so important to a child's development?  Constantly changing friends year after year does not produce stability; is not conducive to long lasting friendships.
       What do the studies say about ability grouping for gifted students?  Is it possible my experience in the ungrouping should have been prevented?  According to Jarosewich, "Gifted students in higher tracks show better academic achievement than those in lower tracks.  From one-fourth to three-fourth of the material taught in regular classrooms is information that gifted students already know, because most teachers do not differentiate content for them.  Students who receive accelerated instruction in a group of high-ability peers perform nearly one year higher on standardized tests than students of equivalent age and intelligence in nonaccelerated classes"(Digest of Gifted Research).
      As a high school teacher, I am familiar with tracking.  I started my career teaching English II, tenth grade English.  I had one honors (GT) class which consisted almost entirely of ninth graders who had taken English I in the eighth grade because of their advanced abilities.  These students could hold discussions, debates, and provide explanations for their ideas.  My other five classes were English II CP (College Prep).  The difference in ability was astonishing.  Not only were the GT kids a year younger, but their maturity level, behavior level, and ability level was well beyond the typical 15 year old.  They were performing well above the levels of peers an entire year older.  I could not have discussions in my regular English II classes.  The students' behavior was atrocious.  They couldn't sit still.  They talked constantly without permission.  They rarely did homework or studied for tests.  There were days I felt like I was completely wasting my time providing notes and practice in class.  Jarosewich confirms my observations and says, "...high-ability students, unlike students in regular and remedial classes, benefit from instruction that includes discussions and authentic questions (questions for which teachers do not elicit particular answers).  Furthermore, because accelerated, enriched instruction allows gifted students to perform at levels commensurate with their abilities, it may increase their achievement and improve their attitude towards school."  So why is it we are hindering students who are performing at high levels?  Why do we make them sit in a class and listen to things they already know?  Why aren't we challenging those kids? Do they not matter?  Does their achievement not matter?  I want the absolute best for my children.  It is why I have chosen to send them to a school out of our town.  It is why I invest in summer educational programs for my kids?  But it is impossible for a teacher in a regular education classroom with 20 students to differentiate for accelerated students when she is expected to somehow get the students who came in two years behind up to grade level.  Her energies are going to be focused on those kids.  After all she will be judged based on the performance of those kids on standardized tests.  I know, I experience it every year, and even more so since next year our state will begin evaluating teachers based on how many students pass the End of Course exam. I understand the elementary teacher's struggle, but at the same time, as a parent, I want the best for my child and I feel that the public school system's method will devour that spark I see in my child.
       These are just my views and my experience.  I have not done any studies on the subject.  Feel free to agree or disagree with my views, but please do so in a respectful manner.  I appreciate any dialogue on the subject and please know that nothing was meant to disrespect anyone who experienced any of the lower ability level tracking classes.

References:
Jarosewich, Tania.  "Ability Grouping and Gifted Children." Digest of Gifted Research. Duke TIP, 21 June 2006. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <http://tip.duke.edu/node/585>.
Harden, Brenda J. "Safety and Stability for Foster Children: A Developmental Perspective." The Future of Children: Vol. 14, No. 1 Winter 14.1 (2004): n. pag. The Future of Children, 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <http://futureofchildren.org/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=40&articleid=133§ionid=873>.

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