kitchen table math, the sequel: The NMP recognizes giftedness -- Part 1

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The NMP recognizes giftedness -- Part 1

(Cross-posted from After The Math Panel, a blog originating from Ridgewood, New Jersey which analyzes the findings of the Presidential National Math Panel.)

Gifted. It's a simple word that evokes strong reactions. But what is it?

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, it's hard to pin down:

National Association for Gifted Children:

The quick response is that there is, as yet, no universally agreed upon answer to this question. Giftedness, intelligence, and talent are fluid concepts and may look different in different contexts and cultures. Even within schools you will find a range of personal beliefs about the word "gifted," which has become a term with multiple meanings and much nuance.

NAGC does not subscribe to any one theory of the nature of human abilities or their origins. We assert that there are children who demonstrate high performance, or who have the potential to do so, and that we have a responsibility to provide optimal educational experiences for talents to flourish in as many children as possible, for the benefit of the individual and the community.

So, giftedness is hard to define, hard to test, has many philosophies and contexts. Add to that our current culture of keeping everyone label-free, plus a valid concern with assigning unlimited potential to all, and strong parental feelings about their own child's abilities, and it's a slippery slope at best.

Then why do well-established organizations such as the NAGC and our local Gifted Child Society of Northern New Jersey exist?

The short answer is because it's important, and throwing the baby out with the bathwater will not solve the problem. Better to address the issue, stated above: "We assert that there are children who demonstrate high performance, or who have the potential to do so, and that we have a responsibility to provide optimal educational experiences for talents to flourish in as many children as possible..."

Don't our schools do that? comes the question. No, they don't. When you consider that public school must meet certain minimum standards, must cater to the middle, and is designed not for individuals but for groups, you can see where kids with high potential, intense interest, or unusual ability will fall through the cracks.

In their defense, many schools do better than ever today to individualize instruction. But alas, even in the best schools, some kids methodically learn to be underachievers. When you consider that our best and brightest are needed to compete in a global economy, this is a terrible fact to face.

Thankfully, for the purposes of this blog, we can at least restrict our concerns to that of mathematical giftedness. But even that is a quagmire.

The National Math Panel's view of giftedness cannot be covered in one day. This topic will stretch out over a few entries.

Suffice it for today to say that despite our era of political correctness, and all the difficulties outlined above, the National Math Panel--a government entity--has done the bold thing, and set giftedness back on the map. Mathematical giftedness must be really, really important.

That in itself is something for our public schools to chew on. So much for certain public school teachers lecturing the kids that there is "no such thing as giftedness." That must stop immediately.



SteveH said...

What percentage ae we talking about here? 3 percent? 1 percent? Less? If that's so, then it's a minor, however important, issue. My son tests in the top 1% nationally, but he doesn't live for math. I'm more concerned about proper teaching of the basics, which will help all kids.

I see two kinds of needs; speed of coverage, and advanced (enrichment) topics. In the early grades, the issue is speed of coverage rather than different content. All kids need rigor. In the later grades, speed of coverage gives away to a need for more depth (abstraction and application).

There is no magic "gifted" line and it's not clear what that means if you can define it. Is there a big jump in needs when you cross that line? I don't think so. Do you deny special programs to kids who do not cross that magic line even if they are willing and able to do the work? Do they get a different kind of math?

I tend to look at it as in-school math and after-school math. The in-school math should be rigorous and the same for all, but allow students to progress at their own pace. The after-school math can be a variety of things, like the Math Olympiads. They are optional and any student can try. You can also have other groups. I don't like the presumption that you have to define this line based on some sort of evaluation that might test innate ability rather than performance.

I see some TAG/GATE programs as a way for parents to perform an end-run around a school's poor math curriculum, rather than deal directly with the problem. It may be a pragmatic approach, but all kids need a proper math curriculum.

You don't need a test for giftedness. You just need programs that provide unlimited opportunities for all kids. I also understand that some of the gifted curricula can be worse that the regular curriculum, but that's another issue.

LynnG said...

I agree with Steve in large measure.

My public school system is a microcosmic view of the "giftedness" debate. We had a group of vocal committed parents pushing for some kind of service for gifted kids when the program was eliminated about 5 years ago.

The biggest problem was the first step -- how do you identify gifted kids? It was far more difficult than anyone realized -- even the teachers and administrators.

The ed schools have given us a huge amount of conflicting (some shoddy and ill-conceived) research.

We had about 10 to 20% of the student population labeled "gifted." The schools used an IQ test (the COGAT) as a starting point. But even if a child didn't score well, he/she could be "identified" by a teacher or other school personnel or a parent, based on observations and class work.

Not only did we have to many kids in the program, but once a child was "identified" there was no effort to distinguish between math/verbal or any other field. A 5th grader reading at a college level was gifted and so ended up in the enriched math section, when she might be quite average in math.

So the district threw out the whole program. Classic baby with the bath water.

Anonymous said...

It would be helpful if the definition of giftedness wasn't by committee. My working definition is: child can take given concept, examine, and extend rather than absorb, memorize, and spit back. My current district thinks 'honors' means quick at memorizing algorithms and working rote exercises .... even honors math has no abstract, thinking problems as it did in my youth (the C problems from the exercises if anyone is my age).

There is a real need in U.S. math education for students to be able to move to an appropriate instructional level with deeper problems, rather than the current setup of having to thumb twiddle for years while waiting for classmates to catch up to skills the gifted child figured out years before. At the very least, a math gifted elementary child should be able to work with the school's resource math specialist and actually learn something new during the year. As it stands, a few states have this policy (OK for ex lets students advance by subject exam, KY has GIEP), but here in New York, nothing is mandated for those that already have figured out the material. The child is at the mercy of the classroom teacher, who may or may not know math well enough to help the child learn anything new. The parent must be rich enough in resources to help the child at home if the district won't.