Do Advanced Kids Get Shafted?

This is a remarkable paper.  One of the best I’ve read this year.
“Does the current US education system adequately serve advanced students?”

I have quibbles, which I’ll skip.
1. Some background: 
Scott Alexander is not a K-12 writer.  He writes about lots of stuff.  I happen to think he’s one of the greatest. wide-ranging essayists alive.
When he does occasionally write about K-12, like here, it’s as if he’s spent a career in the field, not just a random psychiatrist surfing the internet and reading scholarly papers.
Scott set up a contest called Adversarial Collaboration.   Readers of his blog who disagree about something have to, in pairs, write something that is a unified description of the evidence.
In theory it’s a good way to make sure you hear the strongest arguments and counterarguments for both sides – like hearing a debate between experts, except all the debate and rhetoric and disagreement have already been done by the time you start reading, so you’re just left with the end result.
Education Week tried this, with a column called “Bridging Differences.”  The result, as a pundit named Eduwonk used to joke, was a “pretty short bridge.” That is, the writers chosen didn’t really disagree, and they cherry-picked evidence.  So: the usual one-sided presentation, and therefore boring.
Anyway, so boom.  The first entrant in Scott’s Adversarial Collaboration happens to be about K-12.  I read with low expectations.
But: wow.  These guys (mostly) have it nailed.  My neck got tired from so much nodding in agreement.  What a fair-minded presentation  of the research!
2. The substance

Michael Pershan and “TracingWoodgrains” write:

Pretend you’re a teacher. With 25 students, who gets your attention during class?

There’s the kid who ask for it, whose hand is constantly up. There’s also the quiet kid in the corner who never says a word, but has been lost in math since October, who will fail if you don’t do something. There’s the student in the middle of the pack, flowing along. Finally, there’s the kid who finishes everything quickly. She’s looking around and wondering, what am I supposed to do now?

In a survey of teachers from 2008, just 23% reported that advanced students were a top priority for them, while 63% reported giving struggling students in their classes the most attention. A 2005 study found the same trend in middle schools, where struggling students receive the bulk of instructional modification and special arrangements. This was true even while 73% agreed that advanced students were too often bored and under-challenged in school. While teachers, it seems, are sympathetic to the smart bored kid, that’s just not a priority for them.

My views:
1. My wife and I talk about this when we go for walks on weekends.
Our 10 year old aces his current public school.  Should we change to an elite private school?
Our default for now: no.  We’ll supplement with interesting academic stuff after school and weekends.

2. As a school leader: I think all types of kids are perhaps “adequately” served but not “well-served.”  Advanced, middle, strugglers.

Strugglers in the USA typically get more attention than advanced students: I agree with the authors.  (And to many teachers, even that “extra” dosage feels way too low to “make a big difference.”)

Strugglers in Africa are more often ignored, with extra teacher attention given to the star pupil.

I don’t yet know what things are like in China.

Underlying issue: 1-on-1 teacher time is just a very scarce commodity.  That’s true whether class sizes are 60 like in many public schools in China and India, 25 here in USA, or even 15 like many elite private schools.

That’s why at Match, we pioneered some high-dosage tutoring for all kids by a separate cadre.  Many of our teachers disagreed, wanting the tutoring only for strugglers.  But I felt advanced kids needed help too…often their tutoring was helping them access Advanced Placement courses, or even those at nearby Boston University, which let our high school seniors enroll for free alongside B.U. freshmen.

Still, as this type of tutoring has scaled up in Chicago, Houston, Denver, etc., I see the main focus remains struggling students, without much attention to “advanced kids from poor families.”  In a recent meeting with a large non-profit considering a splashy new tutoring effort, I recommended this latter group as a great place to start.  (I’ll report back later on what they decide to do).

I think two teacher skills that help all students, but especially advanced kids:

a. Great classroom management: it increases the amount of teacher time that can be given to advanced and struggling students alike, by decreasing time devoted to stamping out small misbehavior.

It also creates an environment where advanced students can work “in parallel” to the larger group, without feeling ostracized (introverts in particular hate when the other kids notice them) or getting distracted.

b. Unusually specific teacher-to-parent communication: some parents, if they know explicitly what to help their kids do, are willing to assign and oversee the “challenge work” on weekends or in evenings.

Last night the older kid watched a 10 minute documentary about D-Day, which went over pretty well, and led to some good discussion.  The 8 year old did some subtraction on Khan Academy.  I’m solid how to find and deploy the right free tools.  Many teachers know even better than me.   So it’s high leverage whenever a teacher can recommend, and the parent can implement.

Update: this essay won the $1,000 first prize for “adversarial collaboration.”



2 thoughts on “Do Advanced Kids Get Shafted?

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