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Education for gifted and talented children
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Accommodating fast learners
in the Winchester [Massachusetts] schools

By Beth LaDow

Beth LaDow is on the curriculum committee for Advocates for Quality Education, a Winchester, Massachusetts, citizens group that promotes high-quality education in the public schools. Her two children attend town schools. She is a commentator for NPR outlet WBUR-FM in Boston and has a Ph.D. in American History from Brandeis University.

Reprinted with the author's permission from Advocates for Quality Education News, June 1999, volume 1, issue 4

A frequently asked question, "What do the Winchester schools do, or plan to do, for fast learners?," is often overshadowed by other school issues - special education, testing, buildings, and budget -- that might seem more pressing. Yet in a town full of children with deep and wide-ranging talents, the question is persistent and important, particularly given our current project of system-wide curriculum revision. We decided to draw up a brief overview of how the changing Winchester curriculum addresses children with unusually high learning abilities in the classroom, from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

In Winchester, fast learners are accommodated in various ways, some of which are changing under the current revisions. Winchester High School divides its courses into four categories according to difficulty. Ranging from basic college preparatory to increasingly advanced, it offers College 2 (C2), College 1 (C1), Honors, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. In 1998-99, the school offered thirty-six Honors courses in the full range of subject areas, including music, art, computers, and technology, and twelve AP courses ranging from art and music theory to languages, math, and the sciences.

"Students are not tracked," according to high school Guidance Department Secretary Ms. Burchard. They are admitted to Honors and AP classes on a course-by-course basis. Honors students in grades nine through twelve must have received a required grade from a previous or prerequisite course, set by the department (in English, for example, the student must have a "B" or higher), or a recommendation from a teacher. AP courses, with the exception of United States History, are open only to seniors with a recommendation from the head of the department, and are taught as preparation for spring AP examinations for college credit. AP U.S. History is open to qualified juniors. Because of their greater difficulty, AP and honors courses are weighted more heavily than C1 and C2 courses in a student's grade point average. An AP or Honors "A+" is worth 4.5 points, for example, and a C1 or C2 "A+" is worth 4.0, while an "A" is worth 4.2 and 3.7, respectively.

McCall Middle School accommodates faster learners by offering two levels of difficulty in three subjects areas. In all three grades, sixth through eighth, students are divided into slower and faster-paced classes in math and English. In addition, the seventh and eighth grades offer an advanced art class for thirty-six students who submit portfolios of work they have done outside of school or other art classes. Some extra-curricular activities, such as the Math Team for seventh and eighth graders and the annual geography bee, also provide opportunities for intellectual enrichment.

Problematic

According to Assistant Superintendent Stephen Foster, the sixth grade curriculum is the system's most problematic for fast learners and for the student body generally, partly because sixth graders converge from five elementary schools without consistent curriculums and standards. The Winchester system is in the process of aligning the elementary and middle school curriculums with state frameworks and with each other, but for the time being sixth grade courses still depend too much on the initiative of individual teachers. "We need a program," he said, "that benefits all kids." This summer Foster and a group of teachers will devise a new sixth grade math program complementing the recently revised K through 5 and seventh and eighth grade math curriculum to help address this problem. This, combined with a fifth-grade math assessment test and a consistent curriculum across the elementary schools, should improve the sixth grade experience for fast learners as well as others.

Winchester's elementary schools provide no systematic or separate curriculum for fast learners. In the past, this has left it to individual teachers to enrich the curriculum or provide extra work for those students, as they chose. The experience of a fast learner could therefore vary greatly from teacher to teacher, year to year, and school to school. This is true for any child, but for parents of fast learners, whose children may have specific issues in the classroom, it has seemed an anxiety-inducing "luck of the draw" system.

Winchester is not unusual in its lack of systematic instruction for these children. While some towns, such as Arlington, have programs for fast learners, the commonwealth of Massachusetts does not recognize such children as a special interest group, and unlike thirty-seven other states, it does not [significantly] support "gifted and talented" programs with state tax dollars.

As a result, parents of fast learners here and throughout Massachusetts often find it difficult to find the right words for raising their concerns. A recent query to AQE [Advocates for Quality Education] co-chair Mark Feblowitz, asking, "can you point me in the right direction on the existence of programs for gifted or advanced (I'm not sure what the term is these days) students?" suggests the problem.

The terms gifted or gifted and talented are seldom used in Winchester, and in some quarters are assiduously avoided.

Even defining at all what many view to be a divisively elite group of children is a sensitive topic, and in view of new theories such as those of Howard Gardner at Harvard, who posits seven different kinds of intelligence that range well outside the math/logic/language arts categories of old intelligence tests, the task is more difficult than was once believed. A new term - we have chosen fast learners but others such as advanced or intense are possible - may open a less emotionally freighted conversation about children who fall into a category that is now often taboo among educators.

When we met with Assistant Superintendent Foster in early April [1999] to discuss how the current curriculum revisions will affect fast learners, he suggested no label for them, and while he agreed that there are "a lot of bright kids in Winchester," he said that the system had not tried to identify them or their numbers. One way to approximate a number, he suggested, would be to add together the number of students who scored in the "advanced" categories on the MCAS test, on which the Winchester school system scored sixth in the state in 1998. The school system has not done so.

Foster also suggested several ways in which we might optimize opportunities for fast learners in the Winchester system: 1) by maintaining small class sizes, which enable teachers to better address the needs of individual students; 2) through teacher programs such as the one offered this summer on "instructional strategies for differentiating among levels of achievement in the classroom" - especially on how to handle fourth and fifth graders, the age at which children's interests and abilities begin to "spread out"; 3) by giving open-ended, district-wide tests on which high achievers can "really show what they can do"; and 4) by supporting high standards in all courses, with particular attention to controlling grade inflation in middle-level high school courses.

Students who excel in math, he acknowledged, may be rapidly advanced through the curriculum, although under Winchester's current revisions they will largely be enriched rather than advanced. As part of this effort to complement and supplement our University of Chicago math program, each elementary school library now has available to teachers, students, and parents what Foster calls an "enrichment and modifications" math curriculum, developed last year by the Edco collaborative of Boston-area superintendents and school committees. Foster would like to see more emphasis on math and technology clubs and other enrichment programs. He suggested that resources too expensive for the school budget such as "Odyssey of the Mind," a world-wide program of activities and annual competitions that promotes team-based problem-solving, or interactive college courses available on satellite TV, might garner support from the Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence.

The most significant reforms already underway, however, are changes in Winchester's elementary school curriculum that are making it easier for teachers to accommodate the needs of fast learners in the classroom. This explanation requires a caveat. To anyone over the age of thirty: abandon ye any assumptions about elementary school classroom instruction held over from your own childhood. Things have changed. Ambrose principal Laurie Traugot cites a "philosophical shift in the type of instruction" during the past ten years, away from the teacher delivering "whole-class" instruction to children sitting in rows, poised over textbooks or workbooks, toward theme-based or "differentiated instruction," in which the teacher guides students working individually or in pairs or small groups through projects that may integrate math, social studies, and language arts around a single topic or problem. This new method of instruction allows children to work at "many levels of sophistication," Traugot noted, and gives the teacher flexibility to address individual children's needs and interests while still covering the essential material. Children who are unusually capable in one area or another, for example, may read a more difficult novel, delve into more historical research, or explore an extra math problem, and still be working on the group's central theme.

Traugot described with zeal a recent project on "taxation without representation" in the Ambrose third grade, a part of the class's thematic study of Boston. In a single class session, Traugot said, the children discussed Boston colonists' "needs" versus "wants," moved on to convert pence into pounds, and ended by writing mock-letters to England from Boston business owners about how taxation affected their prospects. "You should have seen it," she said; "the kids were so completely engrossed!" This project, like the fourth grade theme of Ancient Greece or Ancient Cultures, is part of the newly revised curriculum based on the new Massachusetts state curriculum frameworks. (A new science curriculum, she noted, will be added next year.)

Accomodate and nurture each child

These flexible, topic-based assignments allow teachers to group children in different complementary ways from assignment to assignment, which is called "flexible grouping." Traugot cited second graders writing "ABC" books on nature topics who are "at very different instructional levels" but are grouped because of their common interests. Other times, children with similar abilities may be paired or grouped. The idea is to accommodate and nurture each child socially and intellectually, including those on the extreme ends of ability and pacing, through various classroom settings.

Traugot suggested that this kind of curriculum at Ambrose has met with great success, even though "most parents have little concept" of the new approach, she added, "probably because we haven't done a better job of telling them about it."

There seems to be no hard data confirming how well this method works, or the degree to which it depends upon a teacher's skillful management and training, which seems vital to its success. Moreover, it is unclear how student test scores on the MCAS or even on the grade-by-grade tests that Assistant Superintendent Stephen Foster has suggested implementing soon, can measure how well fast learners are accommodated in Winchester's elementary classrooms. And there is always the unknown quantity of student motivation. The best measurements will undoubtedly come from teacher, parent, and student perceptions and accomplishments. In any case, parents who believe that their children are unusually fast learners must remain alert to their child's progress and initiate ongoing conversations with school administrators and teachers.

At the very least, as differentiated instruction becomes systematized over the next few years under Winchester's revised elementary school curriculum, students with different teachers should have a much more consistent experience than in the past. It also may obviate the question of whether we need or ought to identifying fast learners at the elementary level, if there is no need to test for or segregate groups of students. Defining "gifted and talented" children, or even agreeing on an appropriate term for them, is more appropriate to the old instructional model, where a teacher aiming her whole-group instruction at the median student was left with a "slower" group and a "brighter" group whom she had to segregate for special instruction.

Wind blowing one way

The issue of addressing fast learners in the Winchester public schools is not simple. However, its contours seem clear. First, Winchester's approach will not satisfy those who believe that fast learners fall outside the purview of regular classroom instruction and curriculum, and that the only way to truly accommodate them is to create a powerful political interest group that can get funding for special "gifted and talented" programs comparable to those in other states and cities. The wind in Winchester is quite clearly blowing toward regular classroom accommodation.

Second, compared with the revised elementary curriculum and the extensive offerings at the high school, Winchester's middle school is now the least accommodating to fast learners, and needs the most attention. Finally, the situation for children with unusual strengths in Winchester has improved, and will continue to improve, as curriculum revisions continue.