Thursday, May 26, 2011

Reflections on gifted programs

Full disclosure: The idea of schools without gifted programs fills me with visceral meritocratic outrage. In junior high and high school, tracking was the only thing that made my life bearable. In my memory, normal classes were a combination of Waiting for Godot and Lord of the Flies. So I thought it best to mellow out a few days before commenting on Arnold's recent posts on gifted programs.

The basic approach of the research Arnold discusses - compare the subsequent test scores of kids just above the gifted threshold to the test scores of kids just below the gifted threshold - seems reasonable to me. But how should we interpret the results?

1. The study measures the effect of gifted programs on standardized test scores, not educational attainment, college attendance, college rank, income, or occupational success. So while the research is good as far as it goes, it doesn't measure the long-run benefits that proponents of gifted programs really hope for. And if you know the Transfer of Learning literature, you'd shouldn't expect gifted classes to have much effect on test scores unless they teach to the test.

2. You might think that if gifted programs don't boost test scores, they can't boost educational or financial success. But that's wrong. In a human capital model, gifted programs could work by boosting non-cognitive skills. And in a signaling model, gifted programs could work by weeding out and scaring off lower-quality students.

3. At least according to the most knowledgeable person I've talked to, higher-ranked colleges give their graduates a substantially higher rate of return than lower-ranked colleges. The analogy between gifted and regular classes seems strong enough that we should expect the same result - and be suspicious if we don't find it.

4. Yes, it's easy to object, "The marginal and the average effect are different." But in the case of gifted programs, the marginal and the average effect probably are different. I knew many marginally gifted students growing up. The classes moved too fast for them. Their choices were: do well in regular classes or poorly in gifted classes. I can easily believe that gifted classes didn't help their marginal students get better diplomas or better jobs. But it's hard to believe that gifted classes didn't help their good students get better diplomas and better jobs.

5. The marginal/average distinction is especially relevant when there's censoring. The highest possible grade is usually an A. But all A's are not created equal. An A in a gifted class looks a lot better to selective colleges than an A in a regular class. If you can earn A's in gifted classes, you benefit: selective colleges will give you a chance. If you can't earn A's in gifted classes, though, the benefit is harder to see.

One last thought: Some libertarians want government enterprises to run as poorly as possible to expose the evil of the system. Others want government enterprises to run as well as possible to give taxpayers the maximum value for their money. When Arnold writes...
Either you believe your bright kids should experience going to class with students who are not so bright, or you don't. If you don't, then pay for private school. G&T allows you to send your kids to private school while claiming they are still in public school.

... he at least sounds like the first kind of libertarian. Suppose for the sake of argument that gifted classes have zero long-run benefit. Even so, what's wrong with giving young nerds a classroom of their own to spare them thirteen years of boredom and peer abuse?


Virginia Court Upholds Student's 'Spitwad' Expulsion

A county court in Virginia ruled Tuesday that high school overreached by expelling a student for firing so-called "spitwads" at three classmates in December, but the court would not order the school to reverse the expulsion.

Andrew Mikel, 14, a freshman at Spotsylvania High School, was charged under the school’s zero tolerance police with “violent criminal conduct” and weapon possession for using the body of a pen to blow small, hollow plastic balls at three other students.

John W. Whitehead, the student's lawyer, may be the ideal representation for Mikel. Whitehead admits to shooting spitballs well into high school. He says if laws were as binding as they are today, he'd be "guilty about 500 times" for spitball infractions. He called the teen an "ideal student" with a 97 average and a desire for military service.

“He wanted to be a Navy SEAL,” Whitehead said, pointing out that Mikel’s father served in the Navy. He called Mikel another “victim in a long line of victims of school zero tolerance policies whose educations have been senselessly derailed by school administrators.”

Although Mikel was first threatened with felony charges, he was instead charged with three counts of criminal misdemeanors. Hoping to put the incident behind him, Mikel offered to mow the lawns of his victims’ house, Whitehead said. But the school “would have none of it.”

The appeal was to be reinstated and have his record cleared, but this is the first step of many in the court process. And despite the fact that the court did not reverse the expulsion, Whitehead said the fact that the court agreed that the school overreached is a positive step for his client.

One of the main reasons for the legal push is to clear Mikel’s name because he had hoped to attend the U.S. Naval Academy after graduation and can no longer be considered as an applicant after being charged with misdemeanor assaults. "We're going to fight this until his record is cleared," Whitehead said.

School officials were divided on the issue at the time of the incident. Principal Russell Davis called it a "clear-cut case" for a minimum "365 day expulsion," in an email to Assistant Principal Lisa Andruss and Spotsylvania's coordinator of school safety, John Lynn. The email was one of several documents secured by the Mikels through a Freedom of Information Act request.

"We have an obligation to protect the students in our building from others who pose a threat to the over-all safe learning environment," Davis wrote.

Lynn, on the other hand, wrote in the same string of emails that he was "not at all comfortable expelling or suspending this student for the remainder of the year," recommending instead that Mikel be allowed to return to school after his initial 10-day suspension.


School discipline on agenda among Australian conservatives

Discipline in Victoria's public schools, the rising cost of construction for major projects and federal Labor's carbon tax will be under the spotlight at the Liberal State Council meeting this weekend.

Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will address the meeting at the Melbourne Convention Centre on Saturday, while Premier Ted Baillieu on Sunday will thank party members for their contribution to the coalition's state election victory.

There is likely to be an air of celebration at the event, the first official Victorian Liberal Party gathering since the coalition swept to office six months ago.

There is also optimism about the party's prospects federally, as opinion polls have consistently shown the coalition in an election-winning position and Mr Abbott closing in on Julia Gillard as preferred prime minister.

Motions on the agenda include setting up a tribunal to toughen up discipline at public schools. The Waverley North branch, which is moving the motion, says there is a discipline crisis in many state schools, with teachers under siege from unruly pupils.

It wants teachers to have the power to report serious breaches of discipline to the tribunal, including physical and verbal assaults and intimidation.

In its motion, the branch says almost 14,000 students were suspended in state schools last year and a lack of discipline in public education is the reason many parents send their children to private schools. "Parents want more confidence to choose a government school," the motion reads.

A call from the Geelong branch to have speed camera revenue directly invested in road safety initiatives is also on the agenda. "The loss of public confidence in the validity of speed cameras as a tool to reduce road trauma requires attention," the motion reads. "To not address these issues would mean the party risks the same voter backlash which the Labor Party received in the lead-up to the last election."

Auditor-General Des Pearson is investigating the state's speed camera system and is expected to report to government in about August.

Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Mary Bluett said it was wrong to suggest only government school students had behavioural issues. "I ... get offended by the notion that these issues are only issues for government schools," she told AAP. "In terms of bullying and physical altercations, it's hardly a government school issue only."

Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Frank Sal said he welcomed more support from the Department of Education in dealing with abuse or violence from students and parents.

But he denied there was a lack of discipline in government schools. "The notion that there is a discipline crisis in government schools is a real furphy," Mr Sal said.


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