Giftedness: The Third Rail of Public Education in California
I attended elementary school in the 1970s. I remember having a school nurse. I remember riding a bus on field trips. I even remember gifted programs. Due to education budget cuts in California, these are vestiges of the past. While my friend Darin's first grade son in New Jersey is identified as gifted and has an appropriate curriculum, the gifted curriculum in California doesn't begin until middle school.
For the past two years, our son has returned from school each day completely frustrated by a system that won't let him work at his level in math. Before I had kids I would have wondered why first and second graders even need a gifted education, but now I get it. My son has a huge, infectious enthusiasm for math. He's really good at it and he's proud of it.
In my son's first and second grade years, we worked with his teacher to adjust the curriculum to his ability, but our son has remained less than challenged. During the process, I learned a euphemism for teaching to all students - differentiation.This was supposed to be the answer to our problem.
Differentiated instruction "involves providing students with different avenues to acquiring
content; to processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and to
developing teaching materials
so that all students within a classroom
can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability."
In Palo Alto, differentiation is supposed to take the place of gifted education. This is how it works here: "In elementary and middle school, the program model for GATE is differentiation within the mainstream classroom. Rather than pull children from class for a different curriculum, all differentiation takes place within the context of standards-based instruction in the regular classroom."
Differentiation is supposed to reach all abilities in the classroom, top to bottom. Yet, the school district has found that some children who have a developmental delay or learning disability cannot be served by this model. I think it is fantastic that our kids who need extra help get: pull-out instruction, supplemental materials, classroom aides, after school reading workshop, and summer school. This proves my point that differentiation - keeping all the kids in the same classroom with a single teacher providing everything each child needs - is a great Utopian ideal, but fails in practice. We supplement differentiation, but only in one direction.