16 April 2012

Is Anyone Average Anymore?

As Charlotte prepares to enter the realm of public school in the fall (hopefully here, but who knows?) I find myself being faced with a whole new barrage of educational dilemmas.  Namely everyone seems super hyped about getting their kids classified in some way.  Apparently you must be immediately tracked with an IEP and/or a "gifted" classification.  Long gone are the days when you just went to school, found your strengths, worked on your weaknesses and let things shake out.  I do understand that thanks to early screenings and improved pediatric care we can more readily identify what kids need and help them to overcome learning issues or flourish in their unique skill sets, but I have to ask: Can you force this issue? Or perhaps the real question is: should you force this issue?  Excluding, for the sake of discussion, kids on the "extreme" ends of the curve, what is an appropriate amount of enrichment and parental involvement for "normal" (ugh, I hate that word) or average (now a four letter word) kids?

This line of thought was inspired by a very good review on Geek Mom about Aristotle Circle's Stanford-Binet Test Prep and Enrichment Kit.  While the reviewer points out her own feelings about gifted-ness being more intuitive and the company markets this as an educational tool and not a test "cheat," I find myself wondering why this kit even exists.  Clearly there is a market for people who, lets face up to the real reason this thing sells, think they can train their kid into being gifted.  Is this realistic?  Is this a bad thing?  Is it a good thing?  I am not sure. 

I do think that in our educational system being tracked into the gifted program does open up certain educational opportunities that can be very rewarding. On this track you get filtered into more dynamic extra curricular activities, into advanced and honors classes and down paths that look great on college applications.  When the only end goal of education is getting that college degree, this seems like a no brainer. Teach your kid to ace the screening, get in the program and you are off.  It also helps reinforce for kids the idea that hard work will often get you where you want to go.  Many kids in gifted programs are not actually gifted, or of higher intelligence, they are just damn hard workers.  Honestly we should reward that.  We can't all be Babara McClintock, but we can get very far by putting in the time. 

From this perspective, teaching your kid to the test seems like a great idea.  But, and there is always that BUT in parenting, at what point can you no longer compensate by teaching to the evaluation.  Will there come a point in time when you can no longer push a kid to a certain level if that level is not appropriate for them?  With so many other aspects of parenting we just accept that kids are ready when they are ready (weaning, potty training etc.) so why are we so determined to force our kids into education standards no matter what? Is it good for kids to be placed on a track where they must always put in the extra time to make the grades, or are kids better left to work out where they should advance on their own?

My honest, and probably critical/mean perspective is that if your kids can't ace the gifted screening without test-specific prep, then they don't need to be in the program.  If the only way Charlotte or Elizabeth can get into the advanced reading group is by doing three extra hours of test-specific tutoring a week, then you know what?  Advanced reading just isn't going to be their bag at this point in time.  You certainly don't want to "not bother" with a kid in areas where they are not naturally inclined to excel, but I think the important perspective of tailoring education to the unique way each kid grows and advances is somewhat lost in our modern view that everyone must get straight As in everything and be a varsity athlete and master the oboe at 12 and volunteer at the animal shelter and ...well, you get the idea. 

<sidenote> I will also point out that if you feel you need a kit to do these activities with your kids, then that deserves a look too.  Nothing in here can't be done with toys we all likely have floating around the playroom. Maybe the issue at hand is less why do we need to teach to the test, but why as a culture are we no longer allowing our kids the kinds of playtime that let them learn these things on their own.  Sorting LEGO teaches far more critical thinking skills than a LeapPad or addition flash cards, just saying.</sidenote>

With all that said, this kit (or the activities in the kit done at home with your own stuff) still looks awesome.  My kids would have a blast doing these things and it would be a nice way to looks at where kids are, or are not, progressing so you can tailor how you help your kid get what they need out of the educational system you have chosen. Also, if these are skills that indicate educational readiness, then they are probably good skills to have anyway, so where is the harm?  However, I would apply the caveat that all the test prep kits in the world won't make your kid gifted.  More importantly, it is OK to not be gifted.  I recommend Hot House Kids by Alissa Quart as a great look into how we test for giftedness, what being gifted may/may not really mean and if being gifted/forced to be gifted is really good for kids. 

What is a parent to do?

These are some very murky waters...sadly waters in which I must SCUBA dive with confidence over the next 20+ years. 


Sarah said...

I had a mini moment the other day, that somewhat relates to this. I saw a mini infomercial (which I have seen numerous times on a kids channel) that teaches your baby/child to read. I was wondering the ramifications, both good and bad, of teaching a baby/ toddler/child so young to "read".

Alexis said...

@Sarah Yeah, I always wonder about those programs. On the one hand, hey what harm is there in teaching your kids a few sight words and getting them going? On the other hand, I am not sure "we" really understand just how people master reading (a combo of memorization, phonetics and dumb luck I imagine) so can we really *make* kids readers at that age? does this program produce just memorization or reading that leads to comprehension? I didn't read until I was like 8 and yet was then tracked as gifted ( a total misnomer BTW) so does it matter? Also, many of them use the TV to show the videos so how do you reconcile the "no TV before 2" AAP recommendation with the idea that everyone can be reading by 18 months if you just use this program? Does TV make your kid illiterate or is it the surefire way to get them into an Ivy league school?

Color me stressed!

In my heart of hearts I realize that kids get to milestones when they are damn well ready, and that a lot of good can be found in letting them find their own path. However in this increasingly competitive world of blood-sport parenting, it can be hard to "keep calm and carry on" as it were. I get why it is tempting to smoosh your kids into these neat little education boxes, but man, I think we need to chill and let education be for purely for the sake of life enrichment and not a means to an end. Not a popular opinion, but the one I seem to have the more I explore this stuff.

Alicen said...

So I had to wait to respond to this until I had adequate time to write a response. The whole education debacle is enough to send ANYONE to crazytown!

The sad part is that, in most instances, I think parents drill their children or prep them for assessments to make themselves feed good. From my personal experiences it has been for the sheer bragging rights and "super mom" status that having an intelligent kid gets them. The parents that are at the playground telling you their child is in a gifted program are the ones who have pushed it upon the kid. Typically parents of truly gifted kids don't feel the need to tell the entire world. They are not the ones prepping their kids to pass the kindergarten gifted screening. They don't have a bumper sticker for the childs uber exclusive preschool. You get the idea.

As you said in your post, truly gifted kids do not need to be prepped and quizzed in order to pass screenings. As with both extremes there are typically special, separate, schools for them to attend. A genuine genius would get nothing out of ordinary schools, nothing against the school but they wouldn't.

Now this is not to say that there is no place for flashcards, workbooks, "educational" DVDs, etc. but they should be viewed as tools and tools alone. Flashcards are great to reinforce skills your child may have learned but I don't believe you need to schedule an hour every day to go over your alphabet flashcards. Similarly I love these Preschool Prep dvds we have but mainly because Emma loves them and they buy me 20 mins where I can get something done. I don't put them on everyday at 8 am so she can learn some colors, nor do I count on them teaching her anything (although they have). I feel life experiences are so much more beneficial then drilling/prepping. I think a trip to the zoo where the child can see the actual animal and where it lives, how it behaves, sounds it makes, is so much better than a stack of cards that name 50 animals. Sure your kid may quantitatively know more animals but the child who has visited the zoo learns so much more than the names. Plus they have (heaven forbid) enjoyed themselves and will now have a fond memory! I understand that there are some things you simply can't teach or reinforce without workbooks or drills (ie. multiplication tables) but there are many things you can learn by doing.

Alicen said...

(Apparently my response was too long for a comment...oops! Here is the rest)

Now to tackle the gifted programs (in public schools). I was in one my entire life and am very grateful after seeing just how dysfunctional "average" classes were. The funny thing is that, as you said, the kids in these classes, in general, aren't any more intelligent. They just seem to apply themselves and actually care about how they do. These are the kids that pay attention to their teacher and always do their homework. On the flip side you have the kids that show up and do bare minimum who end up in the regular classes. The screwed up part is how much better the environment is in the gifted classes or maybe how poor of an environment in the normal classes. You probably don't start seeing the difference much in elementary school but once you get to the upper grades it is incredible. In 11th grade my high school did away with the gifted classes so your choices were either the regular class or AP classes. I chose the latter but am not very good with history. Since I was struggling, mid-year I decided to drop the AP class (to not screw up my GPA, I know sounds screwy but at that point that's all they push is GPA...a whole other post.) and so I was put into the normal class. I HATED it! No one paid attention, everyone was disrespectful and no one did any work. It was absolutely eye opening to me. So a bigger question is are the kids in gifted programs actually more intelligent or are they just in a better educational environment where they have the ability to thrive and teachers who care?

Again I would go with the latter on that one. I am willing to bet that my brother and I probably have very similar IQ's but our school experiences and outcomes couldn't be more different. I was put into gifted programs right away and did well in school, worked hard and got good grades. My brother, on the other hand, was in the regular classes and almost didn't graduate because he failed so many classes in high school. He is not a stupid kid, so what is it. Would he have done better if he was in gifted classes? I am willing to bet yes! He would have been held accountable and had teachers who actually cared about how their students were doing. He also would have been in classes full of kids who cared about how they were doing. In my mind environment goes a long way toward the outcome.

We need to stop caring so much about getting our kids into the best preschools and gifted programs and worry more about giving the entire education system a complete overhaul! It's so screwed up I really am not sure where to even start.

Alexis said...

@Alicen This nails it. The real questions isn't "why do we need these bragging rights?" but "why do we feel like the only way we can get what our kids need out of our current educational system is by getting them labeled?" I, like you, took advanced everything, except math and I hated it. I tested so far above the "regular kids" as a freshman that I was in honors as a sophomore and then barely passed the class. I bounced between the two levels constantly because my work ethic put me ahead of some, but my skill set put me way behind others. There is no place for kids who are pretty bright and hard workers anymore. No wonder we all want special needs diagnoses (since technically being in the gifted program counts you as a special needs student, people forget that both ends of the curve are considered non-mainstream in terms of school programming), how else do you get your kid the education they need? Ugh...I feel sick just thinking about it.

Alexis said...

@Alicen Also this! I think we have culturally lost the ideal of "learn by doing." Kids learn everything from everything all the time. This distaste for the "drill and kill" method that has become popular is what seriously has me considering homeschooling...sometimes, but maybe not really because I am not sure I can provide everything they need. I think the role of school age parents has changed. Maybe school is school where they do the drills and home is where you get in the fun, teachable moments and invaluable experiences. Of course, culturally we don't place a premium on home-life so that gets hard too. I guess I should just thank my lucky stars that I have the luxury of stressing about this b/c people working two jobs to make ends meet probably are not "enjoying" this kind of worry.

Alicen said...

Clearly we have lost all sense of "let kids be kids"! Everything now has some ulterior motive and it seems now we should be spending every moment the child is not in school doing some sort of lesson. These poor kids need time to relax and their brains need time to absorb and process everything they just learned during the school day. There is a such thing as too much of a good thing.

Also I have something else just since moving here. We put Nathan in private school basically out of necessity down here. This has created a unique situation. Being military means you can't always choose when you move and sometimes that will happen a mere 7 weeks before school ends for the year. While he was ready, even in March, to move on to 1st grade at his old school he may end up going into kindergarten again next year at this school. Now this has nothing to do with academics really but more because of just how different the schools are and the circumstances he ended up with. It may end up being he just needed to settle in and adjust to the differences, so there a big chance he'll be fine and move forward but there is a chance he won't. However, when I was told by his teacher that she now looks to the 1st grade workbooks for lessons I thought no wonder he may be having some trouble. If he came in January there would be no problem, he would have time to catch up but with only 7 weeks it's a toss up. Now honestly we don't care what happens, frankly in most states he wouldn't have started until this coming year anyway. It has got me thinking though about the bigger picture. If you start off in private school, or spend some time in private school, because you are in a poor educational area does that then mean that will you have to continue in private schools? The academic level is so much higher (at least from our experience here) so would your child even be able to go back to public school and get something out of it or would they end up being that bored, smart kid who acts out because they know everything already? I had never thought of this until now but I am starting to think that, unless you are in an awesome school district (and what are the chances of that), you may have to keep on paying that tuition.

I'll stop now. Obviously this is a topic close to my heart and one that I have thought about WAY to much! I really could go on and on and on about this. I wish I was local still so we could spend a day chatting about it :)