VIEWPOINT: Our schools let talent go to waste

We have two kinds of schools: those that encourage each child to be all he/she can be and those that focus on being efficient institutions for groups of children. The first kind of school finds ways to help each child who struggles, meets each child’s educational
needs, and finds ways to provide each child with the context to achieve as much as he/she can at the most appropriate pace. The second kind of school is focused on making sure as many kids as possible achieve minimal competency; groups may move forward when all have caught up.

The first kind of school allows individuals to enter early if they are ready, skip whole grades if they are able, work individually if needed, take a class with older students if appropriate, use more advanced materials, take more difficult coursework, try a college class if it can be arranged, have weighted grades to reflect more difficult courses, and graduate before the senior year if they are ready.

In terms of accountability, this type of school is concerned that each child moves forward each year, a measure called individual annual growth. This kind of school is focused on removing barriers and ceilings for individual growth, helping children who are very far behind or ahead, and is characterized by flexibility accord
ing to individual need. This kind of school looks at individuals, regardless of ability, disability, socio-economic status, parental level of education, cultural difference, etc. This kind of school looks for ways to help all students advance.

The second kind of school is more concerned with classifying students by age, rarely allows placement with older students, keeps all students in grade-level materials, restricts access to advanced courses, has no weighted grades for advanced content, and requires students to remain at least through seven semesters to graduate. These schools operate this way in the name of efficiency, purported “fairness” for all, and profess concern for the development of the “whole child,” including a concern that allowing an individual child to move faster through the curriculum or school might result in “holes in knowledge” or social immaturity that would be harmful to the student in the long run (contrary to research).

In terms of accountability, this type of school is concerned only with the percentage of its students that demonstrate mastery of grade-level standards, or “annual yearly progress,” according to No Child Left Behind. This kind of school looks at groups, focusing on numbers of disability, low socio-economic status, low parental level of education, cultural difference, etc.

This kind of school is characterized by keeping all students in line with their grade-level peers, minimizing individual differences, and adhering to established rules and curriculum. This kind of school looks for reasons students should not do
something different.

In today’s global economy, we need innovation to remain competitive. We need students with a higher level of competency than ever before. We need students with advanced preparation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need all the bright, hard-working students we can find to bring and develop and staff new types of industries.

If this is to happen, we must have more schools of the first kind. In the past, Indiana’s manufacturing economy accommodated students from the second kind of school and, indeed, preferred students who were used to all doing the same thing.

However, when schools operate like the second kind, they deny any child who is above average the opportunity to advance, to experience curriculum at a level of challenge, to develop study skills and to work hard. They teach bright kids that everything is easy and that they do not need to work hard to do well. By doing that, these schools also deny their students the opportunity to prepare themselves for math and science careers, to connect working hard with advancement, and to compete with students from other schools who have had more rigorous academic preparation.

Indiana needs to encourage the advancement of all its children if it is to thrive; we need more of the first kind of school.

Burney is president of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.

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