This morning has been chock-a-block full of exciting and hopeful news on the K-12 education front.
First, I was excited to hear “controversial” Chancellor of Schools for Washington, D.C. on the Diane Rehm Show (you can listen to the whole hour there). Suffice to say, the moribund state of the DC schools demanded some kind of radical action, and Rhee has been undaunted in moving forward in the teeth of sometimes-strong opposition from some elements of the teacher’s union. I’m extraordinarily skeptical of any school “reform” efforts that have as their first priority some sort of union-busting (either de jure or de facto) measures, and that I find much of the school reform movement to be basically a politically-motivated attack on teachers’ unions. That being said, the pathetic performance of DC education and too many shameful actions undertaken or defended by the DC teacher’s union have lost them the benefit of the doubt at least for now. Rhee makes a convincing case for performance pay and against purely experience-based granting of tenure. I wasn’t entirely blown away by Rhee – she made a pretty lazy rhetorical defense of an attack by a cller accusing her of creeping school privitization by noting that she was also getting attacked by charter school advocates. But overall, I remain very excited for the new direction Rhee is charting for DC’s public schools.
Following almost directly on that was President-elect Obama’s announcement of Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education. Steven Levitt is excited and that’s a pretty good indicator as far as I’m concerned:
He is smart as hell and his commitment to the kids is remarkable. If you wanted to start from scratch and build a public servant, Arne would be the end product.
Sounds pretty good! Of course, Secretary of Education is a position that has highly variable levels of influence depending on who’s President, but given Obama’s record at the state and Senate level, combined with having school-age children, and the frequency with which he talks in an impassioned way about education issues (including at today’s presser), it would seem to be the case that Duncan will be pretty well empowered.
Finally, I stumbled across this article at the Washington Post, detailing how my K-12 school system, Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools, is doing away with the “gifted” classification:
The label of gifted, as prized to some parents as a “My Child Is an Honor Student” bumper sticker, is about to be dropped by the Montgomery County school system.
Officials plan to abandon a decades-old policy that sorts second-grade students, like Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches, into those who are gifted (the Star-Belly sort) and those who are not. Several other school systems in the region identify children in the same manner. But Montgomery education leaders have decided that the practice is arbitrary and unfair.
Two-fifths of Montgomery students are considered gifted on the basis of aptitude tests, schoolwork, expert opinion and parents’ wishes. Officials say the approach slights the rest of the students who are not so labeled. White and Asian American students are twice as likely as blacks and Hispanics to be identified as gifted.
The article doesn’t explicitly mention Dweck’s and Steele’s research, but the implications of “gifted” versus non- on theories of self and stereotype threat is hard to ignore. Telling kids that they’re “gifted” leads to entity theories of self, which leads to difficulty later – telling kids that they’re “not gifted” leads to academic disengagement – and kids seeing for themselves the racial and ethnic disparities in gifted classification leads to the formation and reinforcement of pernicious stereotypes about intelligence and academic performance. A change in semantics isn’t going to change all of this, but it’s an absolutely excellent first step.
Though to be fair, this is not the best example:
Montgomery officials say their formula for giftedness is flawed. Nearly three-quarters of students at Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda are labeled gifted, but only 13 percent at Watkins Mill Elementary in less-affluent Montgomery Village are, a curious disparity given that cognitive gifts are supposed to be evenly distributed.
As a proud alumnus of Bannockburn Elementary School, I profess to exactly zero surprise that we have so thoroughly whipped those little slackers from Watkins Mill.
Kidding! Kidding! Doing away with gifted-ness is an excellent thing, no caveats.