Monday, April 14, 2008

Busywork Leading Gifted Kids to Underachieve

I got a huge sense of deja vu when reading last week's "Extra Credit" column from The Washington Post. It's about a gifted student who rebelled at all the busywork required by his high school and how his grades suffered as a result:

"To minimize frustration, we focused my son on learning, not grades. If he could get a 100 on an exam without doing the homework, we believed his time was better spent doing another activity in which he actually learned something...My son received a C-plus in his chemistry class because he didn't do all of his assigned work and received zeros on many of the 18 assignments. The class didn't move fast enough to cover all of the material, so he did different work -- on his own -- and handed notes to his teacher and classmates to help them. He's the only student in the history of the school to get a 5 on the AP chemistry exam, but this type of result never gets fed back into the course grade."

Boy, does that remind me of my younger brother! He has an IQ that places him in the "highly gifted" range but just barely graduated high school. His grades were all over the place depending on whether he liked the subject and the particular teacher. He aced tests but rebelled against anything he considered to be "busywork". Whereas I hated all the stupid busywork but was willing to put up with it to get the "A", he refused to "play the game". He would rather take a low grade (even failing) than waste his time doing too-easy assignments. He did very well on the SAT's and was accepted to a specialized music college willing to overlook his uneven grades in favor of his musical talent. He excelled in a challenging audio technology and computer synthesis program that played into his strengths of math and music and is doing fine today.

The letter-writer regrets sending her son to a traditional government-run school and wishes that she'd homeschooled him. She writes:

"After paying considerable Virginia taxes for the past 36 years, I feel cheated that top Virginia state schools won't let him in because of his high school record. If he had been home-schooled, they'd have had to look at his same test grades and SAT subject test scores and let him in."

Her son is on track to graduate high school and has been accepted to college despite his lackluster GPA. Like my brother, he appears to come from a stable, middle-class family that values education. He'll presumably be able to overcome the underachievement of his secondary schooling years and go on to reasonable success as an adult.

A significant number of gifted kids are not so fortunate, however. An estimated 20% of high school dropouts have an IQ >120, even though only 10% of the population meets that cutoff. These gifted dropouts are disproportionately likely to be from low-income families. How many of them wind up using their talents in negative ways, such as crime? What is the cost to our society for our failure to help our brightest young minds reach their full potential?

Homeschooling is certainly an excellent option for gifted kids, but not all families are able or willing to homeschool. There need to be better educational opportunities for gifted students available in traditional schools. In many places, gifted students from families unable to afford the pricey tuitions for private GATE schools (our local one charges $23k per child per year for elementary) are plumb out of luck :-(


JJ Ross said...

Interesting post, and thanks for the story link. I've written some about gifted kids being different but today, what came to mind was this essay instead, about every kid schooled or not, gifted or not, churched or not, needing to be different and having the freedom to write a different life story than anyone else's:

Big Church and Big School are really the same story, did you ever think about that as the thoughtful independent individual you struggle to be through home education, and perhaps fancy you’ve already become?

Governance of all by any One Story, be it sacred or secular, theocracy or educracy, subsumes the individual spirit and power to create its own stories. . .All that we are and all that we do, and how we identify and understand ourselves and others while we’re being and doing, come from stories both scholarly and sacred, and from how we reconcile or choose among different stories, to create personally meaningful answers to every imaginable question about “how to live.”

. . .Finally, I’ll quote comments that arose after a stuffy, huffy One Story literalist named “Steve” dropped by to define my stories all as completely wrong, because in his story Waves of Reason cannot move the Rock, hence “Freedom without absolutes is no freedom at all.”

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you'd be more inclined to send your kids to public school if the schools gave kids more control over their own learning. If all classes (beyond basic reading and arithmetic) were optional, I think a kid could graduate from public school with something like a real education.

JJ Ross said...

I do maintain that legal compulsion is the main dysfunction in the system, and that most of school's entrenched and commonplace evils large and small flow from that original compulsion (subjugation) -- is that what you meant?

Crimson Wife said...

Sleeping Beauty-
I'm not sure whom you were addressing in your comment. I can't presume to speak for J.J., but I did a post a couple weeks ago with a "wish list" of qualities I would want in a school if I were to enroll my child(ren) there.

Anonymous said...

JJ- My question wasn't quite that general, but I think it came out of a similar sense of discomfort with compulsory schooling. I read the essay you linked, and can't say I understood it well enough to respond. Mine's a simple mind.

CW- So you did. Sounds like a student-directed curriculum is not your primary concern.

Crimson Wife said...

In our family's homeschool, I strive for a balance between teacher-directed and student-chosen activities. I try to accommodate my children's interests and preferences but within the general framework of a well-rounded education.

For example, we use a formal math curriculum, but if my DD decides she'd rather do some other type of math-related activity than the scheduled lesson that's perfectly fine with me. Skipping math entirely, however, isn't.

My oldest is the type of kid who would probably do okay in a Sudbury school or being "unschooled" at home. But I'd worry about gaps in her knowledge and my DH would never in a million years go for it. He's got a very "schoolish" mindset- probably because he attended very traditional Catholic schools and both his parents are teachers. He's dubious about homeschooling in general and only agreed to it because we can't afford private school tuition.