Thursday, April 28, 2011

R*E*S*P*E*C*T for the Academically Gifted

Respect is one of those words that can signify something very good or whose lack of can be used as a tool to inhibit the growth of intellectual curiosity. In part one of this post I discussed the need for respect of teachers. Good teachers deserve our respect and poor ones need our support to become better teachers.

This brings me to the topic of this post … respect for the academically gifted and for the need to provide appropriate education based upon that respect. Having researched approaches to gifted education around the world over the past 9 months, I have noted that in countries that score high on international assessments … there is a respect for gifted learners. No surprise there.

Even while schools in the U.S. and many other industrialized nations are slashing funding for gifted programs FIRST, other countries are recognizing the need for greater investment in the development of their gifted students. In a word, they have begun to RESPECT these students and their potential to improve society. Countries as diverse as Hungary, Ireland, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Denmark, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Russia are investing in gifted education.

The new Hungarian Presidency of the EU got the ball rolling in Europe even before taking office by announcing early on that talent development would be a priority during this administration. This culminated with the First Talent Day in Europe in April, 2011. Many member countries of the EU are following suit with talent days of their own.

After many months of work by advocacy groups in the U.S., several forward thinking politicians in the Senate introduced a bi-partisan bill in Congress designated as The Talent Act. It remains to be seen if hard-line, anti-education congressmen will join in supporting this important piece of legislation.

It is interesting to note that when countries become mired in economic strife … they suddenly realize that they need smart people to help them out of their troubles. The very same people they ridiculed as nerds, derided as elitists, cut funding for in their own short-sightedness and bullied on the playground become the ones who they turn to for solutions to their problems.

Recognition of talent and academic potential is the final step in truly respecting these brilliant young minds. Gifted students work hard everyday to earn this respect through achievement in classrooms, research projects, academic competitions, and community service among other endeavors. Countries which grant this respect will see it returned in ways that will benefit all of their society.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

R*E*S*P*E*C*T

Respect. It’s something everyone wants, but not everyone receives. In fact, in many places it is in short supply these days. In the world of education, it plays a defining role. In countries where respect is evident, students’ test scores shine. Unfortunately, leaders in the education sector haven’t figured this out … yet. They often seem like a cat chasing its tail trying to find the reasons why their schools are failing. They get caught up in the blame game which only makes matters worse.

A glimmer of hope has begun to emerge since the release of the latest test scores from PISA last December. Someone finally decided to compare the high and low scores on these tests to determine the differences between countries and their respective approaches to education.

It is here that we find the reason for the title of this post – R*E*S*P*E*C*T. In the countries which had the highest scores, teachers had the respect of their students, the parents, school administrators, and the community-at-large. There was one other group who was respected by these societies – high ability learners. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Skeptical? You’re allowed to be. I will discuss these two groups – teachers and academically gifted students - in two separate posts.

First … teachers. As the parent of a gifted student, you may be quick to judgment on this one, but hold on! Admittedly, there are good teachers and there are bad teachers. This holds true universally. BUT … and that is a big BUT … the way in which countries deal with this problem is dramatically different. It has been found that as the quality of teachers increase, so does the respect for the entire profession. And we all know that a good teacher can change a life and the world … forever!

So what is different about the education systems in countries like Singapore, China/Hong Kong, Finland, South Korea and Japan? Why do their students consistently score so much higher on international assessments? Their per-pupil expenditure is much less than in other countries with lower scores such as the U.S. Their teachers are paid on par with other professions (some are subsidized by their governments). Often, class size can be as high as 50 students per class with only one teacher. Many of these countries have few or no standardized tests.

A major difference is that these societies give overwhelming support to their teachers from the day they decide to become a teacher to the day they retire. Teachers are encouraged to become life-long learners. In China, teachers receive 360 hours of professional development a year. 360 hours!!! They are held accountable, but not blamed for their student’s test scores – the student is actually accountable for those.

Teacher evaluation is an ongoing process. In Singapore, advancement is determined by many criteria – student assessment performance being only one part of it. Teachers are also reviewed for their use of best practices, if they use a holistic approach to student development, and to determine if their practices serve as a catalyst in improving school culture. These teachers receive continual feedback on their performance … what is working and what is not. In Japan, teacher evaluation comes from administrators, parents, and community members. An under-performing teacher can be pulled from the classroom for a year and required to go to re-training. It is even possible for a teacher to be redirected to another profession.

In the end, it becomes a matter of respect … well deserved respect for good teachers … who are fairly treated, provided comparable compensation to other valued professions, and who receive excellent professional development. It makes sense to me.

(Respect for gifted students will follow in Part 2.)