Photo by Terri Davis graphics
Kordosky's book highlights the problem and offers solutions to ensure that the rural talented students are served by their education.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is widely credited with taking the differentiated learning concept and running with it.
The smartest children in small American towns are being harmed by public education.
That frank statement is the message of Doctor Donald Kordosky, author of “Rural Gifted Students: Victims of Public Education.”
One third of the approximately 42 million American children in public schools live in rural areas. Among the rural students are 2.7 percent that Kordosky says are recognized as talented and/or gifted.
“The dilemma is that public education does not provide an appropriate education for the vast majority of the best and brightest of our rural children,” he wrote. “In fact, we currently have a school system throughout most of rural America that damages our children instead of helps them achieve their potential.”
Kordosky stipulated that gifted students in rural areas “have rates of suicides, suicide attempts, depression, self-destructive behaviors (such as drug and alcohol abuse issues) and discipline problems that are many times higher than their peers of average cognitive ability.”
He continued to write that just because students earn perfect grades doesn’t mean they are reaching their potential. “It may just mean they are underchallenged and bored,” he maintained.
Rural school districts, Kordosky argued, lack the resources to pull gifted students out of their classes for specialized instruction. “Traditional education has consisted of teacher-led instruction, with students being the recipients of the teacher’s knowledge,” he wrote. He used the common analogy of filling empty vessels.
“However, if we use the analogy that all children are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge we have to acknowledge that all of the vessels are different.”
The answer lies in differentiated learning, according to Kordosky. Differentiation is an instructional technique brought to prominence by Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson of the University of Virginia.
Tomlinson has been quoted describing differentiated learning as “ensuring that what a student learns, how they learn it, and how they demonstrate what they learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred method of learning.”
North Platte’s public schools employ differentiation techniques, and a simple example of an exercise is included on NPPS’s high ability learner (HAL) program website.
1. Pose a question to the group.
2. Suggest two possible answers. (Or 3 or 4)
3. Have students that choose first answer go to one corner, have students that choose the second answer go to the other corner, and so on if you have more than two answers.
4. Tell groups that they will need to be able to justify their answer. Each person in the group should be prepared to speak. Give them time to discuss.
5. Call on one person in the wrong group. Have the student justify his/her choice.
6. Explain why the group's thinking is incorrect, and then have the group either pick another group to join or go to the correct group. This way they can all feel successful.
7. Call on someone in the “right” group to explain why that choice is correct.
8. Congratulate them all!
Differentiation allows educators to “take the lid off education,” Kordosky wrote.
He used boiling water in a pressure cooker as an example of the effect of traditional teaching techniques: water molecules (students) receive the same energy (teaching strategies and content) and reach the same temperature (level of academic performance).
“The lid keeps the water molecules within the boundaries of the pot,” he stated. “By treating all students the same, and expecting the same results we effectively limit the achievement of students.”
Kodosky wrote that using differentiation in the classroom helps all students, not just gifted ones.
High Ability Learners
The HAL program of the North Platte Public School system’s mission statement states, “North Platte Public Schools has an obligation to provide for the individual needs of all students; therefore, learners with high ability must be provided with learning opportunities consistent with their extraordinary ability and potential.”
The program is headed by Denise DiGiovanni of Adams Middle School and has a twelve person committee made up of administrators, teachers, and parent advocates.
According to HAL’s website, the committee members are Dr. Midge Mougey, Matt Irish, Todd Rhodes, Jim Whitney, Linda Anderson, Stuart Simpson, Tim Vanderheiden, Dr. Kate Murphy-Orozco, Lori Brouillette, Lisa Parish, Bob Rouch, and Carrie Cox.
It is unclear how up-to-date the list is, since the job titles of some of the educators do not match the reshuffling that took place prior to the current school year. For example. Whitney is still listed as the high school principal and Mougey is listed as the principal of Jefferson Elementary (Whitney is now at Adams Middle School and Mougey is at Osgood Elementary).
Neither DiGiovanni or Murphy-Orozco was available for comment on the program.
HAL’s website, http://www.teacherweb.com/NE/NPPS/HAL/gallery2.aspx, is a resource for teachers and parents of gifted students. It includes printable checklists to help educators and parents identify gifted students and links to other websites concerning high ability learners.
A big problem in small towns
While differentiated instruction is an increasingly common practice, it hasn’t spread everywhere and like many other things it reaches rural areas last.
“One of the primary excuses that educators use to justify horrible rural TAG programs is ‘a lack of time,’” Kordosky wrote. “Teachers and administrators already feel that they do not have the time necessary to complete the tasks that have been assigned to them as daily duties, much less the time to develop and deliver instruction that challenges the abilities of their most academically gifted individuals.”
He cited a 1990 essay by a rural teacher that claimed that along with full time teaching duties, many rural educators work without support staffs of transportation and janitorial personnel. In many cases, the responsibility of maintaining school buildings, transporting kids to and from school, and keeping the sidewalks clean falls to the teaching staff as well.
While most states require that talented students receive individualized education plans and specialized instruction, Kordosky said the programs are often not funded (or minimally funded) by state and federal governments.
He noted the disparity in the amount of money spent on special education and on TAG education. “SPED in America has a federal price tag of $50 billion dollars, not mention the billions of dollars that states also contribute to educate students with disabilities,” Kordosky wrote. “Frankly, the federal government spends $5,000 on special education for every $1 spent of gifted education.”
“I will not argue that SPED does not deserve a spending focus. However, to simply ignore the need for financing an appropriate education for the student population that is most likely to solve societal dilemmas is a demonstration of the collective stupidity of our government and educational leaders,” he continued pointedly.
Kordosky said the state of SPED in America means that a model for delivering a specialized education, tailored to the individual, is in place ready to be copied.
Parents will ultimately be the catalyst of change, he continued. Only once parents of TAG students begin to advocate for their children the way SPED parents have in years past will the situation be rectified, Kordosky wrote.
His solution? Litigation. Litigation as a last resort, anyway. Kordosky advises parents that feel their children are being underserved by their education to work with the system, not against it.
He urged parents to first meet with the teachers, then building administrators, and finally district superintendents. Parents should document each encounter, he advised.
If results don’t come, the last step is to litigate.
“In some cases the only way to get public education to change is, well, to sue,” Kordosky wrote. “Hit them where it hurts. You want to see a building principal become active, say ‘I am suing you, and I will win.’”
The crux of his argument is that children are not just entitled to a free public education; they are entitled to a free education that maximizes their cognitive potential.
Kordosky told the Bulletin that bringing an entire school district up to speed on differentiation techniques does not have to financially oppressive. All a district needs is one trained person, who can then train the other teachers.
"You don't need to send everyone to see Carol Ann. It only takes one," he said, referring to seminars offered annually by the venerated educator.