Middle School and Gifted Education Programs: Is It Possible to Coexist Effectively?
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This study examines the possibility of effective coexistence of gifted education programs within the context of middle school education - Middle School and Gifted Education Programs: Is It Possible to Coexist Effectively? introduction? It analyzes gifted education models and middle school models to identify specific areas of commonality. Through the use of content analysis, common and compatible areas between gifted education and middle school education are identified. The results of this study offer very positive implications for appropriately meeting the needs of all students, including gifted children, within the middle school context.
Middle School and Gifted Education Programs:
Is It Possible to Coexist Effectively?
Within a few last decades the question whether gifted education programs can effectively co-exist with the middle school movement has become an issue of contention among educators and researchers in both fields (Coleman & Gallagher, 1995). According to the National Middle School Association, “the challenge of middle school education […] [is] to develop an educational program that is based on the needs and characteristics of a most diverse and varied population” (National Middle School Association, 1982/1992, p. 3) of young adolescents. Proponents of the middle school philosophy advocate an educational environment which equally addresses students’ social-emotional needs as well as their physical and cognitive needs, while gifted education adherents contend that teaching principles typical for middle school education are not capable to take into account specific learning models for gifted children. Yet middle school has been identified by school reform legislation as a crucial turning point for any adolescent; it is a time when many youngsters are alienated from school and is seen as a critical period for retaining students in school. Dialogue and debate between gifted education advocates and proponents of the middle school philosophy assumes there are constructs and ideas inherent to both fields, thus, gifted education models and middle school models should have specific areas of commonality which could be used effectively for implementation in the middle school classrooms. The purpose of this study is to identify and analyze such commonalities and prove that positive implications for appropriately meeting the needs of all students, including gifted children, within the middle school education, are actual ones.
The middle school philosophy, or at least middle school instructional and organizational practice, has been long viewed as antithetical to the educational needs of gifted students by some gifted educators. Feldhusen (1990) stated the evident controversy concisely: “The middle school reform movement demands an end to all special classes for the gifted” (p. 47). This scholar and others based such viewpoint partly on the famous report “A Nation at Risk” issued in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. This report provided a serious indictment of American education and cited high rates of adult illiteracy, declining SAT scores, and low scores on international comparisons of knowledge by American students as examples of the decline of literacy and standards. The Commission stated that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” (National Commission on Excellence, 1983, p. 5). Opponents of middle school movement argued that the practice of heterogeneous grouping widely applied in the middle schools gives no chance to gifted children to use their high intellectual potential and to open up their talents (Coleman & Gallagher, 1995). Middle school populations may include young adolescents with disabilities, those who are intellectually gifted or have some extraordinary talents, and those from diverse cultural or linguistic backgrounds. Thus, as Feldhusen (1990) ascertained, we have middle schools which practice inflexible grouping in the spirit of attaining heterogeneity and de-tracking. And, on the other hand, we have gifted programs in which the sole delivery system is pull-out enrichment while ignoring the individual needs of children. Consequently, as advocates of gifted programs contend, common themes in gifted education models not appearing in middle school models are apprenticeships and mentors, enrichment within the regular classroom, and special classes for gifted students outside the regular classroom (Midgley & Edelin, 1998).
Points of conflict between proponents of gifted education and advocates of middle school education have primarily focused on specific issues, such as cooperative learning and acceleration. While middle school educators advocated the use of cooperative learning strategies, gifted education proponents endorsed the use of ability grouping and acceleration (Feldhusen, 1990). These issues invariably translate to a question of homogeneous grouping versus heterogeneous grouping, eventually being extrapolated to a debate about equality versus elitism (Midgley & Edelin, 1998).
Responding to this question Tomlinson (1994) suggested an application of practices and recommendations for educating gifted students into the middle school philosophy. Among her suggestions were flexible grouping strategies and educating middle school teachers about appropriate curricula and instructional strategies for gifted students. She concluded “it would be to the advantage of education in general to have gifted education and middle school education join forces in making a case for economic support to enable both equity and excellence to be eagerly pursued in middle schools” (Tomlinson, 1994, p. 181). George and Grebing (1995) suggested strategies “to successfully challenge gifted students in the context of the regular classroom […] while preserving the best of the middle school concept for all students” (p. 13). These strategies included the use of block scheduling to permit grouping in mathematics but to prevent tracking in other subjects; varied grouping and instructional strategies within the regular classroom; the use of appropriate acceleration; and exploration courses. Coleman and Gallagher (1995) studied the attitudes of middle school educators and educators of gifted students regarding the education of gifted middle school students. They concluded that while a gap in attitudes between the two fields may exist, there were examples of successful gifted education programs in middle schools. The results of their studies suggest that the constructs of middle school education and gifted education are not as incompatible as advocates of gifted education have suggested.
The studies discussed above clearly testify that underlying principles of both can co-exist within the same middle school setting. In fact, both middle school education models and gifted education models promote the use of flexible scheduling and flexible grouping practices. Furthermore, middle school education advocates and gifted education advocates agree that curriculum should include problem-centered content and should emphasize critical and creative thinking and problem solving skills (George & Grebing, 1995; McKnight-Taylor, 1997; Manning & Bucher, 2000).
As middle schools, according to the requirements of ongoing school reform, make the decision to enroll more youth into an accelerated science curriculum it becomes even more important that teachers learn how to use student-centered instructional methods as a way to engage all students in learning the materials (Manning & Bucher, 2000). Thus, middle school teachers have to “learn how to teach like teachers who teach the gifted. Their methods work best for all students, not just the gifted” (as cited in Christie, 2001, p. 650).
For the sake of individual needs of all children, it is imperative that both middle school educators and advocates of gifted education return to the roots of their perspective fields. Therein the common ground can be found which will benefit all young adolescents. Considering the current political climate and public opinion which perceives the American educational system as failing (Juvonen et al., 2004), educators can not afford a divisive conflict among them whose interests and goals are the same, that is to provide a quality education for all children.
Recent middle school reform has focused, in particular, on two aspects of the academic dimension: the need to enrich the curriculum, and the need to provide all students with a core of academic subjects (Manning & Bucher, 2000). One of the primary goals is to make class work more interesting and challenging for all students, including talented children. The entire curriculum is enriched, and practices used to stimulate and engage gifted children are used with all children. Middle school teachers should develop curricula that stress intellectual skills that are more like those used by adults than those repeatedly used in the conventional classroom, skills such as reasoning, analysis, visual and spatial thinking, and creative problem-solving (Juvonen et al., 2004). Middle school reform documents have focused in particular on evidence that some students are exposed to less complex and challenging work than others. This has led to recommendations that all middle school students are required to take a core of academic subjects and that assignment to classes on the basis of ability should be eliminated or at least reduced (Midgley & Edelin, 1998). The hope is that by providing a common core of subjects and by eliminating ability grouping, all middle school students will be exposed to an engaging, challenging academic environment and will learn and achieve (Juvonen et al., 2004). However, there is no guarantee of that. The elimination of ability grouping in middle schools is undoubtedly a progressive idea, but the quality of work in the resulting heterogeneous classrooms must be high, and in particular, the emphasis should be on effort, improvement, and understanding. If such quality of instruction is achieved, there is no doubt that gifted education programs would successfully coexist within the middle school education context.
Effective middle school teachers must adopt new modes of teaching as they face the challenges and opportunities presented by changing demographics, technology and its applications, and the changing face of education delivery (Mcknight-Taylor, 1997). Only then middle school education will be special for all young adolescents, including gifted children.
As this study confirms, gifted education and middle school education share many of the same constructs and ideas, and the characteristics of effective middle schools are also necessary characteristics for successful programs for gifted students. Not only should they not be in conflict, but gifted education within the middle school setting should be a perfect fit.
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