Thursday, August 13, 2009

Can Your Kid Get a Truly Individualized Education?

Can your kid get a truly individualized, primary education? I believe this is next to impossible. Public and, to a larger extend, private schools argue that they educate the "whole" child, catering to individual needs. This philosophy sounds wonderful, but the reality of day-to-day instruction is quite different. This is not the result of apathy. It is a consequence of basic economics and simple arithmetic.

Teachers can and do attempt to individualize instruction. Unfortunately, this is typically limited to remedial help or additional worksheets. Gifted programs such as California's GATE use additional curriculum and ability-based grouping, but they do not really allow students to move at their own pace. Good private schools market themselves as capable of handling accelerated learners. However, a few well posed questions quickly reveal that the vast majority of schools are incapable of handling students two or more standard deviations from mean IQ. Simply put, your child will NOT get what he or she needs when faced with special needs or radical acceleration.

I visited a well-known, Los Angeles private school last year when my wife and I were searching for a challenging primary education. Our daughter has exhibited an affinity for math and science, so we approached the director of the elementary science program. After enduring a fifteen minute marketing pitch, we asked the director to explain how she would handle a first grader who already knows reading, multiplication, fractions, etc., and is years ahead of her chronological peers. Her answer shocked us. She said that every child has weaknesses and that she would simply "hold back" my daughter's mathematical development to help her on areas where she might be weaker. She also stressed that while kids enter first grade at varying developmental stages, most exit second grade at similar degrees of proficiency. My wife and I listened intently how the school would hold our baby back while we paid $20,000+ per year. This was ludicrous. There are real, easily identifiable, intellectual differences. Bear in mind that it is irrelevant for this discussion whether fat tails or a standard bell curve is the best description of the distribution of ability in a population. It is a well-established fact that the set of kids with IQs above 145+ is quite small relative to the overall population. It is also a fact that the range of subject-specific abilities follows a curve with a heavy mass density around the mean. In other words, there is a clear distinction between the rare cases of high ability and the rest of the student population at the beginning of first grade. What the science director above implied is that her school has a magical method to homogenize brains!!! Furthermore, she argued, the majority of students exit second grade on even ground. Isn't it amazing how the outliers predicted by ability distribution curves re-appear after this magical, first-through-second grade lobotomy? We visited a number of other well-known, private schools, but the same story repeated itself over and over. It was deja vu, over, and over, and over again. The bottom line is that traditional schools, however well-intentioned, are not equipped to deal with exceptional students. There are a handful such as The Mirman School for Gifted Children that offer a unique environment ideal for many highly gifted children. However, even Mirman may be wrong for your kid for reasons that have little to do with academics.

How should one educate a highly gifted child? This is a difficult question whose answer clearly depends on the child as well as the family's ability to provide a balanced, maturity-appropriate social environment. Homeschooling is clearly an option provided there is flexibility and time to embark in this serious commitment. However, I believe there are other options which I will explore in future blog posts.

1 comment:

Malibumom said...

I can tell you without a doubt that The Mirman School does NOTHING to individualize the education. It offers nothing more than an accelerated traditional curriculum with a gifted peer group (even that is questionable) in a rigid, perfectionist, conformist, robotic, stifling environment. Hardly a challenge for hg and pg kids and sure to kill the love of learning and the joys of childhood. I think homeschooling is the only way to to get any kind of true individualization.