'Gifted' Treatment For Underachieving Students

As students are returning to school, the achievement gap is taking front-and-center in education debates. Researcher Yvette Jackson is proposing that school officials offer "gifted and talented" programs to underachieving students. She says these programs build on students' strengths and give them more power in deciding what they learn. Jackson is the former executive director of instruction and professional development for New York City public schools, and now heads The National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. She speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now we're going to continue our focus on education today with a look at what happens before college and why so many children of color never make it there. African-Americans drop out of high school at nearly double the rate of white students, and Latinos are dropping out at more than three times that rate, according to the latest data for the National Center for Education Statistics.

So what can educators do to help students overcome low achievement? What about raising expectations? Educator Yvette Jackson says giving poor performers the treatment normally reserved for so-called gifted and talented students can begin to close the achievement gap.

Jackson has studied the learning potential of disenfranchised urban students, as well as gifted students. She's the former executive director of instruction and professional development for New York City Board of Education. In that post, she developed the gifted and talented program for New York City Public Schools. Now she's the CEO of the nonprofit The National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. And Yvette Jackson joins us now from our bureau in New York. Dr. Jackson, thanks so much for joining us.

YVETTE JACKSON: Oh, thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: What's wrong with the way most schools approach closing gaps in performance between white children and children of color? And by children of color, for the purpose of this conversation, we have to say we are not talking about Asian students because that's a different conversation. We're primarily talking about African-American and Latino students.

JACKSON: Right. The biggest difference is that students have begun to be just what we call data points. They're scores. And so instead of looking at their potential, the deep, immense potential, that intelligence that all students have, people have started just looking at, well, how well does somebody do in reading or math, as opposed to let's see what we're going to do to enrich their experience.

And that's not what happens, usually, in programs for students of color. In fact, what has happened is that students are categorized. This label that's called the gap has come into being, which is such a pernicious label because what it says is that we're going to measure the distance between students in terms of their race, as opposed to in terms of the distance between their potential and their achievement.

MARTIN: Well, when did you - as I mentioned that you formulated programs for gifted and talented students in the past, and when did you start to think that those techniques would actually be equally, if not more, effective with students who are deemed underperformers?

JACKSON: Well, when I was a teacher, I taught in Yonkers, New York, and 95 percent of the students in the school in which I taught were either African-American or they were Latino students. And I saw that when students were given that kind of experience, the kind of experience that's very enriching, that always focuses on their intelligence, I saw astronomical growth.

MARTIN: Let me try even harder, more rigorous curriculum. In fourth grade, let me do algebra with the students and see how they respond to it.

Well, they just believed that they were supposed to do that. Nobody had put a ceiling on them. So that kind of growth just was unlimited.

MARTIN: Could you give us another example of the difference between the way school systems often treat students who are deemed underperformers versus the way you would like to see them treat them?

JACKSON: OK, well, in teaching math, let's say, as well as literacy, what has happened is twofold. One, is that what was believed was that students needed more time on tests. So they extended math periods, and they have extended literacy periods.

Now, the problem with doing that is what they've done is eliminate the arts, eliminate even things like science and social studies, things that you know students need to study. There's no way you can get to that kind of curriculum if you're expanding literacy and math to even longer time.

MARTIN: In fact, what I think I hear you saying is that many of the programs for kids who are so-called underperformers is it's not just that the kids are labeled and that they start to feel diminished by it, it's that they're boring.

JACKSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: Whereas the course of study for gifted and talented students is interesting.

JACKSON: Exactly, and it makes them feel that there are all kinds of possibilities, as opposed to, well, I'm just here to do reading and mathematics.

MARTIN: What evidence do you have that these strategies are working? Are there places where these strategies have in fact been put into place? And do you have any evidence that they are, in fact, effective?

JACKSON: Absolutely. We'll start with a place that's real urban, areas like Bridgeport, Connecticut, where all of the sixth-graders, should give you an example, have scored at the 94th percentile or above in terms of math and the 85th in terms of reading.

Now that to me isn't a great indicator, but it's not the whole map. There's so much more that they've been able to do, like write and publish books, like to be able to get into deep debate, like sharing professional development with teachers.

But then there are other areas like Eaton Prairie, which is in Minnesota, where the students of color in that district has had the deepest gains ever in terms of closing the gap between their potential and what they've been achieving.

And so they've come up with, in one year, one and a half years, they've had 21 percent growth.

MARTIN: The Obama administration and Congress are reevaluating what to do about No Child Left Behind, which is of course the signature education policy of the previous administration, the George W. Bush administration, which put a lot of emphasis on, you know, core curriculum and testing and making sure that students were meeting, you know, those standards.

As this revisiting of this policy is now occurring, what advice do you have for the administration and for Congress that would incorporate your ideas that you think would be more effective as an educational policy?

JACKSON: There's a first thing I would do is to have them really study how learning happens, and what do you do to really test intelligence. Let's start by looking at where students are strong for a change and build on their strengths to take them to levels of success.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, I bet many people are listening to this conversation and are saying, well, that sounds great, but, you know, school systems are under tremendous budget stress right now, as are, you know, at every level of government. You know, budgets are under real strain. How do you respond to administrators who say, well, that sounds great to make, you know, the curriculum more interesting for all students, but we just can't afford it.

JACKSON: Well, it's not about money. It's about what teachers know about linking to what's of interest to students, by giving students the opportunity to do their own kind of inquiry and real research that takes them into their own strengths and this whole idea of feeling that there are possibilities. That does not cost extra money at all.

That is the way people learn, and we do that without extra money. It's a shift in focus, though.

MARTIN: Yvette Jackson is the CEO of the nonprofit The National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. She's the former executive director of instruction and professional development for the New York City Board of Education. She joined us from NPR's bureau in New York. Yvette Jackson, thank you so much for joining us.

JACKSON: Thank you, Michel, have a great day.

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