Gifted education specialist Lisa Ruff recently wrote to voice her support for the "inclusive," or "differentiation," model of education for gifted and high-ability students. Put simply, this model advocates that gifted students not be separated from regular classrooms, but instead that teachers "differentiate" the curriculum within the regular classroom in order to challenge these high-ability learners.
Ms. Ruff mentioned that a group of parents have recently begun advocating for a return to a more exclusionary model, in the form of honors classes. As one of those parents, I feel compelled to reply.
In principle, I absolutely agree with Lisa Ruff. When done well, in-class differentiation is the best possible way to educate gifted and high-ability learners. My own son was fortunate enough to have Lisa Ruff as a classroom teacher, where she often suggested that he and a few other high-ability students take the "stretch" option on an assignment in order to push themselves academically. Ms Ruff's capacity to challenge the high-ability learners in her regular classroom while still meeting the educational needs of the rest of her students encouraged a passion for history in my son, without ostracizing him from his classmates.
What Ms. Ruff does not address is that not all teachers are as familiar with differentiation or as dedicated to challenging gifted and high-ability students as she is. In-class differentiation essentially requires a teacher to prepare, present and grade several different lesson plans for each class they teach. In short, it's a lot more work. Accordingly, very few teachers do it.
As a representative of the PEAKS parent group, I have met with the Steamboat Springs High School administration to discuss various ways that the school could meet the needs of gifted and high-ability learners. There is wide-ranging student support for additional AP courses, especially an AP European History or AP World History course. However, it was explained to me that the logistics of adding an AP version of an existing similar course (the 11th grade World Integrated Studies course) are formidable. So, we discussed instead offering a "Pre-AP" contract option for certain classes. This is basically an in-class "honors" differentiation contract that a student agrees to at the start of the school year, and is rewarded at year-end by the "Pre-AP" designation on his/her transcript. Discussion of this idea is ongoing, and the administration has conceded that it falls in line with the district's goal of inclusive education.
However, the Pre-AP idea has been met by less-than-enthusiastic support by some teachers. Reasons given have ranged from a belief that gifted kids should do extra work without demanding any special recognition for their efforts, to teacher fatigue at the idea of the extra planning work that the Pre-AP will entail.
So, in the absence of dramatic support for the Pre-AP "inclusive" model, I have continued to support the idea of honors courses, which would, at least, only obligate a classroom teacher to prepare one lesson plan for the class. Additionally, if the class were formally designated as an honors class, the student's extra effort would be reflected on his or her transcript - a key ingredient in selective college admissions.
In truth, I will support any and all formally recognized programs to challenge gifted and high-ability students. I also will go above and beyond the school's offerings to find ways to interest and challenge academically gifted students outside of the classroom. That being said, however, I am not willing to sit and wait patiently until my son has graduated before real, concrete solutions are put into place.
Parent and PEAKS co-president