Monday Reading List: Giftedness Among English Language Learners and Surprises from the DeVos Regime

Sarah Sparks and Alex Harwin of Education Week look at the representation of English language learners in gifted classrooms:

Gifted education generally includes the 3 percent to 5 percent highest-scoring students on academic tests, as well as those who show significant leadership, creativity, or strengths in particular subjects. But programs vary significantly from state to state ... Some studies suggest that children who grow up bilingual have greater cognitive flexibility and problem-solving skills than monolingual children, but English-learners in the United States often don't get a chance to show their skills. Nationwide in 2014, within schools that have gifted programs, English-learners were underrepresented by more than 5 percent, with gaps between the share of students who are English-learners and the percentage of ELLs in gifted education that were as large as 19 percent in California and 18 percent in Nevada.

As anyone who grew up as speaking a non-dominant language can attest, even educators tend to conflate facility in the dominant language with cognitive ability. A student who speaks a different language at home is just as likely to exhibit signs of academic giftedness, but schools often use identification protocols that overlook English language learners. As the authors of this piece point out, many school districts rely on teachers and parents to nominate students for gifted programs. Guess who tends to excel in that scenario?

In other news, Erica Green of The New York Times examines Betsy DeVos's surprising approach to a new federal education law:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike ... After more than a decade of strict federal education standards and standardized testing regimes, the Every Student Succeeds Act was to return latitude to the states to come up with plans to improve student achievement and hold schools accountable for student performance ... But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility: While she has said she would like to see her office’s role in running the nation’s public schools diminished, she has also said she will uphold the law.

For fans of bloodsport among education policy wonks, there are some great nuggets in this piece. For just about everyone else, this story seems like further evidence that the DeVos regime is putting its political capital into loosening higher education regulations, and staying away from rocking the boat too hard on K-12. While DeVos's rhetoric represents a sharp departure from that of her predecessors - particularly on Civil Rights - when it comes to accountability and choice, her policy regime has been almost indistinguishable from that of the prior administration. So far.

One place where DeVos's policy aspirations differ from that of the Obama administration is on school voucher programs. While most research on vouchers has unearthed lackluster student outcomes, Matt Barnum is in The Atlantic looking at a new study from Louisiana:

Past research on Louisiana’s school-voucher program came to a bleak conclusion: Students who used the program to transfer to a private school saw their test scores plummet. A new study complicates that narrative, finding some good—or at least, less bad—news about the closely watched program. The research shows that, for students who received a voucher at the middle or end of elementary school, there were no statistically significant effects on their math or reading test scores by the third year in the program. That’s a boon for voucher advocates who have argued against judging a program by its initial impacts.

To be honest, I find the headline here to be misleading, which is no fault of the author. The results of this study don't demonstrate that students perform better in voucher programs than in other schools, it merely demonstrates that children perform somewhat better in voucher programs than we previously thought.

If you were an investor, and you moved your money into a different asset class, and three years later your broker called you and was like, "Sorry dude, all of your money is gone," you'd be pissed.

But then, let's say she calls you back later and is like, "Just kidding, I didn't lose all of your money, but there has been literally no return on your investment." You'd be less pissed, but it would be hard to argue that she made a smart investment decision on your behalf.

(And remember: in this tortured metaphor, the three years in question represent the earliest years of primary education, which experts agree are the most critical years for learning how to read. The "wait and see" approach just doesn't hold.) 

Finally today, Natalie Gross of The Hechinger Report looks at the proliferation of alternative high school programs:

Alternative schools can vary widely, and some have been criticized for warehousing difficult cases and using harsh discipline. But a subset of alternative schools has long embraced more progressive models of education. More high schools, and some entire states, are borrowing ideas that “last-chance” schools like [the Boston Day and Evening Academy] have been using for decades — practices such as competency-based education, attention to students’ social and emotional well-being and a “restorative justice” approach to school discipline.

I've seen stunningly bad alternative high schools that left me wanting to cry, and I also have seen amazing alternative placement programs that challenge our assumptions about the capabilities of youth who have gone "off track." The school in this piece sounds like an example of the latter, so it is worth understanding what the educators there are doing. Have a great week!