When Our Actions Defeat Our Intentions

Vikas Mehrotra reminds us of the story of the "cobra effect" in a Freakonomics radio podcast. The story is an anecdote from the time India was a colony of Britain. The British wanted to address the large number of venomous snakes in India, but in the process of incentivizing the killing of cobras, the population of these venomous snakes actually increased. The reward for killing a cobra led to breeding of cobras for the sole purpose of collecting a reward later. When the British found that the program was being abused, the reward system stopped, and the breeders were forced to release their snakes into the wild. Such is an example of a perverse effect as predicted by the law of unintended consequences. Our intentions are more than often noble, but we must keep ourselves vigilant with the actions we choose to take.

The previous post on this blog talks about the disparity based on socio-economic status of advanced academic programs between schools in Fairfax county in Virginia.

Above copied from
Fairfax County Public Schools Profiles

The above gap lingers inspite of numerous actions taken to address the gross underrepresentation of Blacks, Hispanics, and low-income children in the advanced academic program. The Associated Press early this year goes as far as stating that such actions have actually "exacerbated the problem":

Above copied from WTOP

The identification of gifted students is a very challenging process. Quite a number of education policy makers as well as advocates for gifted education hold the opinion that it is in this process that one can address the underrepresentation of Blacks, Hispanics and children from low-income families in gifted programs. Considerable effort is done in casting a wider net. Universal screening, for instance, has become common. This necessitates additional steps in identification. Frequently, this includes parent and teacher referrals. In some cases, a final placement test is introduced, but even with this additional screening tool, the number of false positives (students who are not gifted are being identified as gifted) remains high.

Above copied from
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Some may easily dismiss the false positives, thinking that we may err on this side but not on the side of missing children who are really gifted (false negatives). However, gifted education becomes expensive and less effective if the program caters to a huge fraction of the student population. The National Association of Gifted Children lists several myths. The following two myths are important to consider:

Gifted Education Programs Are Elitist
Gifted education programs are meant to help all high-ability students. Gifted learners are found in all cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups.  However, many of these students are denied the opportunity to maximize their potential because of the way in which programs and services are funded, and/or flawed identification practices.  For example, reliance on a single test score for gifted education services may exclude selection of students with different cultural experiences and opportunities. Additionally, with no federal money and few states providing an adequate funding stream, most gifted education programs and services are dependent solely on local funds and parent demand.  This means that in spite of the need, often only higher-income school districts are able to provide services, giving the appearance of elitism.

Gifted Education Requires An Abundance Of Resources
Offering gifted education services does not need to break the bank. A fully developed gifted education program can look overwhelming in its scope and complexity.  However, beginning a program requires little more than an acknowledgement by district and community personnel that gifted students need something different, a commitment to provide appropriate curriculum and instruction, and teacher training in identification and gifted education strategies.

These myths unfortunately become realities with our actions. By casting a wider net, and allowing for additional tools for screening and identifying gifted students, gifted programs can easily become both large and elitist. The privileged are always more equipped, and are therefore in a much better position to take advantage of additional routes for gifted identification. Wealthy parents can hire educational consultants and psychologists, and these enterprising professionals can navigate easily the screening process. Tests employed in screening can always be compromised allowing for some children to have access and therefore opportunities to practice and learn the test. In the Associated Press article, gifted education expert Jonathan Plucker is quoted:
Jonathan Plucker, president of the National Association for Gifted Children, said Fairfax County’s system “feels pretty extraordinary, but it doesn’t surprise me.” Wealthy, suburban districts often face intense parental demand for gifted programs, he said.
Plucker applauds the placement testing for all second-graders, but says allowing hundreds of parents to spend hundreds of dollars for a second IQ test defeats the purpose. “Why add a second level to the process that just reintroduces the disparities you’re seeking to get rid of in the first place?” he asks.
The disparity problem is indeed a stubborn issue. It is plain hubris to think that we could address this problem. Our attention and efforts are most likely to be fruitful if we simply concentrate on delivering the best to every student.


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