Authors Challenge Schools to Challenge Students

Tuesday, September 20, 2005 – Washington Post
Two new books on how to teach students of divergent abilities seem at first to have been written on different planets.
But Deborah L. Ruf’s “Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind” and a new edition of Jeannie Oakes’s “Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality” eventually reveal a similar frustration. Both want children to be given more individual attention and more of an academic challenge than they are getting in most schools.

· Oakes, a UCLA professor, has studied the results of putting children of different achievement levels in the same classrooms for several decades (the first edition of this book was published in 1985).
· Ruf, based in Minneapolis, is the national gifted-children program coordinator for American Mensa, an organization for people with high IQs, and works with families of gifted children.
· Oakes focuses on the problems of students considered below average. She argues that they are labeled slow learners for reasons that have little to do with careful assessment and often have much to do with the fact that their parents are poor or are ethnic minorities. She says such students should be given a chance at challenging lessons and such college preparatory classes as Advanced Placement. If they are kept in tracks reserved for low achievers, she says, that will not happen. The book includes results of work she has done since the first edition with schools that were persuaded to disregard the old tracks and give such students a chance to learn at higher levels.
· Ruf works on the other end of the spectrum, with students so quick and so bright that they are bored with the pace of most classrooms. But Ruf does not devote much space to defending tracking systems that put those high-achieving students in classes by themselves, since her research seems to indicate that school systems cannot be trusted to teach as well as many of them need and deserve. Instead, she says, schools have to treat all students as individuals and find ways to accelerate their learning as much as they are capable, by skipping grades or providing independent study or, if nothing else works, home schooling.
· Oakes, in turn, wants to get rid of the gifted label, but she promises worried parents that the school “will also find ways to accommodate any child whose intellectual ‘gifts’ are so extreme or whose disabilities are so severe that they require different schooling arrangements on a case-by-case basis.”
— Jay Mathews
© 2005 The Washington Post Company