Parents, Research, and the School Curriculum

Winter 1997 Masthead

Mallory Bagwell
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

Six years ago my wife and I went through the proverbial “trading of roles” in our home. She went back to work within a full-time teaching position and I reduced the number of theatrical workshops conducted at schools around the state. Our two sons, Matthew and Nathan, were entering kindergarten and second grade respectively, and as we factored the economic advantages of the situation with our beliefs on child rearing we agreed that there should still be a consistent presence of an adult in the daily routines of our children. Breakfasts together, making lunches, greeting them at the bus stop, and general communication with the school became my domain. Accompanying this realignment of roles was a discussion on how parents nurture children at the various stages of childhood. Meal preparation, transportation, grocery shopping, etcetera were not the issues here but rather, the question, “What kind of nurturing role can a parent assume when both children are in school from 8:30-3:30?”

A child’s initial entry into school causes a parent to ask him or herself, “What is it I wish my child to become?” While the child’s daily absence out of the home often implies, “The school will generally do a good job of respecting your child’s individuality while preparing him or her for a meaningful and productive future.” Like most parents we had a general idea of what ought to occur in the academic portion of our sons’ lives. As parents, we were hesitant to leave the development of this vision completely to the school. Perhaps this was because we were both teachers and realized the demands of curricular modifications upon a teacher’s time; but actually it was because we, as parents, had exciting visions for our children and felt it was our moral obligation to reach for those visions. The school was viewed as a valuable resource in the process.

Admittedly, as a father, I questioned the significance of my contributions to nurturing which lay beyond the domestic aspects of the process. Aware that fatherly pride can evolve to a “fast track” parenting style, I was content to witness, via a journal, my children’s interests and foster them during various episodes of directed playfulness. During one such episode I discovered Matthew’s (our younger son) interest in the concept of numbers. At age three he had demonstrated that a set of 14 porch balustrades always equaled 14 regardless of how many different ways they were divided. “See Dad? They all make 14 Dad. 3+3+4+4 makes 14 Dad. So does 7+7 Dad. 1+1+1+1+10, See Dad? See? They do.”

His interest grew and so in the June before his entry into kindergarten we contacted the school, a rural, K-8 program with 104 students. There was one teacher per grade which disallowed a choice of teaching styles within any particular grade level. How do parents advocate on their child’s behalf given the “home court advantage” of a singular classroom style? Our solution was to resort to our vision that said “foster the interests and strengths of our children,” as interests seemed to be part of what makes learning enjoyable and strengths figured into the development of potential. We approached the school psychologist and the kindergarten teacher to draw attention to some learning behaviors and inquire about having Matthew tested. Earlier experiences with our oldest son had made us aware that social skills were stressed in the curriculum and that continued development of our younger son’s interest in numbers might not be facilitated at a pace or style he enjoyed. Fall came and following through on our initial request for testing seemed the typical thing to ask. The school complied and the results raised the potentially overwhelming litany of questions:

  • What does an IQ score represent? What does it predict?
  • In a perfect school experience should there be a spread between aptitude and performance?
  • What do 3.5 standard deviations mean?
  • Why are the subtests useful?

Parents who are teachers can experience great cognitive dissonance when their comprehension of test results is not reflected appropriately in classroom practices. This was our situation and it became apparent that information was needed to present an informed opinion about our requests and to suggest a specific plan of instruction.

It was at this point that I made a telephone call to The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) and discovered a veritable treasure trove of information in the form of user-friendly parenting packets, Practitioners’ Guides, resource lists, advocacy associations, bibliographies, guidelines, and Research Monographs for making our decisions. In short, the availability of relevant information allowed us to reexamine the academic lives of our children and our roles as parents. It validated our observations, inspired our plans, and produced anger and anxiety; particularly with regards to our older son whose aversive responses to school had been looked at in a different light up until this point. Subsequently, Nathan was tested and the results revealed a shocking misinterpretation by parents and teachers of a child who was an aural learner and socially insightful well beyond his years, and whose requests for learning how to borrow and carry in arithmetic had been thwarted for 18 months. Nathan’s daily emotional breakdowns were not a function of me failing in my new parental role after all, but an unarticulated realization that he was bored and did not fit into the behavioral norms of a large second grade classroom that had its share of student behavior problems. Nathan was nearly 8 years old, yet his younger brother’s strengths were being tracked since the age of 3. The importance of having timely access to appropriate information was made clearer still in a personal way.

The situations of our two sons are representative of the formative and reactive ends of the spectrum with which information from the NRC/GT can be utilized. Information on curriculum compacting and acceleration provided by the NRC/GT has had, and continues to have, an extremely formative influence on our younger son’s school experience. That is to say the information was available for use as a planning tool before the school year was too far underway. In contrast, our older son benefited from information about grade-skipping and socialization issues that allowed him to “escape” a situation that did not have the wherewithal at the time to accommodate his needs.

If parents and teachers of high achieving children would recognize research as a form of history in that it represents prior events and outcomes and that it has a predictive nature, they could experience a tremendous sense of empowerment and accomplishment in their work. Teachers and parents want to be known for doing a job well. In my new parenting role, I was particularly anxious about performance, especially the nurturing issue. The saving grace was information and the way it could be used within the curriculum by convincing classroom teachers to accept its practical value with respect to traditional classroom practices and my sons’ educational growth.

A major lesson learned was that timely access to relevant and accurate information is crucial to the education of young children who learn differently. Information is more effective when used early within a planning process that sets goals for the future instead of one that reacts to current classroom practices. I found as a parent that planning for the future created an alignment of teacher and parental concerns that was not easily duplicated when information was simply provided in response to an immediate curricular concern. One step towards accessing information is to make copies available of the NRC/GT Practitioners’ Guides via school information/bulletin boards, the pre-K screening process, parent packets, and school handbooks.

A second lesson was that information empowers its possessor. My wife and I had gone the next step and were pursuing the recommended readings on compacting, socialization, acceleration, and identification. We became consumers of books and articles on the subject of giftedness. Initial readings were Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers (Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982), The Academic Acceleration of Gifted Children (Southern & Jones, 1991), and Curriculum Compacting (Reis, Burns, & Renzulli, 1991). The NRC/GT provided a certain amount of source credibility to our programming requests. We found that research-based information, the use of specific vocabulary, and an understanding of defensible practices in the field added parity in the school-parent relationship, especially when administrators were involved or major modifications were being proposed.

A third lesson was to use information with the teacher in an informing and a supportive way. Teachers are major direct service providers to children and influencing the educational experiences of my sons was not to be accomplished with a parental emotional wish list fraught with anxiety, but with concise, well defined, appropriately placed, factual information. If the NRC/GT could present hard data in a user friendly format, I as a parent could do the same.

And fourth, we watched in amazement how the consistent use of information over time creates geometric effects upon its intended purposes. Information on curriculum compacting given to the first grade teacher was used with our younger son, resulting in his mastery of the fifth grade mathematics curriculum without gaps in his knowledge. In second grade, he participated in the fifth grade math class, qualified to take high school algebra, and expressed an interest in taking “real” literature and science with his brother who was to be in sixth grade. What unfolded in June of that year was a 12 person Pupil Personnel Planning Team meeting that resulted in the Assistant Superintendent overruling the Director of Special Services’ “no” vote on subject advancement. I believe this outcome was due, in part, to the articulated perspectives of the middle school teachers who had read much of the NRC/GT literature, observed its effect on our son’s primary years, and were supportive of the proposal. The availability of research had changed attitudes and classroom practices among the staff which paved the way for Matthew’s particular needs and other children’s as well. Informed teachers can be fearless advocates despite central office policy.

Our youngest son entered sixth grade in the Fall of 1996, although he has completed the 6-8 curriculum and high school courses of algebra, geometry, algebra II, and chemistry. He loves school and the options he has now, one of which is to use the time made available from curriculum compacting to reduce his schedule and manage a fish farm breeding project at the high school.

In retrospect, the process my wife and I went through appears so very simple because an informed viewpoint clarifies a plan of action. It is not simple, however, because the process of becoming an informed parent or a teacher about high achieving students is fraught with sources offering good intentions, ineffectual empathy, misinformation, and little direction. Thus, two caveats in the “age of information” are: as a consumer of information you must determine the kind of information you need and actively seek it from a reliable source. And, two, do not presume the application of information in the classroom to be as easy as access to that information. To these ends contact with The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented was a step in the right direction.

Delcourt, M. A. B. (Ed.). (1995). What educators and parents need to know about elementary school programs in gifted education [Practitioners’ Guide (A9508)]. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Delcourt, M. A. B. (Ed.). (1995). What educators need to know about student motivation [Practitioners’ Guide (A9509)]. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Reis, S. M., Burns, D. E., & Renzulli, J. S. (1991). Curriculum compacting: The complete guide to modifying the regular curriculum for high ability students. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Siegle, D. (Ed.). (1992). What educators need to know about ability grouping [Practitioners’ Guide (A9201)]. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Siegle, D. (Ed.). (1993). What educators need to know about curriculum compacting [Practitioners’ Guide (A9302)]. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Siegle, D. (Ed.). (1994). What parents need to know about early readers [Practitioners’ Guide (A9403)]. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Siegle, D. (Ed.). (1994). What parents of gifted students need to know about television viewing [Practitioners’ Guide (A9405)]. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Southern, W. T., & Jones, E. D. (Eds.). (1991). The academic acceleration of gifted children. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Webb, J. T., Meckstroth, E. A., & Tolan, S. S. (1982). Guiding the gifted child: A practical source for parents and teachers. Columbus, OH: Ohio Psychology Publishing.


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