Author offers plan for school reform


June 22, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

William G. Durden ladles a friendly manner into a soup of unrestrained enthusiasm, at once loose and ordered, driven and in control, all in the name of improving the quality of American education.

Tall, lean, graying hair a bit asunder, Dr. Durden, 43, with a doctorate in German, has directed the 14-year-old Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) since 1981. His job takes him around the world.

The center handles more than 60,000 applications a year in its "talent search" for "mathematically and verbally talented seventh-graders," and for a "young students" program targeting fifth- and sixth-graders. Some 5,000 students will be assembling at nine sites around the country at the end of June for the start of advanced summer courses, one phase of the total program.

A book he co-wrote, "Smart Kids -- How Academic Talents are Developed in America," will be out soon.

QUESTION: Gifted and talented programs in schools have been controversial at times in recent years. Are they working?

ANSWER: Basically, the gifted and talented movement has to be totally reformulated. Maybe, the concept has to be destroyed and built up again.

If it's built up again, it has to be in the context of everything going on in education.

The vulnerability of the movement is that it's never been that in tune with the academic-subject areas themselves. It's missed the boat by finding a way around "the system." It's almost rendered itself irrelevant.

Q: What's your approach?

A: It would have been accurate five to 10 years ago to see CTY as an organization dealing exclusively with highly talented youth in verbal, math and scientific areas. But we've learned so much, had such detailed contact with school systems, countries and states that we see a far wider applicability.

We never use the word "gifted" in our work. We are very suspect of much that goes on in the gifted and talented establishment.

We find a lot of the initiatives highly superficial, unrelated to the basic position of public policy toward education, artificially restrictive to a limited group of students. Our objective has been to offer initiatives that are appropriately demanding to young people.

Q: What form does that take?

A: The most significant thing about CTY now is that we're coming forward with a public policy toward educating in America, not just for the highly talented, but for all children.

That position comes under the term "optimal match." There should be an assessment of the individual child's strengths and weaknesses and then an optimal matching to academic services available.

The American education system still is highly prized. But its good and fundamental original intentions, devised in the 18th century, have been ignored, submerged, forgotten.

Q: What are they?

A: There are three. First, American education always was intended to be highly flexible -- institutionally and instructionally. Even now, you can do things in American education other countries can't permit.

Secondly, from the 18th century, it was stated that students should progress educationally according to their demonstrated pace and level of learning. By not observing that, we've gotten into a situation where a good deal of our population, not just the talented, are bored to death.

The third, absolutely critical element is that education in America was intended to take place anywhere and everywhere, not just in schools, but in factories, churches, temples, synagogues, museums in a community effort, whatever it took. Well, what have we done? We've loaded the schools with everything.

The more rigid education system we have now is a product of the early 20th century. It was devised not according to child-development issues, but for purely practical reasons: for example, the rapid immigration of the United States when we needed rigid ways to organize people.

Q: Who're the successful students?

A: In our research, their design of education fits that original pattern. They've gone at their own pace. They've used high flexibility. They've used a whole set of out-of-school experiences.

Q: Should students be pushed?

A: There's under-expectation in American schools, across the board.

Inappropriate stretch is wrong; inappropriate competition is wrong. You need to strike that optimal match. A comfortable stretch motivates without defeating.

Q: How to you feel about the tracking of students by ability levels?

A: If you have no grouping whatsoever, you'll eventually have such discrepancy in rate of learning that you'll have a whole group of students bored out of their minds.

The bad part of ability grouping, or tracking, comes where kids are dumped into tracks and never resurface. There's no continual evaluation, no attempt to move them into another level of achievement. A lot of poor kids, inner-city kids, are trapped in that. That's flat-out wrong.

Q: Should there be national standards in education?

A: The U.S. always has prided itself on local control, local standards.

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