Is dual enrollment worth it for gifted children?

Dual enrollment programs are all the rage in education now. With dual enrollment, high school (and even middle school) students take college courses (most often community college courses) and receive both college credit and credit toward their high school diploma. In many cases, kids graduate with both a diploma and an Associate’s Degree.

Dual enrollment is an alternative to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs in high schools. It started off as an idea to keep high performing students in public schools rather than losing them to private schools or homeschooling. Now homeschooling lobbyists have fought to have the opportunity extended to homeschoolers as well.

What dual enrollment seems to offer is a way of skirting taking high-stakes tests for college credit. Instead, the kids are taking classes from people who themselves probably do not have a PhD and who likely pass everyone who is enrolled through the system.

The main difference to me – in terms of the actual quality of education that a child is receiving – is that with IB or AP, a student is getting a traditional liberal arts education rather than taking random classes alongside the stoners and teenage mothers in their town. I’m not saying this to look down on anyone who is trying to turn their life around by continuing their education. But let’s get real here. You are not talking about an even marginally competitive academic program. You are talking about programs that have historically been directed at individuals who have fallen through the cracks. That’s why the government is okay with putting a 6th grader in the room as well. AP and IB classes are probably far more competitive and stimulating academically.

I’ve met a number of homeschoolers who think their child is exceedingly special for participating in dual enrollment. There are social media groups devoted to pushing homeschooled children into dual enrollment programs at ever earlier ages, when the children would probably be better served by their parents investing in high-quality curriculum developed for gifted and talented kids that will genuinely prepare them for enrollment at a better university. It strikes me that is the quiet trade-off being made here. Their education is cheaper because it genuinely is worth less in the long run.

The number of kids in these programs has been growing exponentially, as state governments push dual enrollment as a way of getting a college degree without mountains of debt (in reality, the cost is usually pushed to state taxpayers – and you are a taxpayer):

In all 50 states, a growing number of high school students are taking what are known as dual-enrollment or dual-credit classes. They’re single classes that earn students both high school and college credit. Ten states now make it mandatory for districts to offer these classes.

And the number of students under 18 taking college courses has skyrocketed. It went from under 300,000 in 1995 to over 1 million in 2015. 

If over one million high school (and even middle school) students are doing this, does it lose its signaling power to colleges and universities (if it ever had it in the first place)?

Do elite colleges and universities even care if you have an Associate’s Degree, which is something no academic would put on their own curriculum vitae because it carries zero prestige?

“But dual enrollment demonstrates that your child can handle college-level work,” folks say. I’m not sure it does that either.

While some folks may think their 12-year-old is profoundly gifted for taking courses at a community college instead of being in 6th grade, a college professor would likely adamantly disagree. More likely, it shows how low academic standards are for these institutions now. Colleges are teaching concepts that should have been mastered in K-12 coursework instead of treating them as prerequisites. It’s not that your kid is high performing, but that some colleges are now low performing. This is not a good thing in our society.

All but the top tier of US universities have essentially started selling college degrees. It is a myth that college in general is exclusive. Only the top tier of universities do not accept nearly everyone who applies. Virtually everyone who graduates from high school can find some institution that is willing to take them, if they in turn are willing to shoulder the cost. This is what turning the federal government into a subsidized student loan machine that will loan unlimited amounts of money to teenagers has done to higher education. We borrow endless amounts of money in the US Treasury market from China and Japan, and use the proceeds to make student loans so every Starbucks barista can have a graduate degree and teach 6th graders part-time at the local community college. This is how broken our education system is. Heck, that’s how broken our federal budget is.

And having middle-schoolers enrolling in college courses is arguably diluting the value of a college degree even further.

This is not to say that enrolling a child who is legitimately profoundly gifted in a traditional four-year university that fits their research goals is a bad idea. But turning community colleges into de facto K-12 public schools seems like objectively bad policy.

As a parent, I almost think using those years to have your child do independent research projects with a carefully selected professional mentor might be a better idea. It will help them mature, build professional connections, and decide if they really want to follow a specific path or consider other alternatives. I don’t know, I am on the fence. But the more I look at dual enrollment programs, the more it seems like everyone is simply agreeing to say the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

New York City is looking at scrapping its gifted and talented programs

New York City has become the poster child for how identity politics is counterproductive in government, but this insanity is impressive even for Comrade DeBlasio.

Yesterday it was announced that Bill DeBlasio’s diversity panel recommended New York schools end their gifted and talented programs, as (non-Asian) minorities are dramatically underrepresented in them. Civil rights activists argue that the programs’ raison d’etre was always to keep relatively wealthy white children in public schools and not to encourage children with bona fide intellectual gifts. They note that some families are paying thousands of dollars to hire tutors for four-year-olds so they can qualify for admission to the best public schools. The administration must combat this scourge of rational economic actors!

Only a couple days ago, I wrote about how more than a quarter of children in New York City are now educated outside of the public school system. The data show this is not only a story about white privilege. It’s also a story about acute government failure. It’s not only rich white people on the Upper East Side that are pulling their kids from public schools. It turns out minority families are pretty good at being rational economic actors too.

Surely the families that can afford to spend thousands on tutoring for preschoolers are more likely to send their children to private schools if the city eliminates its gifted programs. But many, many families in minority neighborhoods are also choosing to leave the system for charter schools. This includes a lot of high achievers. Eliminating gifted and talented programs will likely increase the numbers of families seeking education alternatives across the spectrum. A “diversity panel” should understand this.

These same advocates argue that the policy idea that most reliably improves academic outcomes (which to them only means test scores) is moving disadvantaged kids into mixed-income schools. (This is the same attitude that gave us the failed policy of busing.) Somehow it does not occur to them that eliminating what they take to be the only draw public schools have for relatively wealthy families is not going to achieve that goal either. Instead it might remove the only opportunity an academically gifted minority in the public school system might have at social mobility.

Right now, the kids in New York Public schools are ethnically diverse, but hardly economically diverse: “About 15% of students were white, 16% Asian, 26% black and 41% Hispanic in the last school year, by city data. About 73% were in poverty.” But policymakers are absolutely obsessed with where less than a third of the kids in their system go to school. Meanwhile, almost every family that can afford to remove their children from the school system has.

New York City is hardly alone in this phenomenon. If you look at Chicago or Los Angeles schools, you will see the same pattern. Urban housing patterns reinforce socioeconomic divisions, and you see the impact of concentrated poverty in public schools.

DeBlasio and his fellow fans of social engineering are not going to change who owns property in the city (though I wouldn’t put it past him to try). What they are going to do is hasten the school system’s downward spiral.

What should someone who wants better opportunities for their children do? Move. Leave New York City. It is irrational to think government schools in a city characterized by this profound level of economic inequality can ever be shaped to work to the benefit of children.

I’ve thought for a long time that if the federal government wanted a lot of bang for its buck in education spending, what it should subsidize is relocation packages. This isn’t just true for New York City; it’s true for places like Appalachia. Federal, state, and local government agencies spend billions and billions of dollars every year trying to prop up institutions that are designed to fail because they are dealing with people who live in extreme conditions. The easiest way to change the circumstances of future generations is to remove their households from extreme living conditions. New York City is already naturally losing people because it is too big and too corrupt to govern effectively. But you have a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck who are essentially trapped in a specific community. And that traps their kids in specific schools. The government could promote social mobility by investing in physical mobility.

Modeling Being a Lifelong Learner for Your Children

In chatting with other parents, I often feel like we are the only household on Earth for whom “screen time” is not a major source of conflict. This is incredibly ironic, too, because we work in the tech industry. “No, we do not arbitrarily restrict our daughter’s access to devices,” I explain. My interlocutors clutch their pearls. “Experts say that if you do not have a rule about only thirty minutes of screen time a day, you are a very bad parent,” they respond.

Every time someone brings up the issue of screen time – how their child is “addicted” to video games or social media – all I can think about are those anti-drug public service announcement commercials they would run during kids’ programming in the 1980s. The father finds his son’s drug stash and storms into his bedroom to confront him about it. “Where did you learn how to do this?” he shouts. “I learned it from watching you,” his son replies.

“My kids don’t play outside.” When was the last time your family went hiking together?

“My kids don’t read.” When was the last time you curled up with Pride and Prejudice and some Earl Grey?

“My kid is a junior and still undecided.” They grew up in a household where no one had passions or hobbies, but sure, they might spontaneously identify a vocation when they are twenty years old.

Why does anyone expect their kids to crave something they don’t want to do themselves? Childhood is about constructing an aesthetic, and you are not going to micromanage your child into an aesthetic. If your kid sees you sacked out on the couch after work pounding chardonnay and watching vapid television shows, congratulations, that’s your household’s aesthetic. If you want your kids to be better than that, you have have to be better than that.

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One of the things I love about homeschooling is that it provides us with endless opportunities to model being a lifelong learner and to form a nexus in our own lives with what our daughter is studying. Here’s an example for you.

For our history curriculum, we use Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series. We are now on the second volume with our seven-year-old daughter, which covers the Middle Ages. We were reading through the history of Australia, New Zealand, and the Polynesian Islands. While no one knows how the aborigines arrived in Australia, the Maori people arrived in New Zealand during the time period corresponding to the Middle Ages in Europe.

Coloring pages from Story of the World history series. I like that this series is not entirely euro-centric (like what we were raised with in school).

Naturally, we covered the legends of Maui in discussing New Zealand. E loved this, thanks mostly to the Disney movie Moana. We compared how Maui was represented in the movie (the Polynesian version of The Rock) versus how he is represented in Polynesian legends (a prankster child).

Disney did not get everything wrong, however. The central conflict of the story – that Moana’s people were historically gifted wayfinders, but for inexplicable reasons, they stopped exploring, is part of the real archaeological record of these cultures.

The story of Polynesian wayfinders is extraordinary. They essentially used Stone Age technology to craft massive canoes from giant trees and wove coconut hair into durable material for sails. And those vessels were mighty enough to cross the Pacific Ocean. They’d load all their pigs and chickens into the boats and skip from island to island. And then they mysteriously stopped for a long period. Then they mysteriously started back up again. No one knows what was responsible for the hiatus. (These wayfinding traditions are still a major part of life in the region.) The green rock Moana carries around is also accurate to the region.

Our discussion of Polynesian wayfinding was so engaging that I ended up buying a book on it myself, On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact. Our daughter’s homeschool assignment thus became my leisure reading. I have the sense we will be talking about the history of the Pacific Islands a lot more in the future.

We are also studying ecology for science this year, and we found ways to connect our history lessons to our ecology lessons. (This happens a lot more than one would think. I have come to imagine the timeline of the world as different empires fighting to control their respective biomes, because those resources are the wealth of nations in its most basic form.) While studying about Australia and New Zealand, we learned about coral reefs, how they impact life on islands, artificial reefs, and conservation. We are in the process of building a model of a reef. When we make it back down to the Florida Keys, E will have an entirely new context for our snorkeling adventures.

Why Are Homeschooled Children So Advanced Relative to Their Peers?

It is a common gripe among homeschooling families that they frequently encounter other parents (or folks within their communities) who try to shame them for “pushing their children too hard.” These folks are generally responding to the differences in speech, demeanor, and general knowledge they see when homeschooled children interact with peers that have been educated in a more traditional environment.

There is often an assumption on the part of other adults that if a child communicates with the vocabulary of an adult and can draw upon cultural references that others will only receive in college (if they are lucky), then the child is likely being raised by some “tiger mom” figure (as popularized by Yale Law School professor and helicopter parent extraordinaire Amy Chua). “Oh, well, your kid is only several grades above my child in math because I allow my child to play more. I want my child to experience having an actual childhood.”

Of course, neither of these assumptions are accurate. There are many reasons why homeschooled children outperform their peers in public and many private schools academically that have nothing to do with their parents’ personalities or ambitions. And homeschooled children tend to have far more free time than their institutionally managed peers.

What is really responsible for these differences?

(1) You are seeing the difference individualized attention makes. Even the best teacher is going to struggle to guide 30+ students through content when each child occupies a different space intellectually. Add in disruptive students and distractions like technology, and things get even worse. Kids that grok concepts quickly find a lot of their time being wasted by stuff that is totally unrelated to their education. Kids that have none of that can move through work to new concepts with ease.

(2) Homeschooling families are often free to pick their own curriculum and education materials. This means their kids are often using higher quality curriculum than whatever governments (or their moneyed education consultants and lobbyists) pick for their peers. While kids in public schools get Common Core, many homeschool kids are getting an education on par with elite private schools (but with a 1:1 teacher-to-student ratio). Also, homeschooled children often are given the ability to study more content in subject areas they excel in and to seek opportunities with real world applications of subjects they love.

(3) Ceteris paribus, homeschooled children generally progress through content faster than their peers because their parents cut out waste and repetition. If you have ever purchased curriculum, you quickly learn that much of the content repeats what was learned the previous year. This is because school systems tend to devote the first month or two to re-teaching students that have forgotten much of what they learned over long, arbitrary breaks. There is also a lot of throw-away content that teachers can have at their disposal for when they are out of the classroom and a substitute is called in.

If a homeschooled kid is particularly good at a subject, they can move through multiple lessons in a day with little effort. That means they can complete in a semester or less what another student will complete in a full academic year. They are not being “pushed too hard,” but their natural speed is faster than what institutions require of their peers. The cumulative effect of this difference in teaching approaches can be enormous.

(4) Many parents who pull their children out of traditional schools to homeschool them (or never send them to a traditional school in the first place) are doing so because their kids have special needs. This includes children who possess extreme native intelligence and would otherwise be labeled as gifted and talented. It is something to behold when a gifted child is allowed to flourish rather than having their interests squashed with meaningless routines and spending much of their day waiting for other children to catch up. This can mean that a child that is of elementary school age chronologically is doing work at a high school (and sometimes even college) level. This has nothing to do with their parents’ ambitions and everything to do with their natural abilities. They aren’t being pushed too hard; they are actually getting the stimulus they need.