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Are gifted students slighted in schools?

Author of guidebook says highest achievers have become an 'afterthought'

The American public school system’s focus on struggling students leaves high-achievers without a challenging enough education—a detriment to the country in a time of concerns over international competitiveness, says a new guidebook.

Policy support that has vacillated between gifted and struggling students for several decades is now firmly behind getting low-achievers up to speed, says Andy Smarick, a partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners and author of the September guidebook, “Closing America’s High-achievement Gap.”

A survey from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute asked teachers which students were most likely to get one-on-one attention. More than 80 percent in 2008 said struggling students would get more attention, while only 5 percent said advanced students would. “We’re in an extended period where gifted kids are an afterthought at best,” Smarick says. These students are at risk for dropping out of school if they are not challenged enough, he adds.

A 2011 Fordham Institute study found that between 30 and 50 percent of advanced students descend and no longer achieve at the most advanced levels.

Gifted students are defined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as those “who give evidence of high achievement capability” and “who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school to fully develop those capabilities.”

The National Association for Gifted Children estimates that there are 3 million academically gifted students in K12 schools. However, federal funding for gifted programs doesn’t exist, and almost all decisions about gifted education are made at the state or district level. Just 26 states require some form of program for gifted students, according to a 2013 National Association for Gifted Learning report.

“Without federal funding, you end up with a patchwork quilt of services across the country that are very different state by state,” says Nancy Green, executive director of the association. The only states with fully-funded gifted student mandates are Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

It comes down to an equity issue, Green says. “Every child, not just struggling learners, deserves to be challenged in schools,” she adds. “Having our brightest kids languish in a classroom is leaving talent on the table, when there are so many complex issues our country is facing that these kids can help us solve.”

Inexpensive options for districts

Many supports for gifted students don’t come at a high price for cash-strapped districts, Green says. For example, many high schools partner with local community colleges to offer students dual enrollment programs, often at no cost to the district. These courses give bright students the opportunity to do college-level work, and free up teachers to work with struggling students.

Teachers can use ability grouping—placing students together according to achievement levels in class—to offer more rigorous curriculum to advanced students, Green says. Schools can also allow advanced students to skip units, courses, or even grade levels to keep them engaged. And schools are increasingly supplementing their curriculum with online coursework, which allows all students to work at their own pace.

College-level Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are another resource for high school students in need of a challenge. Teachers can access these courses through providers Coursera, Udemy and iTunes U, among others.

“A few years ago, brighter kids might get more worksheets when they’re ahead,” Green says. “Now, teachers have more resources than ever to make challenging curriculum.”