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Gifted Education: Deceived, Denied and in Crisis

Why gifted ed still matters and what you can do to improve your district's offerings.

With her eldest daughter about to enter her senior year of high school at age 14, Carolyn, who asked that her last name not be used to maintain her privacy, has experienced just about every aspect of gifted education American schools have to offer. She's done acceleration--three times with her eldest, in fact. She's been through early entry; her second daughter entered first grade at age five. The girls have a combined eight summers at challenge camps for gifted kids, and her older daughter will graduate high school with five AP classes and two college courses. The family has moved, looking for a district more hospitable to their highly gifted children.

Carolyn is also a gifted education advocate who manages an Internet discussion board for parents of gifted kids that has several thousand members. So what does she think of gifted education in America these days?

"In every other aspect of the education system they teach to the kids, but in gifted they expect the student to sit still and do nothing while they teach other kids," she says. "It just doesn't make sense; and this new high-stakes test environment is not helping at all."

Carolyn says she believes the way she's navigated the public education system on behalf of her kids is "the least worst option," but adds that the situation for most gifted kids in public schools is getting worse. And she's not alone in her bleak assessment of the situation.

" Why do we need to pay any attention
to these kids when there are so many
others with problems?"
-Bob Davidson, Davidson Institute for Talent Development

During the past year there's been a drumbeat of publicity decrying the state of gifted ed, particularly following the publication of a handful of books on the topic. First came Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds by Jan and Bob Davidson of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Then A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students by Nicholas Colangelo and his colleagues at the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. Adding to the chorus was Joseph Renzulli, director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, who penned The Quiet Crises Clouding the Future of R&D for Education Week, and this July, Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind by Deborah Ruf.

These leading, and best-funded, thinkers in the field come from camps that aren't directly opposing, but regard each other warily. They seem to divide rather neatly into sides that believe either that grade acceleration of gifted students is the best approach, or that enrichment opportunities for all, with advanced enrichment for the gifted, are the way to go. National organizations seem to straddle the continuum between the two.

But debating these two models is purely academic when the reality is that in most American schools gifted kids aren't getting much acceleration or enrichment because there's no federal mandate regarding gifted education, state spending isn't focused on it, and most teachers were never trained in how to do it. Unless they have particularly savvy--or pushy, depending how you view it--parents, gifted kids often languish away in the regular ed system, perhaps treated to an hour or two of part-time, pull out gifted program a week.

The other elephant in the room when the topic of gifted education comes up is race. Minority children are under-represented in gifted programs just as they are over-represented in special education. And both sides of the debate on gifted education use this fact to buttress their cases: those who oppose programs that homogeneously group gifted kids say the selection practices are biased; those on the other side say strong gifted programs will give poor children a chance to receive the enrichment and advantages that middle-class parents have become so adept at providing.

Javits is no IDEA

Those who are most passionate about gifted education say true support of it in America requires a paradigm shift--recognizing that gifted students have special needs similar to those students who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"The biggest myth about gifted education is that these kids don't need help and can fend for themselves," says Jan Davidson, co-author of Genius Denied. "It's partly the word gifted. Gifted says you have something the rest of us don't have, so why do we need to do anything for you?"

Indeed, federal funding of gifted education is slim, and threatened. A 1993 U.S. Dept. of Education report found that two cents out of every $100 spent on education goes toward gifted programs. The National Research Center for Gifted and Talented, run by Renzulli out of the University of Connecticut, received $11.2 million last year, which comprises the bulk of the Jacob J. Javits Gifted and Talented Students budget. The rest of the budget goes to a handful of research and demonstration projects funded each year.

" It's time that America had a
different discussion."
-Nicholas Colangelo, the Blank Center for
Gifted Education and Talent Development

And though gifted advocates do it knowing they are treading on sensitive land, they often compare funding for special education to funding for gifted education, if only to underscore the need for a federal mandate to support gifted students. Arizona's state coordinator for gifted education Jeff Hipskind did an informal survey looking at how funds are allocated. He found that 5 percent to 10 percent of the population identified as having special needs under IDEA received $175 million in state and federal dollars. For the same amount of students identified as gifted, just $1.2 million was allocated. "We've got some serious inequities in dealing with special populations," Hipskind says.

Those who aren't pointing to IDEA spending often single out the demands of No Child Left Behind as part of the problem.

"As much as I hate to say this, there has been a decline in gifted education. Part of that decline is where schools are putting their resources to jack up test scores," says Renzulli. "With pressures for AYP ... gifted programs in most states are optional rather than mandated."

The other reality hindering the advancement of gifted education in the U.S. is the lack of teacher and administrator training in the subject. In Nation Deceived, Colangelo and his co-authors note that there are very few required or elective courses in gifted education in teachers colleges.

"There really isn't a much of a knowledge base around gifted education because there isn't federal legislation. You can become a principal or administrator without ever having taken a course in gifted education. Nobody pays attention to this," Hipskind says.

What's At Stake?

Given the gravity of the titles of the recent books on the topic, advocates paint the situation as dire. Renzulli says, "By the time we realize what we've done to our scientific talent our best graduate students are going to be going to Europe or Asia for education."

Beside the potential long-term, national implications, there are the day-to-day problems for individual kids.

" Should we as a society be providing access for kids whose parents may not know about it or can't afford it?" -Linda E. Brody, director, Study of Exceptional Talent, Johns Hopkins University

"They're exceptional children. They aren't going to learn to the fullest extent of their abilities in the regular classroom with the regular curriculum," Davidson says. "That's going to cause a whole set of problems. And until you understand it, your natural reaction is why do we need to pay any attention to these kids when there are so many others with problems."

And the reality is that middle-class and wealthy parents have a range of ways to address their gifted children's education if they feel the public schools are not. Among them are strong advocacy, private schools, home schooling and talent searchers that use above grade-level testing to qualify kids for summer enrichment programs.

"A lot of it depends on parents knowing about it and paying for it," says Linda E. Brody, director of the Study of Exceptional Talent at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth. "The reality is everyone doesn't have access. The question is: Should we as a society be providing access for kids whose parents may not know about it or can't afford it?"

What's Out: Tracking, Pullout

Since the publication of Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality by Jeannie Oakes 20 years ago, and with the recent publication of a second edition, separating students into ability groups is taboo.

Keeping Track emphasized what was happening to the kids in the lowest track was deplorable," says Jeanne Purcell, Connecticut's state director for gifted and talented and advanced placement and member of the executive board of NAGC. "Since the publication of that book we're in a time of heterogeneity."

But grouping high ability kids together, and then giving them accelerated curriculum, is a primary demand of many gifted advocates. Heterogeneous grouping isn't the only thing the leading gifted educators are fed up with though, they also take aim at the "part-time pull out" gifted programs that would bring a selected group of kids into an enrichment environment for

an hour or so each week.

These programs are now considered "old-school" approaches to gifted because they in essence say, "For half an hour once a week you get to be challenged appropriately, but the rest of the week you're a regular kid even though you're way ahead of the curve," says Jeff Hipskind of Arizona.

These programs clash with the ideas of both the acceleration and enrichment proponents. The accelerators say these kids aren't just gifted for half an hour a week; the enrichment camp says how are you deciding which kids deserve this special treat.

"Pullout programs work well for mildly or moderately gifted, but at an extreme end that just isn't going to work," Davidson says. "We wouldn't ever think of gathering all the exceptional children at the other end of the spectrum and saying they all get the same program."

Davidson also chafes at the idea that pullout programs usually allow gifted kids to excel in enrichment activities instead of math or science.

"I [get] so irritated that when it comes to core curriculum they can't touch it, which seemed so absurd to me because that's where the students wanted to excel," she says.


Those who believe that genius is being denied and our nation has been deceived argue wholeheartedly that the brightest kids need to be allowed to complete the K-12 curriculum at their own pace, rather than in pre-set age or grade steps. The concept of acceleration is old, its proponents point out that American luminaries including Martin Luther King Jr., Eudora Welty, James Watson and Sandra Day O'Connor all accelerated through school.

Opponents of acceleration often fall back on the idea that students shouldn't skip grades for social, emotional or physical reasons. The heart of Nation Deceived is research-based rebuttal of these ideas, with findings that acceleration has long-term academic and social benefits, and is often the most effective intervention for gifted students.

"The big thing in this report is just what the title says: There's just been a disconnect between what we've known and what we've practiced," Colangelo says. "It's time that America had a different discussion."

The other emphasis this group would make is that there's no one way to "do" gifted education. To them an appropriate educational response is made after assessing each child's gifts, curriculum needs, and motivation and may embrace any of the 18 forms of acceleration they've identified.

The idea seems to be picking up steam. In the nine months after the report was published, its official Web site received more than 900,000 visitors. The two-volume report is also available for free from the Web site.

School-wide Enrichment, Differentiation

Thanks to Nation Deceived, acceleration now has a convenient repository of research to support it. But with the Javits funding focused primarily on Joe Renzulli's work at the national center, if there is a national policy on gifted education it would seem to be the school-wide enrichment model that Renzulli has created.

Seminal is his definition of who is gifted. Renzulli illustrates a three-ring conception of giftedness, with the sweet spot coming at the intersection of above-average ability, creativity and motivation.

If it were up to him, there'd never be a full-time class for gifted kids at the third-grade level, Renzulli says, because, "when you say that, you're immediately saying that you know who all the gifted kids are in this school."

Renzulli's School-wide Enrichment Model calls for each school to have an enrichment specialist who primarily focuses on teacher training. This model seeks flexible grouping of kids by ability and interest to "do something, not learn something."

"Pedagogically I hold out more strongly for a more inductive creativity-based model," he says.

Renzulli's second non-negotiable requirement is that schools must understand what areas each child has talents or interests in, and then have a mechanism to help that child pursue his or her interests. (See below, The Renzulli Learning System)

Once these two functions are in place, teachers are expected to differentiate the curriculum, how they present it, and how kids show mastery, based on each child's learning style and preferred form of output. (See below: Webster Case Study, Renzulli Learning System.) But flexible learning groups and daily differentiation in a classroom of 25 to 30 kids is asking a lot of teachers. It's not the theory but the implementation that doesn't sit well with Renzulli's critics.

"I hear a lot about differentiation in the regular classroom," says Brody of Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. "If it works, that's great, but it's not really practical to expect teachers to do what we're doing without any aids or special resources."

AP and IB

Even those districts that do an outstanding job of addressing the educational needs of their gifted students primarily focus on kids in grades 3 through 8. Few gifted programs identify kids before second grade (even though many gifted kids are identifiable by pre-school), and fewer still have formal gifted programs for high-schoolers. Instead they rely on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings, which some gifted advocates say shouldn't be considered gifted education.

"In high schools people think advanced placement is gifted, it's not. AP and IB came out of regular education," Hipskind says. "We're talking about gifted kids who are a standard deviation above and beyond your high average kids."

Still, Nation Deceived points out that American teenagers took 1.9 million AP exams in the country, embracing AP as "the largest scale acceleration program in the country."

What Administrators Can Do Next

When Jeanne Purcell became state director of gifted education in Connecticut six years ago she realized there were no current resources to help administrators research and implement gifted education programs. As a board member for the National Association for Gifted Children she decided to remedy the problem with a nuts-and-bolts book on the topic.

"The predecessor to what we're writing was done in 1974," Purcell says. "We've learned so much since then, but there was nothing available that was current, and comprehensive."

The result, due out in November, is a book with chapters by 21 authors, each with a specific area of expertise from developing a curriculum, to preparing a budget and designing a professional development plan. Gifted ed watchers say the tension between the enrichment advocates and the acceleration proponents is softening--and that Renzulli and Colangelo were spotted amiably debating the issues at a cocktail party last year. When asked directly about the competition between models, they remain polite.

"They shouldn't be [in competition]," Colangelo says. "I think there's plenty of room there for enrichment activities. Without them we would have a considerably poorer sense of gifted education. We are not here to replace, or say 'instead of.' What this report really confronts is here is an intervention that we have really misunderstood."

Purcell and NAGC hope their book helps administrators make sense of how acceleration and enrichment can work together in a practical manner. "They're both options. It's my hope with the book to dispel the idea that you have to be in one camp or another," she says. "I think you need all of them to service all children."

Rebecca Sausner is a contributing editor.

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