How schools maximize gifted talent
The U.S. public school system’s focus on struggling students leaves high-achievers—especially minorities, the economically disadvantaged and English-language learners —without a challenging enough education, experts say.
A lack of federal funding and patchwork policies across states often leave decisions on identifying and serving gifted students to district administrators. An estimated 3 million to 5 million academically gifted students attend K12 schools, and it is unknown how many are receiving services, according to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).
“There’s an unfounded sense that it’s somehow elitist to place emphasis on our highest-ability kids,” says Sally Krisel, director of innovative and advanced programs at Hall County Public Schools in northern Georgia. “We need to be committed to kids across the board. It’s a basic equity issue. If we believe all kids deserve to come to school and engage in a curriculum targeted to their current level of development, then gifted programs are as necessary as special ed services.”
The introduction of No Child Left Behind and other accountability systems helped lead the nation’s lowest-achieving students to make rapid academic gains from 2000 to 2007, according to a 2008 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. However, the nation’s top students’ performance stagnated.
Only three states require general education teachers to have some type of training in gifted education, according to the NAGC. And gifted students without access to services often become underachievers, says Jane Clarenbach, director of public education at the NAGC.
“There is a great myth that gifted students will be OK on their own, and it is used as a rationale for not providing services,” Clarenbach says. “Excellence doesn’t just happen—it takes years of persistence and hard work, and those skills should be developed early in school so children aren’t afraid of a challenge or of failure.”
Identifying the gifted
Thirty-one states require districts to identify gifted students and to provide gifted programs, according to a March report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Five states require identification only, and 15 states do not require either.
Gifted identification is usually determined by a combination of ability and achievement tests, teacher nominations, behavioral observations, and portfolios. It often occurs in grade 3, but state policies vary widely, says Sally Reis, vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Connecticut, who spent most of her career as a professor of educational psychology focusing on academically talented students and gifted programs.
Some states have specific procedures for identifying these students, while others do not.
Needing more than Common Core
In many states, the Common Core standards are more rigorous than those previously in place. However, a curriculum based on these standards still needs to be differentiated for gifted students, says Jane Clarenbach, director of public education at the National Association for Gifted Children.
“The Common Core materials are challenging, but the curriculum is still one-size-fits-all,” Clarenbach says. “To make those adjustments for students at either end of the learning spectrum, teacher training and differentiation are necessary for all students to receive a challenging education.”
A 2007 study shows that gifted students demonstrate positive academic gains when provided with a curriculum that’s more rigorous than what is being taught in the rest of a school.
In Yorkville CUSD #115, a suburban district of 5,800 students 50 miles outside of Chicago, teams of teachers—including gifted educators—have spent the past few years rewriting curricula. The teachers were not required to follow a textbook or a purchased curriculum so long as the standards were being taught, which allowed for more creativity, says gifted resource teacher Ashley Badger.
“In some areas we found the new Common Core standards are challenging for gifted students, and in some they are too easy,” Badger says. “It’s all about differentiating and having a well-trained teacher who can navigate.”
The district has purchased more resources for higher-level math and reading with the new standards. In ELA, a major challenge is finding high-level texts that are appropriate. For example, a first grader may be able to read at a fifth grade level, but the subjects of fifth grade books may be too mature.
Accelerated math students participate in more STEM and project-based learning. A project called Design A Park requires students to develop city land into an educational park for children. The students must follow the city’s guidelines and measurements to create a fun, safe and educational space.
For another project, Computer Codes, students learn to decipher code and do some coding of their own.
Badger recommends giving teachers and gifted specialists time to collaborate on making lesson plans more challenging.
“What gifted and talented students need most is interaction with challenge early on, and continued opportunities to engage in meaningful, challenging work,” Reis says. “The later we identify gifted and talented students, the more difficult it is to reverse their underachievement.”
Giftedness is everywhere
Multiple assessments are especially important for identifying gifted students who are minorities, economically disadvantaged or English-language learners—all of whom are underrepresented in gifted courses, says Tamra Stambaugh, assistant research professor in special education and executive director of Programs for Talented Youth at Vanderbilt University.
Here’s how Stambaugh says administrators can find talented students from all backgrounds:
- Look to local performance norms rather than standardized tests scores. For example, offer ability grouping or an accelerated curriculum within the classroom for students who are academically in the top 10 percent of the school, rather than those with certain test scores.
- Examine subtest scores in individual subject areas. Students of poverty tend to have uneven testing profiles—that is, their math score may be significantly higher than their verbal score, or vice versa. Students may be gifted in one subject, but not another.
- Collect portfolios of student work, even if it is nonacademic work. A blooming artist might have gifted qualities.
- Offer performance-based assessments, in which a teacher shows students a task or problem, gives them some examples, and watches students perform the task. “That gives everybody more equal access to perform with something they’ve been recently taught, and doesn’t rely as heavily on background knowledge,” Stambaugh says.
- Give ELL students assessments in the student’s native language. Other ELL-specific traits that may signal giftedness include learning English quickly, translating for peers and using English creatively, such as by making puns.
Students in poverty and rural areas often show giftedness in leadership, creativity and problem-solving in their activities with community agencies, such as 4-H clubs or religious institutions.
“You may see that they can solve problems in really creative ways, but their grammar and punctuation aren’t there yet,” Stambaugh says. “A lot of it is the lack of access or exposure.”
Affluent communities tend to have more acceleration programs, due in part to parent demand. Stambaugh says she often hears administrators in high-poverty schools say they do not have any gifted students.
“We want to help them understand that their students may show their giftedness in different ways, and their profiles may look different from others, but they’re still there, and it’s incumbent upon administrators to find them and help develop their talents,” she says.
The federal Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program will provide $10 million in grants this year to help states and districts create academic programs for underserved, high-ability students.
One of the initiatives the grant might fund could look like a program started 15 years ago in Fairfax County Public Schools.
The district of 185,000 students in Virginia created a Young Scholars initiative in 2000 to increase the proportion of historically underrepresented students in K8 gifted programs. No formal identification process exists for these students—rather, teachers are looking for those in kindergarten through grade 3 who have potential that might remain untapped without access to advanced academic services. Today, the program has more than 5,900 students.
Teachers work with the Young Scholars to build basic skills and to provide challenging learning opportunities through ability grouping, summer school and after-school programs. For example, a K1 Young Scholars botany class recently focused on the question “Can plants be used to fuel cars?” Hands-on activities taught the students plant parts and life cycles.
By the time these students reach second grade, they have developed more academic and critical thinking skills, and are often identified for gifted services.
“The goal of Young Scholars is to start early so they will be eligible and successful in advanced classes,” says Carol Horn, K12 coordinator for advanced academic programs at Fairfax County.
Young Scholars are tracked throughout their school years, and receive special attention from middle and high school counselors who encourage them to take high-level courses. This year, 78 percent of the Young Scholars in high school are taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.
Another group often left out of gifted programs are students known as “twice exceptional.” Such students may have a behavior disorder or act out in class, but they are also academically gifted.
“The child leading the gang is also showing leadership skills,” says Jenny Klimis, gifted specialist in Pinellas County Schools, an urban district of 104,100 students on the western coast of Florida. “It’s about flipping the script, and seeing how else they could be perceived.”
Next year, when a student in Pinellas County is analyzed for a behavior disorder program, they will also be screened for the gifted program, Klimis says.
Pinellas County is also moving to a schoolwide enrichment model. Gifted teachers visit classrooms on a weekly basis to lead creative, project-based learning clusters, which students can chose based on their interests. Last fall, topics included coding for first graders and origami for fourth graders.
This method allows the traditional teachers to observe their students in a nonacademic setting and look for gifted qualities. Some 41 schools districtwide now use it.
Small changes are beginning to sprout in these schools, Klimis says. For example, one high-priority school that never had more than two identified gifted students per year had a gifted teacher on campus for the first time in 2013-14. This year, nine students were identified as gifted, seven of whom are African-American.
“It’s brought a bigger awareness of the characteristics of gifted students,” Klimis adds.
Budget-friendly gifted ed
Once gifted students are identified, cash-strapped districts can provide services at a low cost. Inexpensive and effective programs include:
- Ability grouping. Placing students together in classrooms according to achievement levels can be flexible, based on something as simple as a reading or math assessment. It ensures students are reading books or completing problems at their level, and are talking with their peers about higher-level thinking, says Stambaugh of Vanderbilt University.
- Accelerated curriculum. Many research analyses show significant academic and social gains for gifted students who receive an accelerated curriculum, Stambaugh says. Group gifted students from multiple classrooms and provide them with a more rigorous curriculum to reduce the range of abilities teachers have to teach. A trained gifted specialist or the classroom teacher might lead the lessons. It also gives students time to work with peers.
- Partnerships with higher education. Develop a relationship with a local community college or university to allow high school students to take advanced courses or online courses, or to work with professors on research, Stambaugh says.
- 1-to-1 programs. Explore online enrichment options. Beavercreek City Schools, a district of 8,000 students on the suburban outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, received a personalized learning grant last December to purchase iPads for every K8 student. The district provides formal gifted services only for grades 4 and 5. So administrators purchased an online K8 reading and math enrichment curriculum to meet the needs of advanced students in every grade, says Superintendent Susan Hayward.
- Special interest activities. A science fair or music competition will attract many of the most capable students without being a formal gifted education program. These activities will also help students meet and connect with others with similar interests, says Reis of the University of Connecticut.
“Without some kind of programming, we are going to see increasing numbers of gifted and talented students who underachieve in school and life,” Reis says. “Research shows that when we offer more opportunities for gifted education pedagogy, we see higher achievement from every group.”
Alison DeNisco is news editor.