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Professional Opinion

The Rise of the Rest

Increasing attention to the nurturing of gifted students should be a national imperative.

Gifted students may just be among the most underserved students in the nation. They are one of the few special populations with no funding mandates and no legal requirements to serve their special needs. Yet every author and researcher who forecasts the global economy indicates that the best and brightest students in India and China are being provided the best education those nations are able to provide. These forecasters tell us that our most able students must be more creative, more globally competent, more innovative and more motivated— and that our national lifestyle and leadership is dependent on it. Providing a topnotch education to gifted students should be a national imperative.

George Peternel, a recently retired advocate for Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, says "There is an egalitarian view among many educators and most politicians that the academically gifted and talented are endowed with intellectual riches? So the common mantra is to leave them alone, and focus both public and private resources to bring up the students who must struggle to learn. Forgotten is the reality that it has been the innovation and technical advances created by America’s best minds that have kept us a world leader."

Lack of Federal Funding

Even if we believe that raising the bar for these advanced learners is necessary, we find little evidence that many legislators share this belief. Whimpers are heard from the only federal funding available for gifted education, through the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Education Act, which has provided $7.5 million. This money serves the approximately 3 million advanced learners in the United States by supporting the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT), and a series of demonstration grants.

In past years, these monies have been used to identify strategies to increase access to gifted education for minority, lowincome and limited-English-proficient students. It is currently on the federal chopping block.

There are three issues: (1) the end of supportive funding; (2) few or no legislated mandates for gifted education; (3) NCLB focused on bringing up the bottom rather than raising the top. These represent an unacceptable lack of attention and programming for advanced learners.

My colleagues and I are working hard with limited resources. Under the punitive threats of NCLB, districts have been compelled to attend to students with the weakest skills. But what if NCLB had the same punitive requirements for schools that failed to provide rigorous and challenging programs for the most able students? Would we be more motivated to attend to the needs of this population?

On the Horizon

Several efforts are underway to increase federal attention. President Obama has recognized the need for more elementary and middle school students getting access to gifted and talented education in his Blue Print for Reform for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The Equity in Excellence Act of 2010, currently pending in the House and the Senate, has also recently been introduced. This legislation calls for increased funding, increased teacher effectiveness and increased accountability for gifted students. In addition, Indiana University has published a report, "Mind the Other Gap," that points out the urgent need to address and improve gifted education in our country.

Public education needs the federal government, school leaders and U.S. citizens to have a high sensitivity and deep commitment to the needs of gifted students. Not doing so will hasten a new world order in which the United States will have a significantly diminished role.

Sarah Jerome is in her 20th year as superintendent, currently in Arlington Heights (Ill.) School District 25. She is a former president of AASA and is a champion for global citizenship, the arts and gender equity.