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Supervisors Opinion

Is Your Gifted and Talented Program Giving You Headaches?

These programs can be explained and defended if they are grounded in research.

IN FEBRUARY 2005, THE NEW YORK City Department of Education announced a new citywide approach to gifted and talented education in elementary schools. City schools now screen students for the program by using a weighted combination of the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and an assessment of classroom performance called the Gifted Rating Scales. Additionally, twelve semester units in gifted and talented coursework are required of teachers. In Region 10 New York schools, the organization and delivery of instruction is based on the Schoolwide Enrichment Model that emphasizes broadening learning experiences for gifted students, developing thinking skills, and engaging students in interest-based research.

This ambitious project is grounded in the seminal work of Joe Renzulli from the Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Connecticut. Renzulli has developed contrary ideas about gifted and talented education that now form the basis for many school programs. Renzulli's three-ring theory of giftedness broadens the defi nition beyond IQ scores. Gifted behavior occurs when there is an interaction among three clusters of human traits: above average ability, high levels of task commitment, and high levels of creativity.

Once students are identified as gifted, the critical work of program development and instruction begins. Renzulli advocates a "revolving door" concept that emphasizes flexible grouping of students with highly trained teachers. This has developed over time into the Schoolwide Enrichment Model adopted by the New York City Schools. This model entails a combination of enrichment activities such as field trips and assemblies, the development of thinking and problem-solving skills, and interest-based projects and tasks delivered by trained teachers and specialists.

As a school or district administrator, you may be asked to defend programs and practices for gifted and talented students when questioned by parents, teachers, or community members. Common questions include the following:

What does it mean to be gifted in this school or district?

Many parents say, "I know what giftedness is, but I can't put it into words. My child is gifted." It is important for administrators and teachers to be familiar with concepts of giftedness developed by researchers like Joe Renzulli. A broad conceptualization dispels the sense of elitism associated with gifted programs and provides services for more students. Ideally, your school or district should provide a definition of giftedness and outline criteria for the program in a Web site or publication.

Why did my child fail to qualify for your gifted program?

If you are lucky, your district uses a combination of standardized test scores, IQ/ability test scores, teacher input, and a portfolio of student work to identify gifted and talented students. Criteria should be transparent and easy to explain. Renzulli found that students with above average IQ scores and high commitment levels can do just as well in school and life as those who have higher IQ scores but lack motivation..

Why is my gifted child doing poorly in school?

This is one of the toughest challenges for educators of gifted students. As Renzulli notes, it takes motivation and commitment for talented students to produce high quality work. Th at is why it is so critical to identify interesting and real-world projects to motivate reluctant or bored students.

Why does my gifted child's program seem like the same oldwork?

Renzulli argues that differentiation of instruction is good in theory but that it often devolves into more of the same old didactic instruction. To avoid this, modification of instruction at the curriculum and program level, not just in individual lessons, is essential. The Schoolwide Enrichment Model encourages curriculum "compaction" to identify power standards or essential learning in order to make time for interest-based projects. Therefore, teachers emphasize certain content standards and deemphasize others so that students spend more time on the most important concepts.

An effective program for gifted and talented students demands clear thinking and the right teachers and resources, but the pay-off can be seen in deep and meaningful learning for students.

Eamonn O'Donovan is director of middle school support at Capistrano Unified School District in California.