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Programs for Gifted Students Fragmented, Inadequate, Study Says

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Schools' two leading methods of providing stimulation for gifted and talented students--in-class enrichment activities and special "pull-out"" classes--represent a fragmented and inadequate response to such students' needs, charges a new study of programs for the gifted.

In what the researchers call one of the first national surveys of its kind, the Texas-based Sid W. Richardson Foundation found that few districts offer carefully planned and administered programs for gifted students throughout the grades. And its evaluation of the efforts reported by nearly 1,600 school systems concluded that fewer than half the programs could be called "substantial" in terms of the time devoted to them and the adequacy of their curricula, materials, and goals.

The consequence is, according to the year study, "a lack of widespread opportunity for even the brightest, most mature students to progress at a pace that matches their ability" in most of the nation's schools.

The 'Pyramid' System

The study proposes replacing the current patchwork of efforts by an in-class "pyramid" of options at each grade level that would include a3much higher proportion of "able learners" than are now termed gifted. The pull-out program in particular should be abandoned, the study argues, as a "model whose time has come--and gone."

The "pyramid" would include a base of enrichment activities in the regular classroom for a large number of bright youngsters and fewer and more specialized programs--including outside classes and special schools--at the top of the pyramid for the most talented and gifted students.

Key to making such a system work, the study emphasizes, would be teachers trained to help students advance at their own pace.

Testing the Plan

Over the next five years, the Richardson Foundation plans to spend $3.5 million to set up the pyramid system in four Texas school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area whose student populations range from 2,300 to 65,000. The foundation has awarded $500,000 in grants for the project to date.

The estimated cost of the pyramid system, assuming that the top quarter of students are "able," is $25 per student per year, according to June Cox, director of the study.

Ms. Cox said the resulting range of programs would vary from district to district depending on what is already in place, the school system's ability to shift resources and take advantage of other community institutions, and students' needs.

Guidelines Proposed

Based on its survey and on interviews and site-visits to exemplary programs for gifted and talented children, the foundation recommends that programs for the gifted and talented:

Focus on the inclusion rather than the exclusion of children;

Avoid labeling children as "gifted" or "talented";

Move students ahead on the basis of mastery; and

Focus on enrichment as well as acceleration.

Broadening the Base

One of the study's principal recommendations is that schools provide enriched programs to a larger group of "able learners" than the 3 to 5 percent of the student population normally thought of as gifted. However, the study avoids defining "able learners" and setting a percent of students to be served.

It contends that there is "no natural break" in the continuum that separates gifted students from less-gifted students. It advocates that schools allow students into programs based on diverse criteria and open up the admissions process through the use of peer nominations, personal interviews, and other less traditional screening methods.

The use of "arbitrary and rigidff' scores" that identify a nar-row range of "giftedness" should be eliminated, the study states.

According to the study, "throwing a wide net in early childhood and later allowing the program to be its own screen will improve our chances of discovering and nurturing many kinds of ability among populations excluded from opportunity, whether by ethnic and economic circumstances, by sex-role stereotyping, or by other limiting conditions."

Two Models Predominate

The foundation's survey of 1,572 school districts with at least one program for the gifted found that two models now predominate.

The most common option is the part-time special pull-out class, which 72 percent of the responding school districts reported they use.

Calling pull-out classes "a part-time solution to a full-time problem," the study found such classes generally "operate in isolation," according to Brenda Sheperd Mitchell, the data analyst for the survey. Ms. Mitchell noted that districts offering pull-out classes often offer little else. Moreover, these classes serve a limited number of students and are not present at all grade levels.

The second most common option, reported by 63 percent of the responding districts, is enrichment provided in the regular classroom. Nearly one-quarter of the responding districts reported that a combination of these two programs constitutes the sum total of their offerings for gifted and talented students.

The least common program op the survey found, are special schools for gifted and talented students, nongraded schools that allow students to progress at their own pace, and radical acceleration that enables students to complete grades K through 12 in fewer than 11 years.

According to Ms. Mitchell, only three school districts offered 15 out of the 16 programming options that the foundation had identified for gifted and talented students.

'Insubstantial' Programs

Moreover, many school systems may be claiming credit for programs that are not very strong, according to the foundation. The survey attempted to evaluate programs as "substantial" or "insubstantial" based on "minimal" criteria--such as the number of hours they were available per week, the number of students who participated, and the special curricula or materials that were offered. It found that only 47 percent of the pull-out programs and 16 percent of the enrichment programs qualified as "substantial."

More than half of the districts reporting that they used enrichment programs, for example, said that students were involved in these programs for fewer than three hours a week. In 26 percent of the cases, enrichment activities involved the entire class.

"The Richardson Study: A National Investigation of Educational Opportunities for Able Learners" will be published by the University of Texas Press in mid-1985.

For more information, write the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, 309 Main St., Fort Worth, Tex. 76102.

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