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Economic Concerns Aiding Programs for Gifted

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With "competitiveness'' the apparent catch phrase for the 1988 elections, attention in Washington and elsewhere has been drawn to a group of students that some educators say have gotten "short shrift'' from the reform movement: the gifted.

Three separate proposals before the Congress would provide funding and create programs to stimulate America's "best and brightest'' as a means of supplying the talent needed for economic innovation.

And at the state level, statistics show a recent upsurge in total spending for gifted education, with further increases anticipated next year in a number of states.

"Part of our reform movement is [answering the question]: 'Can our leaders be competitive with the Japanese and the Germans?'' explains James J. Gallagher, professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "You're not talking about the bottom when you talk like that.''

But while gifted-education specialists applaud the new-found interest in the field, they are cautious about assessing its impact. They note, for example, that effective programs have been unevenly distributed among the states. And the spending increases, they say, have often been added to a very slim base.

More important, they note, the leadership needed for a concerted national push in the field has been lacking since 1981, when the U.S. Education Department dismantled its office of gifted and talented programs.

And, to some, convincing reformers to embrace the gifted while dropout rates rise and test scores fall may be a difficult task. Programs for the gifted, they point out, have often been viewed--rightly or wrongly--as "elitist'' strains in a pluralistic system.

But Dorothy Sisk, who headed the now-defunct federal office for gifted programs, is among those who complain that "the reform movement has given short shrift to the needs of the gifted.''

"In an attempt to make education more egalitarian for everyone,'' says the Florida State University professor of educational psychology, "we've ignored the gifted.''

That situation could change if any or all of the three bills under consideration in the Congress gain passage.

In the House of Representatives, Mario Biaggi, Democrat of New York, has proposed a bill that would authorize $25 million for gifted education. The money would be used to establish model programs, provide better training for teachers of the gifted, and create a national research center on gifted education.

Mr. Biaggi's bill would also address the "elitist'' issue, giving first priority in funding to programs that serve gifted children often not uncovered with the use of traditional assessment methods--minority, handicapped, and socio-economically disadvantaged students.

The proposal, which has been incorporated into an omnibus education bill, is awaiting House approval.

A similar Senate bill has been proposed by Senator Bill Bradley, Democrat of New Jersey.

In addition, a provision in the Senate's omnibus trade bill earmarks money for gifted education.

Lisa Rogers, a legislative assistant for Mr. Biaggi, says that most gifted children are not receiving the attention they need. Of the estimated 5 million talented and gifted youths nationwide, she notes, only about half have been identified or are receiving any special services. Even those enrolled in special programs, she adds, are often not sufficiently challenged.

"As we are trying to expand our economy, strengthen our scientific and technological edge, and compete more effectively in the international marketplace, we have to fully develop and utilize the skills and abilities of our nation's most promising students,'' she asserts. "These people aren't meeting their full potential.''

Lack of Mandate

The lack of a federal mandate for gifted education has meant, according to Ms. Rogers, that many students' needs have been ignored. "When we had a national center in the late '70's, there was not only federal leadership, but funds, and the state and locals really responded in kind.''

Now, funds for the gifted are combined with 29 other programs in the Chapter 2 grant program, leaving gifted education's share of the federal money to the discretion of the state and local governments.

According to recent estimates, Ms. Rogers says, only between 13 percent and 20 percent of all districts target any of their Chapter 2 money for gifted education.

"We felt it was time to recreate the program and create a national priority in the area,'' she said, referring to Mr. Biaggi's bill.

With the diminished federal role, state governments have been forced to take the lead in providing money and a direction for gifted education. And they have responded with a mixed record of performance.

In 1985, the latest year for which complete information is available, the states spent a total of $200 million on programs for the gifted, up from $150 million in 1983. But although funding for the 1986-87 school year is expected to show another gain, experts insist that funding levels for these programs remain inadequate.

"The trend has been steadily up,'' Mr. Gallagher of the University of North Carolina says, "but it's been uneven because of the uneven economic problems of the states.''

And despite the higher overall levels of funding, others note, many gifted children are still being ignored. A majority of states--28--do not require districts to offer special resources or instruction to the gifted. And 29 states do not require any special training for teachers of the gifted.

In a study that included 1,600 school systems nationwide, the Texas-based Sid W. Richardson Foundation found in 1985 that fewer than half of the gifted-education programs offered could be called "substantial'' in terms of the time devoted to them and the adequacy of their curricula, materials, and goals. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1985.)

"As a nation, we're losing out,'' concludes Frances Karnes, professor of education at Southern Mississippi University. "A long time ago, the United States was number one in everything ... [now] we're no longer first in anything. I don't know if we're even number one in Little League baseball anymore.''

"If we ever really challenged our gifted children,'' she adds, "imagine what our nation could be.''

Signs of New Commitment

Probably the most visible sign of a new commitment to the field in some states has been the creation of magnet schools for gifted students.

One of the first such schools was the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, established in 1980. Since then, several other states--including Louisiana, Alabama, Illinois, and Florida--have created residential programs. Other states, including Mississippi, South Carolina, and New York, have begun to plan for such schools.

But even with the addition of these often costly state schools, only half of the nation's gifted children are receiving any special services, according to James T. Webb, president of the American Association of Gifted Children.

And for the most part, the Wright State University professor of psychology adds, the services that are provided consist mainly of two to three hours of enrichment a week.

"The rest of the time,'' he says "these kids are mainstreamed with teachers who may or may not have had any exposure to gifted education.''

He notes that some have estimated that the gifted now make up almost one-fifth of all those who drop out of school. Other gifted children, he says, are often bored, are underachievers, and suffer from 'perfectionism.'

"These trends don't support the myth prevalent in our country that gifted children don't need any special help,'' he maintains.

In fact, in a research paper presented last February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Margaret LeCompte, an anthropologist and former school administrator, said that research on drop outs in the Houston school system had shown that one out of four were intellectually superior, as determined by standardized tests.

But the school-reform movement, in addition to offering no special consideration to the gifted, may actually be exacerbating this trend, according to Mr. Webb. He cites the tendency in some states to try to make the curriculum more unified. While this may be good for the average-ability student, he says, intellectually gifted children may feel as if they've been put "in a lock-step curriculum that puts a ceiling on what they can do.''

"It's like learning to dance by the numbers on the floor,'' he says. "But you're dealing with people who are inherently Fred Astaires.''

Problem of Definition

Other gifted-education experts say that, before programs can be improved, a more fundamental issue must be addressed: the identification of the gifted child.

The common definition of gifted, they argue, is too limiting, with most schools simply identifying the intellectually advanced. Students may also be gifted, they say, in creative activities, interpersonal skills, and physical ability, for example.

"The way we do it now,'' notes Mr. Webb, "we identify gifted children who make our school systems look good. Most schools have a one-size-fits-all program for gifted children.''

That contributes, he and others conclude, to the perception of gifted programs as basically the domain of the middle- and upper-class student. They say that finding ways to identify students not normally included in gifted programs--minorities, the handicapped, and those socially and economically deprived--remains a major challenge for the field.

A recent report by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students would tend to confirm that perception. It found that black and Hispanic children, who represent one-quarter of the total school population nationwide, account for only 13 percent of the students enrolled in classes for the gifted and talented. (See Education Week, April 1, 1987.)

While specialists continue to explore bias-free assessment methods, some states have made identifying the nontraditional student a priority in their gifted-education program.

In Illinois, for example, the state board of education voted last month to make achieving such diversity an integral part of their gifted-education program. And in Mississippi, education officials say they believe a provision of their reform act, which provides more teachers' aides for classrooms in the early grades, will lead to better identification of the gifted among minority and poor children.

Aiding the Reform Movement

These and other efforts, say gifted-education experts, will aid the reform movement by strengthening its focus on excellence.

Nancy Lukenbill, head of the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted, notes that extra support for gifted education often has a "trickle down'' effect on other parts of the curriculum. Areas that were once taught solely in classes for the gifted--such as computer education and critical-thinking skills--have now been incorporated into most regular classrooms, she points out.

"In many ways, gifted education sets the stage for other components of education,'' says Ms. Lukenbill, who is the gifted-and-talented-education specialist for the State of Montana.

The current wave of support, she says, may be threatened by the fiscal problems facing many states. "There are clearly some commitments out there,'' she says. "How long they'll last, no one knows.''

To John Feldhusen, professor of education at Purdue University and director of its gifted-education resource center, the reform movement has added little of note to the field.

"Very little has been explicitly directed at the gifted,'' he says. "If there are any benefits, it's serendipity, a spillover.''

Others maintain, however, that, merely by focusing the public's attention on education, the movement has advanced gifted education.

In South Carolina, for example, the state's ambitious plan to improve education has produced a dramatic increase in state funding for gifted programs--from $1.5 million during the 1983-84 budget year to $13.7 million during the current school year.

In Virginia, the story is similar. State money earmarked for educating the gifted has jumped from $4 million in 1985-86 to $11.4 million during the current school year.

"The thrust of excellence has helped,'' says Deborah Bellflower, Virginia's gifted-program supervisor. "It's focused attention on these kids.''

But because education for the gifted has long been viewed as a special interest, some experts note, the degree of commitment a state has may depend on the strength of the state's gifted-education lobby groups. Often, they add, the rising support may have more to do with such groups' political clout than with reform.

Gail Lewis, chairman of the creative and performing-arts department of the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, notes that public and political support for gifted education has been present since the late 1950's, when another competitive cause--the Soviet Union's launching of sputnik--provided the impetus.

"Gifted education has been gaining steam for a number of years,'' she says. "I would say that the reform movement has aided gifted education, but is not the cause of it. It helped fuel something that was already there for different reasons.''

Not 'Walking Heads'

But others express concern that the rhetoric about economic competitiveness, while generally aiding the cause of gifted children, may also be putting too much of a burden on them.

"It should not become a political football,'' Mr. Webb maintains. Gifted children should not, he says, be viewed as "walking heads waiting to have information crammed into them in a force-feeding manner.''

Gail Smith, the chief consultant for gifted programming in North Carolina, says she worries about the "missionary'' aspect of some of the speeches supporting greater funding for gifted education.

"I'd hate to think that the world is going to fall apart if [gifted children] don't succeed,'' she says. "I work with high-school seniors, and I don't want to put that sort of burden on them.''

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