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Gifted Elementary Students Languishing In Regular Classrooms, Studies Suggest

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Gifted elementary-school students are languishing unchallenged by regular-classroom practices and would be better served if they were freed from covering up to 70 percent of the standard curriculum or were grouped by ability, a federally funded research project concludes.

Such pupils, according to findings released last week, typically are not receiving instruction or curriculum that differs from that presented to academically average students, and they are usually asked to revisit material they have already learned.

"We need to improve the extent to which gifted students receive advanced content and instruction in higher-level thinking skills," said Francis X. Archambault Jr., one of the researchers and the head of the educational-psychology department at the University of Connecticut.

"if we believe that we want to be number one in the world in math and science," he said, "we're going to have to do things in order to make that happen," including providing advanced-level content "for students able to handle it."

Few Changes by Teachers

The findings emerged from three studies conducted during the 199091 academic year by University of Connecticut researchers who are part of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

The center, a consortium of four institutions, is based at the university and is financed by the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement.

One of the three studies, based on a sample of about 3,600 3rd- and 4th-grade teachers who responded to a national survey, found that the teachers made only minor changes in the regular curriculum in order to serve high-ability students.

That finding was consistent across all the schools represented, whether they were public, private, suburban, rural, or urban, and regardless of the size of minority group enrollment.

Teachers who do provide for the gifted in their classrooms, the survey revealed, are likely to assign such passive activities as advanced readings, independent projects, enrichment worksheets, and reports.

The study found that gifted students get no more chance than average students to work outside the regular classroom, to work with students of common interests, to have school time for independent-study projects, or to experience a host of other learning options.

A second study was based on observations of 46 classrooms chosen from the national-survey sample. It found that 84 percent of the instructional activities gifted students took part in were no different in curriculum or instruction than those of other pupils.

'A Disturbing Picture'

The results of the classroom practices survey "paint a disturbing picture of the types of instructional services gifted students receive in regular classrooms across the United States," the authors write.

With the elimination of resource room programs for the gifted due to budget cuts, they say, "the future appears even more bleak than the present."

Despite the expense of such resource rooms, they are "still the most cost-effective way to bring gifted students in contact with teachers who are specially trained to meet their needs," the report says.

But another researcher disputed the Connecticut team on the desirability of such programs.

"I would not agree with them that it's such a terrible thing that the separate gifted programs are going by the wayside," said Robert E. Slavin, the co-director of the elementary-schools program at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

"It's best to [accommodate gifted children] within the context of the regular heterogeneous classroom," Mr. Slavin argued.

'Compacting' the Curriculum

The third study examined "curriculure compacting," in which teachers modify or eliminate material that has already been mastered or can be mastered quickly by high-ability pupils.

The researchers trained and then studied 300 teachers from 20 school districts, from poor schools in the South to a magnet program for Hispanic students in California. They found that between 24 percent and 70 percent of what was being taught in a given subject could be eliminated and replaced with other enriching material, said Sally M. Reis, an author of the study and an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut.

Achievement-test scores of participating students were not impaired by the experiment, and the students' scores were higher in science and mathematics concepts that had been "compacted," Ms. Reis said.

Another option for accommodating the gifted--grouping students by ability--is something school districts do not encourage, the researchers write, because of "an increasing movement toward equity, anti-elitism, 'teach the same thing, to all students, at the same time,' and minimum-competency testing."

Ms. Reis said such concerns should not outweigh providing an education appropriate for the abilities of each student. "Effective instruction is the right of all kids "she said. "How we do it is the question."

Ideas such as ability grouping and "tracking' continue to raise hackles. "We need much more compelling and tracking is a national disaster," said Joan First, the executive co-director of the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students.

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