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Special Programs Found To Benefit Gifted Students

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Gifted students achieve more in special programs, regardless of whether they get that extra help in the regular classroom or in special classes and schools.

That is among the findings of a University of Virginia study that compares programs for 1,010 gifted students in 10 states.

The report, described as the most extensive of its kind, was among several studies scheduled to be presented last week during a conference held to showcase five years of research by the National Center on the Gifted and Talented, based at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The federally financed center, created under the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act, is among the U.S. Education Department programs whose funding is being targeted for cuts by the U.S. House of Representatives. (See Education Week, 3/22/95.)

Other studies presented at the conference focus on special populations of gifted students, ranging from African-Americans to those who are learning disabled.

Four Kinds of Programs

For their study of gifted-education programs, four University of Virginia researchers followed 2nd and 3rd graders in four types of such programs: special schools; separate classrooms within regular schools where children are taught core subjects; programs that pull gifted students out of the classroom for two hours of special instruction each week; and programs in which students stay in their regular classrooms but teachers tailor the curriculum to meet their needs.

The researchers also compared students in those kinds of programs with gifted students who received no special help and with students who are not considered gifted.

All of the students were followed for two years, generally from the time they entered a special program. The students took standardized tests twice a year to measure academic achievement and answered researchers' questions about self-esteem, their attitudes toward learning, and their comfort levels with peers.

Marcia A.B. Delcourt, now an assistant professor of educational psychology at McGill University in Montreal and the lead investigator in the study, said in an interview that the researchers found that, for the most part, "there isn't any one program type that is best over all."

But different types of programs result in different outcomes for students.

Weighing the Differences

In academic achievement, for example, students made progress in all the special programs--much more so than gifted students who received no special help. But students in special schools and classrooms tended to score highest on the tests. Students who had tailored instruction within their regular classrooms had the lowest scores.

On the other hand, the latter group of students and others in mixed-ability classrooms tended to be more confident of their talents than their peers in separate schools and classes. They also were more likely than students in separate programs to say that they preferred more challenges in their schoolwork and that they liked to work independently.

"Before deciding on any particular option," Ms. Delcourt and her colleagues write in their report, "policymakers should bear in mind that there are significant differences in achievement and affect for students in different types of programs for the gifted."

The researchers also found, however, that students in all types of special programs reported that they were happy with the number and type of friends they had.

"They weren't ostracized according to their perceptions," Ms. Delcourt said. "Sometimes it's our perceptions that we put on them."

The researchers also found that no particular program was more suited than others to African-American gifted students--a group that is often underrepresented in such programs.

As for the nongifted students in the same schools, the researchers found that they did not suffer academically from exclusion from the special programs, at least according to their test scores.

That finding runs counter to some other studies conducted in recent years. A number of researchers have suggested, for example, that tracking students--grouping them by ability level--can be harmful to low-achieving students. Such findings have prompted some schools to dismantle their gifted-education programs.

Labeled 'Lazy'

For a study of students who are both gifted and learning disabled, three researchers at the University of Connecticut took a closer look at 12 such college students. They looked at school records, interviewed the students, and talked with their parents.

"In many instances, we found the entire educational system has really done a number on these students," said Sally Reis, an associate professor of education at the university and one of the authors.

Half the students were held back a grade in school, and most were not identified as learning disabled until they reached secondary school. Because they excelled in other areas, such as athletics or music, the students were regarded as lazy and inattentive by their teachers or other school staff members. Half of the students said they had contemplated suicide at some point.

"They appear to be so bright, yet they can't show it in traditional ways," Ms. Reis said.

Once placed in special programs, she added, they found the instruction of little benefit--partly because the programs offered remediation rather than strategies to help them compensate for their disabilities.

Gifted Black Students

In other research to be presented at the conference, Donna Y. Ford of the University of Virginia offers some guidelines for recruiting and retaining black students in gifted-education programs.

She contends that most such programs pay too little attention to the nonintellectual barriers African-American students face. Often, she writes, such students are caught between two worlds.

Given the handful of black students enrolled in programs for the gifted, these students often feel isolated from other gifted students. At the same time, they are pressured to deliberately underachieve by other African-American students at their schools, the study maintains.

Both Ms. Reis and Ms. Ford call in their studies for measures of assessing gifted students that are broader than traditional standardized tests.

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