Budget Cutters, School Reformers Taking Aim at Gifted Education

By Debra Viadero — March 18, 1992 12 min read
  • New Hampshire lost its only state coordinator for gifted programs last year in a budget-cutting move.

Marcus lost some of his enthusiasm for school, however, after the local school board voted to eliminate his gifted-and-talented program. Back in his regular classes, his mother noticed, Marcus began to grow restless.

Last fall, six weeks into the 8th grade, he transferred to a private school.

“You’re watching your child just sort of becoming bored and unmotivated,’' Marcus’s mother, Janney Simpson, said. “It’s hard to decide to make a transfer six weeks into the year.’'

Experts in the field of gifted education say Marcus’s situation may become increasingly commonplace this year in schools across the nation. Budget pressures wrought by the lingering recession are forcing a number of states and local districts to drop their special programs for gifted-and-talented students.

Not mandated in nearly half the states, and typically used by a relative handful of students, the programs are an obvious target for cost savings.

But another factor for the retrenchment in such programs, some experts say, is education reform.

Some education reforms have called for schools to move away from the traditional academic practice of grouping students according to their ability in favor of more heterogeneous classroom settings. And that trend, advocates for gifted education say, along with such other reform-minded innovations as site-based management and cooperative learning, has put some traditional gifted-education programs in jeopardy.

“We believe that the field of education for the gifted and talented is currently facing a quiet crisis,’' two researchers in the field, Joseph S. Renzulli and Sally M. Reis, wrote in a recent paper, “and that this crisis is directly related to the educational-reform movement in America.’'

‘Rich Get Richer’

To a large degree, school programs for gifted students have always been engaged in a struggle for survival. Despite a boom in support for gifted education in the 1980’s, the programs have long been criticized as elitist or unnecessary.

“Every time the legislature deals with this issue, the first question is: Why should the rich get richer?’' said Lee Sheldon, a consultant in gifted-and-talented education to the California Department of Education.

It is unclear now how widespread or long-lasting this newest round of program cuts may be.

The most recent national study available, a 1990 state survey by the Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted, found that financial support for such programs had increased slightly since 1987. But that survey was conducted before many states had felt the full force of the recession.

What is worrisome to experts now are some more recent developments in several states. For example:

  • The number of towns with programs for gifted students in Connecticut, Marcus Simpson’s home state, has declined by 20 percent over two years as state reimbursements for the programs have dried up, said Alan White, a consultant to the Connecticut Department of Education.

This year, faced with a continuing budget crisis, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. has proposed eliminating the program altogether.

  • State funds for gifted programs in Massachusetts have been reduced from a high of $1 million two years ago to zero last year. Michigan, Vermont, and New York have also reported cuts in their gifted programs.
  • In Washington State, the gifted program faces potential cuts of 5 percent to 10 percent this year, according to Paula Fascilla, who supervises the program there. The state’s basic education, special-education, and vocational-education programs, in contrast, have been shielded from some of the same proposed reductions.
  • New Hampshire lost its only state coordinator for gifted programs last year in a budget-cutting move.

Gifted-education advocates in the state say that loss, along with the elimination of a state-grant program for gifted education, has also prompted a college in the state to drop its teacher-training program for instructors of gifted students.

Cuts ‘Disastrous’

“It’s been disastrous,’' said Ms. Reis, a principal investigator for the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. “Every time the phone rang last May or June it was inevitably for one of two reasons.’'

“Someone either lost a program or a position and was looking for a new job, or a program was being threatened and someone wanted data to support it,’' she said. The center, the first of its kind, was established in 1990 with a $7.5-million federal grant.

Ms. Reis said the calls prompted the center to change the direction of its research to focus on how gifted children are faring in their regular classrooms.

Those studies, three of which were recently released, “paint a pretty sad picture,’' Ms. Reis said.

They found that gifted pupils in regular elementary-school classrooms typically receive the same curriculum as academically average students and that they are usually asked to revisit material they have already learned. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

The researchers concluded that gifted students would be better served if they were freed from covering up to 70 percent of the standard curriculum or were grouped by ability.

“They spend years and years learning what they already know and, sometimes by 3rd or 4th grade, their affective feelings about school have already changed,’' Ms. Reis said.

Pamela Thompson, the mother of another gifted student in Marcus Simpson’s town, concurred. Her daughter had spent her time in gifted classes honing her writing skills. After the program was cut, however, her daughter, who was then in 6th grade, spent some of her spare time in study hall learning to knit.

“If she’s bored now, I really fear what’s going to happen in the future,’' Ms. Thompson said.

Eighty-five percent of the parents of gifted pupils in that community said the loss of the program had had a negative effect on their children, according to another University of Connecticut study. The researchers declined to reveal the name of the community.

Nearly half of the parents had, like Ms. Simpson, considered putting their children in private schools.

Researchers and advocates say that gifted programs are particularly vulnerable to budget cuts because 24 states do not mandate them. In Connecticut, for example, schools are required to identify gifted students but not to serve them.

Budget-cutters also argue that the programs benefit only a small number of students--usually 3 percent to 5 percent of schoolchildren in most states.

Trend Against Tracking

Faced with a decision of whether to increase class sizes for all students or reduce gifted programs for a few, many local school boards may be right in choosing the latter, some gifted-program supporters concede.

But, in some states and communities, Ms. Reis and other researchers contend, the motivation to do away with gifted programs also has something to do with changing educational philosophies.

In the early 1980’s, when the education-reform movement was stressing economic competitiveness, gifted programs experienced a small boom. Both state and federal support for programs meant to nurture the “best and brightest’’ increased for virtually the first time since the Sputnik era.

Now, however, a number of education reforms have called for an end to traditional classroom practices of grouping students by ability.

Both the National Governors’ Association and the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development have, for example, issued reports in recent years that have been critical of such practices.

The problem with ability groups, some reformers say, is that students get locked into a particular academic track at an early age.

While higher-ability students may continue to thrive in homogeneous classroom settings, pupils consigned to lower-level tracks are less fortunate. Studies show that such students get fewer classroom resources, inferior teachers, a less challenging curriculum, and fewer opportunities than do the better students. Moreover, in many communities, these pupils are disproportionately poor or members of minority groups.

“There is a strong recognition that, when we separate off the top 5 percent or 10 percent of kids in an attempt to give them special programs, we lose sight of what happens to the education of the other 90 percent of kids,’' said Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“Most of us see any kind of whole-class grouping and most pull-out programs as simply another form of tracking,’' she added.

Cooperative Learning

Advocates of gifted education say, however, that schools should draw a distinction between tracking, in which students are homogeneously grouped in every subject and for every grade level, and ability grouping, in which students may be with students of similar ability in some subjects but not in others.

“We are anti-tracking,’' said Peter D. Rosenstein, the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children. “However, though children are born deserving equal opportunity, they’re not born with equal potential.’'

Some parents of gifted students also complain that their children tend to fare poorly in the kinds of cooperative-learning groups that characterize instruction in many of these new mixed-ability classrooms. These groupings usually involve children of varying academic abilities who work together on a project or a complex problem. Teachers evaluate pupils both individually and as a team for their work in these groups.

But parents of gifted pupils say, however, that, in practice, their children often end up doing all the work in the groups or teaching their less able peers.

“Kids are suffering the social consequences--they get called ‘geek,’ ‘nerd,’ or ‘dorf'--to a level they’ve not experienced before because they’re being held accountable for the learning of a group of kids,’' said Ms. Reis of the National Center for Research on the Gifted and Talented.

However, Robert Slavin, who has led much of the research on cooperative learning, disputes such contentions.

Preliminary statistics from his own ongoing studies indicate that gifted and higher-ability pupils in properly run cooperative-learning groups gain as much from the group interactions as do lower-achievers, he said.

He noted, however, that in the classrooms he studied, the more academically advanced students were permitted to do some accelerated work in reading and mathematics.

“I don’t see any reason at all to provide separate gifted programs at any level,’' said Mr. Slavin, who is the co-director of the elementary-school program at the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

“The main thing to do is accommodate the rate of learning for these kids,’' he said. “If that means grouping within a class, where they go at different rates, O.K.’'

“If it’s letting a 6th grader take math with the 7th graders,’' he added, “I think that’s reasonable.’'

“But if you’re given a stark choice, if someone’s going to provide $1,000 for an additional enrichment program for gifted kids, I would say $1,000 worth of one-to-one tutoring for a kid struggling to learn to read can make a big difference,’' he said.

‘Opening Up’ Programs

Partly as a result of such criticisms of gifted education and partly because of new theories of “multiple intelligences,’' advocates in recent years have taken steps to “open up’’ their programs.

In an effort to bring more minority, non-English-speaking, and special-education students into gifted programs, for example, researchers have begun looking for ways other than traditional I.Q. tests to determine if a student is gifted.

“We believe that our field should shift its emphasis from a traditional concept of ‘being gifted’ [or not being gifted] to a concern about the development of gifted behaviors in those youngsters who have the highest potential for benefiting from special-educational services,’' Mr. Renzulli and Ms. Reis wrote in their paper last year in Gifted Child Quarterly.

Some newer models of gifted education also strive to provide schoolwide “enrichment,’' with gifted-education teachers acting as resources for regular classroom teachers. Such models include projects or activities in which a wide range of students can participate.

“To a good degree, gifted education is good education,’' said James Delisle, the president of the Association for the Gifted of the Council for Exceptional Children. “If we’re guilty of anything, it’s probably being too isolated in a resource room on the corner.’'

Many educators of the gifted maintain, however, that their pupils still need a certain degree of separation from regular classrooms.

“One mind sharpens off another,’' Mr. White of Connecticut said.

Moreover, he and other advocates said, gifted children often feel pressured to “hide their light under a bushel’’ in the regular classroom because of the social stigma associated with giftedness.

Site-Based Management

Coordinators of gifted programs in several states also said they see a threat to their programs in the movement toward site-based management, in which more of the control for how schools are run is placed in the hands of teachers and principals.

In California, for example, Mr. Sheldon said, schools using such management arrangements can often obtain waivers from state education-department rules, including those governing gifted programs.

“Usually, when a district goes to site-based management, one of the first casualties is the district-level person who coordinated the GATE [gifted and talented education] program,’' he said.

For the time being, though, advocates and gifted educators say it is too soon to tell how much of the retrenchment in gifted-education programs is the result of changing educational philosophies and how much is the result of the weakened economy.

In many locations, they add, education reforms are coexisting peacefully with gifted-education programs.

They note that concepts currently at the heart of education reform--such as hands-on learning and the use of authentic data bases and information in classroom instruction--have been a part of gifted-education programs for years.

To abandon the field now, in order to embrace some other reforms, they say, would be like “throwing the baby out with the bath water.’'

“These kids are going to be our future leaders, discoverers, and great performers,’' Mr. White said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Budget Cutters, School Reformers Taking Aim at Gifted Education