Gifted Programs Aim to Regain Budget Toehold

May 15, 2012 8 min read
Hunter Howard studies a question on the board in Donna Young's 3rd grade class at Bridgeport Elementary School in Indianapolis. Federal funds for the enrichment program were cut last year.

Dedicated programs for gifted students have lost their presence in the federal budget, leaving advocates and experts to defend legislation that lacks the support of the Obama administration and has been called ineffective and duplicative by members of Congress.

The 24-year-old Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program has been cut in the past, but its cut a year ago has hit advocates for the gifted especially hard: They say they don’t understand why the program has lost support at the same time the administration is calling for more innovation to keep the United States globally competitive and turn the economy around.

While some longtime supporters of work that advances gifted learners are pushing for the funding to be reinstated, as well as for new legislation and financial support from other research entities, it’s unclear whether their efforts will be successful in the current political and fiscal climate.

Students Left Out

The main goal of the Javits program is to serve students traditionally underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, including poor students, those learning English, and students with disabilities. It most recently received $7.5 million in fiscal year 2010.

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Donna Young, a teacher at Bridgeport Elementary in Indianapolis, worries what upcoming federal budget cuts will mean for a research project she participates in that’s designed to expand students’ access to gifted programs.

The program is not for “the high-scoring suburban white kids,” said Cheryll M. Adams, the director of the Center for Gifted Studies at Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind.

But as a result of last year’s budget cuts, several research projects in their early stages have been left in the lurch—a waste of money, advocates say, and a disservice to students who already go unrecognized as learners who need a classroom experience different from that of their classmates. Other grant-funded projects were in the midst of their five-year research projects, and the results won’t be as compelling because the projects were cut short, advocates say.

Ms. Adams worked on three separate projects financed with Javits money—including one that won’t be seen through to the end because of cuts—and one that restructured the way Indianapolis schools identified gifted students.

While the 32,000-student school district is a diverse, majority-minority district, gifted programs looked “pretty white,” Ms. Adams said. Her project helped standardize the way gifted students are identified across the district’s four dozen elementary schools, and the Hispanic presence in the program grew fourfold during the five-year grant period.

Her most recent grant provides an enriched mathematics curriculum at schools around the state, including several in remote rural areas, along with training for the teachers using the curriculum.

“I’ve had one teacher tell me, ‘This is the only professional development that we get for gifted,’ ” said Rebecca Zimmerman, who is Ms. Adams’ project manager.

Efforts in Congress

With the Javits program still on the books, albeit unfunded, the door is open for Congress to restore its budget. In a March letter to fellow Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley asked for just that.

“Too often, advanced ability goes unrecognized, especially for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. As a result, many of these bright students fail to maximize their academic and intellectual potential, and their performance on state tests, and other benchmarks, has languished,” Mr. Grassley along with four other senators wrote to Mr. Harkin, who chairs the Senate education committee and the chamber’s appropriations subcommittee that deals with education.

A math problem is displayed for Donna Young's students to solve.

“Indeed, there has been an increasing ‘excellence gap’ between the performance of top students from minority and low-income backgrounds compared to their more advantaged peers. At current rates of achievement, it will take decades to close some of these gaps,” the letter continues.

In a similar letter to the House education committee, a bipartisan group of representatives asked the same, with both groups requesting that, at the least, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences be directed to continue the work begun with initial funding from Javits.

The Senate, however, was behind the program’s elimination from the budget, and a House education subcommittee last year passed a proposal—the Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act—that would eliminate Javits and 42 other programs altogether. They were labeled “wasteful” by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the chairman of the subcommittee.

“There is bipartisan agreement that the program has very limited impact. In fact, the president’s ... 2010 budget request actually proposed eliminating the program ‘because the program is not structured to assess program effectiveness and it has not identified successful strategies that could have broad national impact,’ ” said Alexandra Haynes Sollberger, spokeswoman for the House education committee.

Defending Javits

How can a program granted only $7.5 million annually in recent years, one that has led to the development of educational practices used throughout the country, be called wasteful, asked Kim Hymes, the director of policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children, in Arlington, Va.

In a rebuttal to the House subcommittee action, her organization said that curriculum developed by one Javits grantee has affected more than 600,000 students and been distributed to districts in all 50 states and 28 countries.

Donna Young's students display their answers to the math problem.

In addition, the CEC maintains that arguments that gifted education is a local issue ring hollow considering that 13 states don’t provide any money for those students and that, within states, better-resourced school districts are the most likely to offer challenging programs for high-ability students. Javits grantees work to relieve those existing inequities, Ms. Hymes said.

“The fact that many of the grantees use each other’s work to build upon new strategies ... shows the importance of the past research,” she said.

For example, the schoolwide enrichment model developed by Joseph Renzulli, who runs the Javits-funded National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, is referenced often in grant-funded projects. Not to have a research center devoted to developing gifted education practices doesn’t make sense, Mr. Renzulli said.

“If you think about the role that these young people play in our culture, they’re the job creators, industry creators,” he said. “They’re the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of the future.”

Instead of the Javits program, the Education Department pointed to President Barack Obama’s proposal to spend $81.3 million on the College Pathways and Accelerated Learning program. That proposal would be designed to raise graduation rates and preparation for college by providing college-level and other accelerated courses and instruction in high-poverty middle and high schools, including Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, dual-enrollment programs, and “early college” high schools. In elementary and middle school levels, the grants would help provide access to gifted and talented education programs.

Advocates for gifted students have criticized that plan, however, because it has no specific mandate that some of the money be exclusively for gifted students.

Julia Link Roberts, a professor of gifted studies at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green has used Javits grant money to research students in high-poverty districts and students learning English who were given extra opportunities to work on problem-based math and science lessons. “I find it so interesting the kind of things Obama is talking about wanting to encourage are exactly what the Javits funding is all about,” she said.

Third graders Adrianna Dehoney, left, and Truman Smith play a math game at Bridgeport Elementary School. A federal budget cut has curtailed a study of their enrichment program.

Proposed legislation, the TALENT Act, would expand the federal commitment to gifted education, however. The proposal would require schools receiving funding through the federal Title I programs for disadvantaged students to create plans on how they would find and serve gifted children, including high-ability students who aren’t labeled gifted.

In Title I plans, states would have to define how they would help districts support gifted and high-ability students and create district-recognition programs that increase the share of underserved populations of advanced students who score at advanced levels on state tests.

Also, the Rural Education Achievement Program would be expanded to include more money and services for gifted and talented children in rural communities.

The TALENT Act would also establish a competitive research-grant program to figure out the best ways to identify and serve gifted and high-ability students, and the U.S. secretary of education would be required to collect data and report on the education of gifted and talented students.

In an ideal world, TALENT and Javits would coexist, said Nancy Greene, the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, in Washington. But the TALENT Act, introduced in both houses of Congress with bipartisan support, is intended to become part of the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is stalled.

“Ultimately, we need a national commitment to develop our talent that must include the active involvement of education policymakers at all levels to prioritize this student population in a systemic manner,” Ms. Green said. “The administration’s [fiscal year] 2013 proposal acknowledges a need to increase access to gifted education services for low-income students; however, their plan requires a change to ESEA, and they have not put forward any interim solutions to support these students.”

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as Gifted Programs Fight to Regain Their Toehold in the Federal Budget


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