It can be easy for a teacher to overlook a student with strong academic potential who doesn’t fit stereotypes about giftedness—because he is poor, or has a disability, or simply isn’t polite and eager in class.
That’s one reason Tennessee has partnered with the National Association for Gifted Children to pilot a new teacher professional-development credential aimed at training teachers to recognize giftedness in students from traditionally underrepresented groups. The course—part of a larger test by the state of quick-turnaround microcredentials in place of professional-development workshops or college courses for teachers—is the first formal certification in the country focused on educating academically advanced but underserved students.
“We know gifted children who are living in poverty, who are from racial and ethnic minorities, and students learning English are [two and a half times] less likely to be identified and served by gifted programs, even when they perform at the same level as their peers who are already in gifted education,” said M. Rene Islas, the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, which helped develop the training.
“We are trying to help educators open their eyes to the talents and abilities of these students of color and from underserved backgrounds,” he said.
Students who are high-achieving academically when they start school often have different paths depending on their family income: Prior studies have found that low-income students who initially show high marks in reading have little more than a 50-50 chance of continuing to be high-achieving throughout elementary school, compared with nearly 70 percent of students from families who make more than the average income.
Yet states are under pressure to find ways to improve those odds. The Every Student Succeeds Act puts new emphasis on advanced learners, as districts now must report the percentage of students from different socioeconomic groups who meet not just proficient, but also advanced levels on state assessments.
Of all states, only Nevada requires teachers to take preservice training in gifted education, though it does not focus on recognizing academic potential in poor or diverse students. But NAGC is in talks with seven other states to offer the microcredentials if all goes well in Tennessee.
The Volunteer State has been looking for a way to build the expertise of both its gifted specialists and general education teachers as its schools fill with rising numbers of both poor students and English-language learners, according to Nancy Williams, the state’s gifted education specialist.
There is no statewide screening for gifted education in Tennessee. Students are placed in gifted education based on a combination of teachers’ reports on their academic performance and creativity, and scores on a district-chosen intelligence test.
Studies have found relying mainly on teacher referrals can lead to less gifted identification of students in poverty, from racial or linguistic minorities, or “twice-exceptional” students who have both high academic ability and a learning disability. For example, a recent Education Week Research Center analysis found that only 2 percent of all Tennessee students were in gifted education in 2013-14, the most recent year of federal data, and English-language learners in Tennessee were 4 percentage points less likely to be identified.
State officials hope to increase the number of regular classroom teachers who can spot promising students.
“One of the misconceptions is that you have to have a certain level of mastery of English before we test you for gifted [education],” Williams said. “We want to make sure teachers know that gifted students and advanced students can be found in every school, every socioeconomic level, every situation. So there’s no time you should just dismiss a student; you really need to look for their strengths and try to build on those strengths.”
An initial cohort of 50 gifted and general education teachers from across the state last week started the microcredential course, expected to take about six weeks to complete.
Teachers will learn and practice a protocol developed by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented to identify less traditional markers of giftedness. Then they will use it in observations of their own students, put together portfolios of potential gifted students, and submit them to gifted education experts who will give the teachers feedback and coaching on their selection process.
The gifted training is part of Tennessee’s ongoing pilot project to provide microcertifications in various topics. It so far offers 33 courses in four “paths” of stackable credentials, including school leadership and special education. During the next eight months, the state will roll out three other stackable microcredentials related to teaching gifted children from underrepresented groups.
Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2018 edition of Education Week as Effort Helps Teachers Sift Out Overlooked Gifted Students