Opinion
Special Education Commentary

Don’t Leave Gifted Students Behind

By Frances R. Spielhagen — February 21, 2012 5 min read

The annual wars, aka school budget deliberations, are about to begin. Across the nation, states and local districts will once more struggle to maintain educational integrity in the face of annual budget shortfalls, “race to the top” to grab federal dollars, and, hopefully, improve overall student achievement.

Yet, as all eyes are focused on making sure that most, if not all, students meet minimum standards, one group continues to suffer from a kind of benign neglect that actually is not benign at all. These are the very students who can succeed at the highest levels, our gifted students. In classrooms from coast to coast, these students are languishing. They are simply not progressing and learning commensurate with their potential.

Last fall, a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute brought into sharp focus the decline in achievement among the top students in our nation, those with the potential and demonstrated capacity to excel in school and assume leadership roles in the United States and the global community. Quite simply, the report, titled “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Performance: Performance Trends of Top Students,” suggested that this nation’s brightest students are the unintended victims of the lofty goals of the No Child Left Behind Act. Rather than making the much-heralded “adequate yearly progress” that is supposed to characterize school success, they are losing ground when their performance is tracked over time.

The Fordham report followed a Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report in December 2010. Not only had a majority of 15-year-old students in the United States lagged in mathematics and science performance, but America’s top students compared dismally with their peers across the globe. In math, only 1.9 percent of U.S. students scored in the 95th percentile on the assessment’s highest proficiency level, below the average of 3 percent of the total sample of students from other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development-member nations, and well below the top students in South Korea (7.8 percent), Switzerland (7.8 percent), Singapore (15.6 percent), and Shanghai (26.6 percent).

In a nation devoted to the underdog, we seem to have forgotten that gifted students need to grow, too."

Why can’t more of our brightest students attain this high level of proficiency? And, why should we care? Here’s why: Providing for the continued growth, development, and achievement of our most capable students is akin to betting on the favorite. The most-talented students are most likely to bring this nation out of the economic basement, create new inventions, cure deadly diseases, and, yes, restore the United States to its former place as the international leader in innovation and scholarship. In a nation devoted to the underdog, we seem to have forgotten that gifted students need to grow, too. In fact, in many ways, gifted students are the new underdogs in American education.

Our struggle to bring all students up to a minimum level of proficiency is a laudable and necessary goal. However, attention to the majority has caused the nation to lose sight of the equally valid learning needs of the most-capable students in our care. Several factors have created this situation. First, fears of elitism permeate our collective understanding of the role of schools in a democracy. Second, justifiable rejection of rigid tracking policies has resulted in few grouping options for students who can learn more quickly than their peers, while classroom instruction remains at a uniformly homogenous level.

No one wants to see any student condemned to substandard education, a result of some tracking systems. However, the brightest students are condemned to working at levels below their potential. At the same time, acceleration to the next grade is often not considered or even allowed, despite research-based evidence, such as the 2004 report “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students,” that documents the benefits of acceleration for our top students. Finally, most teachers have not been trained to work with highly able students in the regular classroom, and that’s where most of the high-flying students can be found.

In the past decade, the emphasis on standardized testing has resulted in an information-retrieval model of instruction and assessment, rather than the problem-solving and higher-order thinking on which advanced learners thrive. Struggling to improve the performance of the majority of students, teachers often have neither the skill nor the will to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of their highest-performing students.

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Last year, U.S. Reps. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., and Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., along with U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Robert P. Casey Jr., D-Pa., introduced a bipartisan bill as part of the reauthorization process for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. The TALENT (To Aid Gifted and High-Ability Learners by Empowering the Nation’s Teachers) Act would require that state assessments capture when students perform above grade level and report the educational growth of the most-advanced students on state report cards required under NCLB. This would represent a critical improvement in the current reporting system and drive schools to consider the educational development of the highest-achieving students. It would also spur policymakers and curriculum developers to provide more-advanced curriculum for high-achieving students. It would expand professional-development opportunities for teachers and establish research initiatives to explore ways that teachers can support and serve high-ability students. The bill is still awaiting action in Congress.

As a former high school teacher and coordinator of programs for gifted students, I know firsthand the frustrations of the very capable student who must slog through drill-and-kill reviews every fall while teachers ensure that everyone is up to speed and ready to move forward. The situation repeats itself throughout the school year, as teachers and students progress toward the annual standardized tests that will be used to determine individual teachers’ effectiveness.

The focus on teacher accountability has accentuated the very real pressures on teachers to make sure that all students perform at an accepted level of proficiency, and I am in no way suggesting that teachers are maliciously neglecting the brightest students in their classes. However, when one’s job security is on the line, good will and the intention to differentiate instruction for highly able students easily fall prey to meeting the needs of the majority. If gifted youngsters already meet the minimum-proficiency standards, there is no need to move them forward. For now, there is no federal mandate to meet their academic needs.

Moreover, the states lack the grit, will, and resources to provide for these students. The TALENT Act would provide resources for highly able students and for professional development that would foster advanced teaching in the regular classroom. The students are there, waiting and longing to be instructed at the levels they are capable of attaining. How much longer must they—and we—wait?

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Don’t Forget Gifted Students

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