HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED

After only a few months, Andi decided that she didn't want to go to school anymore because she already knew most of what was being taught in her first-grade class. While her classmates struggled to add single-digit numbers, she had begun to teach herself multi­plication and division and was fascinated with negative numbers, word problems, and logic problems. She begged her parents to help her to learn these skills, but they were unsure how much they should help her, fearing the impact her precocity might have on her subsequent school experience.

Her parents were justified in their concerns HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED. Because schools have focused for decades on lifting up the lowest achievers, they are shortchanging the brightest students. High-ability children are not challenged in most classrooms and endure a steady diet of dumbed-down textbooks, and repetition of skills mat they have mastered years ago. They suffer from the elimination of many forms of advanced or accelerated classes because it has become politically incor­rect to separate students on the basis of ability. Further­more, a widely used teaching technique called cooperative learning assigns the highest- achieving students to position of peer teacher—essentially pressing them into HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED service as teacher aides.

Recent studies by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented portray a disturbing pattern of what happens in U.S. classrooms to high-ability stu­dents. For example, a survey of third- and fourth-grade teachers in several thousand public and private schools around the country revealed that fewer than half had ever received specific instruction in how to teach gifted students. Not surprisingly, given this lack of training, most teachers make at most minor modifications in the regular curriculum to meet the needs of gifted students.

Another study entailing daily observation of third HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED- and fourth-grade classrooms around the country revealed that more than 80 percent of the time, high-ability stu­dents received the same kind of instruction, of the same material, as the rest of the class. In a typical summary, a classroom observer reported that "the gifted student was inattentive during all of her classes. She appeared to be sleepy, never volunteered, and was visibly unenthu-siastic about all activities."

By underchallenging such students, U.S. schools delay and even halt these youngsters' mental development. If instructional materials are not above the students' level of knowledge or HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED understanding, learning is less efficient and intellectual growth may stop. It is, for example, not surprising to find a bright first grader in an urban school who reads on a fifth-grade level—and who is reading only slightly above grade level when he or she enters fifth grade.

Because the work is too easy for them, many of our brightest students acquire poor work habits. A recent study conducted by the publisher of Who's Who Among American High School Students found that most high-achieving students study an hour or less a day. My own research on HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED underachieving students in urban high schools has found a similar problem. In one representa­tive response, a student commented: "Elementary school was fun. I always got A's on my report card. I never studied when we were in class and I never had to study at home."

Given this lack of rigor, it is not surprising that this country's most talented students are hard pressed to compete in a global community. One study compared U.S. high-school seniors taking Advanced Placement courses in math and science with top students in 13 other countries. Although these students represent HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED the top 1 percent of students in the nation, on an interna­tional basis they ranked:

* 13 OUT OF 13 IN BIOLOGY

* 11 OUT OF 13 IN CHEMISTRY

* 9 OUT OF 13 IN PHYSICS

* 13 OUT OF 13 IN ALGEBRA

* 12 OUT OF 13 IN GEOMETRY AND CALCULUS

The picture is actually even bleaker than these fig­ures suggest, since a higher percentage of the total school population in other countries takes these advanced classes than in the United States. When the results are controlled to eliminate this source of difference, Ameri­can students scored last in all subject areas. "Our top-performing students are undistinguished at best and poor at worst" in comparison to their HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED counterparts in other countries, according to a Department of Educa­tion report on this country's inadequate treatment of the gifted. The report, entitled National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent, was distributed in October to every school district in the nation and made front page headlines

These sobering statistics may provide one explanation for why graduate school enrollments of U.S. students in mathematics and science have substantially declined in the last two decades while the number of foreign-born graduate students has increased. In 1992, for example, 44 percent of the doctorates in mathematics and physical sciences, and 60 percent in HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED engineering, granted in the United States went to non-citizens.

Our most advanced students need educational expe­riences different from those they are currently receiving. Without these services, talents may remain unnurtured: We can't develop the potential of a budding concert musician by providing him or her with ordinary music classes for one or two hours a week. We can't produce future Thomas Edisons or Marie Curies by forcing them to spend large amounts of their science and mathematics classes tutoring students who don't understand the material.



Didn't We Learn That Last Year HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED?

In great part, the lack of challenge for gifted students stems from the unwillingness of schools to group students according to their abilities. The movement over the past decade to eliminate tracking—the relatively permanent (at least for the school year) placement of students into a class or group for students of a certain level—is creating special problems for high-ability students. The anti-tracking movement is based on the belief that such grouping is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy: kids labeled as "smart" flourish with stimulating instruc­tional methods and interesting material, while those deemed "slow" stagnate HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED in a backwater of low expecta­tions, dulled by rote learning of basic skills.

Distaste for tracking has led to the erroneous pre­sumption that all forms of grouping are bad. But some ability grouping is necessary for providing advanced content to high-ability students. Teachers have tradi­tionally used some form of flexible instructional group­ing to target appropriate levels of challenge and instruc­tion for the wide range of abilities and interests in their classrooms, particularly in reading and math. Unfor­tunately, in their zeal for egalitarian equality, schools have turned away from ability-based grouping HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED even within classrooms. Our survey of third- and fourth-grade classrooms found that students identified as gifted received instruction in homogeneous groups only about 20 percent of the time they were in school. This homogenization results in a "one size fits all" curricu­lum that is usually tailored to students in the middle of the class or, worse yet, to students who achieve at the lowest level.

Another trend that is potentially detrimental to gifted students is cooperative learning, in which small groups of students work together on assigned classwork. In one typical form of cooperative learning, a teacher assigns one bright HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED child, two average children and one below-average student to a group. The smart student is sup­posed to help the others, and, in theory, all will benefit. Teachers have employed this method for decades, and it can indeed be a sound pedagogical technique.

Unfortunately, some bright students are not interested in teaching others, and some cannot explain how they've acquired advanced concepts. What's more, a student who is tutoring others in mathematics may refine some of his or her basic skills and knowledge but will not encounter the challenge necessary for the most HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED advanced types of work.

Because most elementary-school classes are com­posed of kids with a wide range of abilities, textbooks must be written so that the less-able students at each grade level can understand them. Social studies books, for instance, now "teach" second- and third-grade stu­dents concepts that they grasped when they were two or three years old—that people live in families, for instance, and that they buy food at a store. When California edu­cators tried to find textbooks that would challenge the top third of their students, no publisher had a book to present. The HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED publishers suggested instead the reissuing of books from the late sixties—damning evidence of the "dumbing down" of textbooks over the past 25 years.

Although this phenomenon first received popular attention 10 years ago in the scathing Department of Education report, A Nation at Risk, the trend is not new. Textbooks began their slide in the 1920s as the children of immigrant and uneducated families began entering schools in large numbers. In response to this influx, books introduced fewer and fewer new words, and the words that were introduced were repeated more often. This trend continued through the HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED 1950s in all subject areas: reading, social studies, mathematics, and science.

How far have books fallen? Take a look at the fol­lowing two excerpts. The first passage comes from a fifth-grade history book published in 1950:

After a time Captain Jones had command of another ship, the "Bonhomme Richard. " It was an old vessel and not very strong. But in it the brave captain began a battle with one of England's fine ships. The cannons on the two ships kept up a steady roar. The masts were broken, and the sails hung in rags above the decks. Many of the HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED men on the "Bonhomme Richard" lay about the deck dead or dying. The two vessels crashed together, and with his own hands the American captain lashed them together. By this time the American ship had so many cannon-ball holes in its side that it was beginning to sink. The English captain shouted: "Do you surrender?" "Surrender? I've just begun to fight," John Paul Jones roared back at him. It was true. The Americans shot so straight and fast that the English sailors dared not stay on the deck of their ship. Their cannons were silent HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED. At last the English captain surrendered.

Contrast that lively (albeit melodramatic) account with the dreary description of the same event from a fifth-grade textbook now in wide use:

The greatest American naval officer was John Paul Jones. He was daring. He attacked ships off the British coast. In a famous battle, Jones' ship, the "Bonhomme Richard," fought the British ship "Ser-apis. "At one point in the battle Jones' ship was sink­ing. When asked to give up, Jones answered, "I have not yet begun to fight." He went on to win.

The poor quality of textbooks would HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED not matter so much if schools treated the books as merely one of many teaching tools. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In too many elementary schools, textbooks dominate classroom instruction, constituting 75 to 90 percent of teaching time. In effect, textbooks determine what is taught in the classroom. The result is a curriculum bogged down with repetition. Imagine the frustration of a precocious reader who enters kindergarten reading at a relatively advanced level and spends the next two years being "taught" the letters of the alphabet and beginning letter blends. That's hardly the way to spark enthusiasm in an HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED eager young mind.

Unfortunately, such glacial progress is the norm. Topics begun at the end of one grade are typically con­tinued well past the beginning of the next. Overall, students in grades two to five encounter 40 to 65 per­cent new content, an equivalent of new material just two or three days per week. By eighth grade, this amount has dropped to 30 percent, just one and a half days per week. In mathematics, for example, popular textbooks present a steadily diminishing amount of new material each year through the elementary school years, according to studies by James Flanders, a HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED noted mathematics researcher and elementary-school text­book editor at the University of Chicago. Instruction in addition and subtraction is repeated during every ele­mentary school year. In Taiwan and Japan, by con­trast, fifth graders study elementary algebra. In Hol­land, practice in multiplication and division is consid­ered completed after third grade.

"There should be little wonder why good students, and even average or slower-than-average students, get complacent about their mathematics studies," says Flanders. "They know that if they don't learn it now, it will be retaught next year." Most of the new content HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED in any textbook, naturally, is found in the second half of the book. The result, notes Flanders, is that "earlier in the year, when students are likely to be more eager to study, they repeat what they have seen before. Later on, when they are sufficiently bored, they see new mate­rial—if they get to the end of the book."

Gifted students could gain much simply from stream­lining of the curriculum to reduce repetition. Such "compacting" excuses high-ability students from plow­ing through material that they have already mastered. A study of compacting by the National HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED Center for the Gifted and Talented showed that teachers could elimi­nate as much as 40 to 50 percent of the usual material without affecting achievement scores in reading, math computation, social studies, and spelling. In fact, stu­dents whose science and math curriculum was com­pacted scored significantly higher than their counter­parts in a control group given the full curriculum. Such is the benefit of relieving boredom.

THE GUTTING OF G1FTEP EDUCATION

During the 1970s and 80s, a diverse array of services arose to meet the needs of high-abil­ity students, such as math competitions, train­ing in HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED the invention process, and consulta­tions by classroom teachers with specialists in gifted education. But budget pressures, exacerbated by the lingering recession, have forced gifted education into a full-scale retreat.

The reductions affect programs in several ways. Some school districts now offer gifted programs only at certain grade levels; typically, it is the elementary-school grades that get cut first. Some districts have dropped special components such as an arts program; and others have cut personnel. In many states, the position of state direc­tor of gifted education has been scaled back; other states, such as Massachusetts, have HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED eliminated the positions entirely. Even states with laws mandating special atten­tion for gifted students—including, Alaska, Florida, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia—have eliminated or put in jeopardy some 15 percent of their programs.

In states without such a mandate, such as Connecti­cut, Delaware, North Dakota, and Wyoming, the impact is more dramatic: one in three programs in these states were reduced or threatened with reduction in the 1991-92 academic year (the last year for which such figures are available). In one school district in Connecti­cut, financial constraints have reduced the gifted pro­gram staff from seven HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED teachers to two. Resource-room time for independent study, research, and critical and creative thinking are no longer provided to middle- and high- school students; gifted elementary-school students spend only one hour a week in a resource room cater­ing to their special abilities. Several of the states that require services for the gifted, including Oklahoma and Alaska, are considering repeal of their mandates. And two states that had passed legislation to require gifted education—Mississippi and Maine—have post­poned implementation because of lack of funding.

One parent summarized her frustrations when her son's program was cut HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED:

I remember my son coming home and telling me he was upset and angry because they were doing a chapter on telling time in his fourth-grade class. He learned to tell time before he entered kinder­garten and he said, "I know all of this stuff. I've known all of the math work all year." And I tried to explain that other students needed to learn about time. And he was very angry and said to me, "But what about me?" And I didn't know what to say to him.

PROVIDING A CHALLENGE

Despite these cutbacks HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED, promising programs have become available that allow gifted and talented students to leave their regular class­room to pursue individual interests and advanced content. For example, many local districts have created innovative mentorship programs that pair a bright elementary-school student with an adult or high school student who shares a common interest. And some schools, acknowledging that they do little different for gifted students within the school day, provide after-school enrichment programs, or send talented students to Saturday programs offered by museums, science centers, or local universities.

Some large school districts have established magnet schools to serve HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED the needs of talented students. In New York City, for example, the Bronx High School of Sci­ence has helped nurture mathematical and scientific talent for decades, producing Nobel laureates and other internationally known scientists. More recently, 11 states have created separate schools, such as the North Carolina School for Math and Science, for tal­ented students. In many states, "governor's schools" provide intensive summer programs in a variety of advanced content areas. It is clear, however, that these opportunities touch a small percentage of students who could benefit from them.

Over the past several years, some of the most excit­ing HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED offerings for gifted students have come from pri­vate organizations. For example, Future Problem Solv­ing of Ann Arbor, Mich., runs a year-long program in which teams of four students apply information they have learned to some of the most complex issues facing society, such as the overcrowding of prisons or global warming. At regular intervals throughout the year, the teams mail their work to evaluators, who review it and offer suggestions for improvement. The program challenges students to think, to make decisions, and to come up with unique solutions to problems. (One team in Connecticut, for example HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED, proposed convert­ing surplus military submarines into additional prison space.)

Although not developed solely for gifted students, Future Problem Solving is widely used in gifted pro­grams because they typically have the inclination to pursue such additional projects. Gifted students also are more often able to afford the time for such activi­ties, after breezing through much of their regular schoolwork. In a similar effort, called Odyssey of the Mind, teams of students design structures and machines. In one typical project, students had to design and build a balsa wood structure to support the most weight possible. Costs HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED to the schools for these programs are modest—$55 per student team for Future Problem Solving, $135 for Odyssey of the Mind. For these fees, the schools receive background materials on the topic and access to the network of evaluators (typically, teachers who are coaching teams at other schools).

Another national program, operated by the Center for Talented Youth and Academic Programs at Johns Hopkins University, recruits and provides testing and program opportunities for precocious youth. Each year, Talent Search offers both the mathematics and verbal portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test—usu­ally taken by high-school juniors and seniors HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED—to thou­sands of interested 12- to 14-year-olds (typically sev­enth and eighth graders). Those who score above that year's mean for college-bound seniors become eligible for a number of programs operated by Talent Search, including summer seminars in advanced subjects and enrollment in college courses. By taking advantage of

the courses offered by Talent Search, a talented youth could complete two or more years of math in one year. Unfortunately, school districts do not have to honor these credits and could require a student who took geometry during a junior-high-school summer to take it HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED again as a high-school sophomore.

Enrichment opportunities for the brightest students are not limited to math and science. To enter the annual History Day contest, students can work indi­vidually or in small groups on research projects related to a historical event, person, or invention related to a given theme. Drawing on primary source materials such as diaries, as well as information gathered in libraries, museums, and interviews, students prepare research papers, projects, media presentations, and performances as entries. The entries are judged by local historians, educators, and other professionals; each June, state finalists compete for a nationwide prize HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED.

While these programs are valuable supplements, the smartest kids would also benefit greatly if existing schools simply became more flexible in their assign­ment of children to grade levels. Why, for example, do we have or even need 12 grades that students must pass through in sequence? Why can't students progress through a series of competencies in an ungraded set­ting, thus earning time to pursue advanced curricula or an area of individual interest or talent?

Unfortunately, most educators these days discour­age a broad range of useful, and once common, accel­eration practices—starting kindergarten or first grade HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED at a younger age, skipping grades, or entering college early. This reluctance stems from a misguided anti- intellectualism that discourages policymakers from promoting excellence in our schools and allows them to pay less and less attention to nurturing intellectual growth. Anti-acceleration policies—often justified on the social harm that the gifted student might experi­ence—also tacitly acknowledges the anti-intellectual-ism of children: kids labeled as gifted have tradition­ally been ostracized by their peers.

Indeed, bright students seeking to avoid harassment learn to hide their academic prowess, such as by ceas­ing to participate in class discussions HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED. Consider the experiences of an exceptional student who pleaded with her school board to save the gifted program:

In my 12 years in school, I have been placed in many "average" classes—especially up until the junior- high-school level—in which I have been spit on, ostracized, and verbally abused for doing my homework on a regular basis, for raising my hand in class, and particularly for receiving out­standing grades.

THE GIFTED'S GIFT TO SCHOOLS

Gifted programs have developed an impressive menu of curricular adaptations, independent study and thinking-skill strategies, grouping options, and enrichment strategies HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED. Many of these innovations could be used to improve education for all students, not just those who score highly on intelligence or achievement tests. In particular, programs for teaching the gifted tend to focus not on memorizing facts but on practicing the skills of knowl­edge acquisition and problem solving.

In fact, most students would benefit from this approach to instruction. With knowledge accumulating at an unprecedented pace, it is at least as important to teach kids how to obtain and analyze information as it is to convey an existing set of facts. Educators should therefore reassess the need for content HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED-based instruction for students of all ability levels. Bright stu­dents fortunate enough to be receiving special atten­tion are already experiencing the joys of independent, self-directed learning. This kind of schooling is more challenging and more fun than conventional class­room work. Why not apply it more generally?

Joseph Renzulli and I at the University of Connecti­cut have developed an approach to do just that. Our "schoolwide enrichment model" has been field tested and implemented by hundreds of school districts across the country. This approach seeks to apply strategies used in gifted programs to the HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED entire school population, emphasizing talent development in all stu­dents through acceleration and a variety of other strategies.

Of course, not all students can participate in all advanced opportunities. But many children can work far beyond what they are currently asked to do; they rise to the level of expectations. In addition, the infu­sion of some of these techniques may help us identify other young people with untapped potential for aca­demic achievement, leadership, and creativity.

Ideas for improving education have been around for decades, if not centuries. More will undoubtedly sur­face as long as HOW SCHOOLS ARE SHORTCHANGING THE GIFTED thoughtful people have the courage and vision to try new ways to solve the endless array of problems that a changing society places on the doorsteps of its schools. Amidst all of these restruc­turing efforts, we cannot afford to ignore our most tal­ented children. It is they who set the pace. By pushing these children to stretch and develop their intellectual gifts, we can raise the standard of schooling for all.


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