Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why Schools Need to Offer Gifted & Talented Education

Critics of Gifted and Talented Education programs in government-run schools such as the Washington Post's Jay Matthews often claim that gifted children simply ought to be accelerated to higher grades. While acceleration may be a good option for students who are moderately and globally gifted, it's not appropriate for many gifted children.

Dr. James T. Webb is the founder of the nonprofit organization SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of Gifted Children), past president of the American Association for Gifted Children, and the author of several books on giftedness including A Parent's Guide to Gifted Children and Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Teachers and Parents. There's a fantastic quote from him in a recent article in Forbes magazine on giftedness:

"Once you get up into the gifted range, particularly as you get into the upper reaches of the gifted range, you find an increasing span of abilities. You may have a child who is 8 years old, a second grader, who is reading at a seventh-grade level, does math at a fifth-grade level, has visual/motor skills at a third-grade level and decision/judgment skills at a second- or third-grade level."

This is exactly why acceleration doesn't work well for many gifted children. Into which grade exactly would Matthews et. al. place this student? All of the options (3rd, 5th, or 7th) would be inappropriate in one or more areas.

Of all the intellectually gifted individuals I know, only a handful were equally talented across all domains. Typically, they were way ahead either verbally or mathematically; slightly ahead or at grade-level in the other; and slightly ahead, grade-level, or even behind in their motor skills. Dysgraphia, for example, is a surprisingly common learning disability among intellectually gifted students (particularly boys). Simply throwing a 5 yr-old who is reading at the 4th grade level into a 4th grade English class wouldn't be appropriate, since it's likely that he or she would not be physically mature enough in his/her motor skills to handle all the writing required. There would need to be major modifications to the standard curriculum, the type of differentiation that many teachers are unable or unwilling to provide given the realities of a 20-30 student classroom in this era of No Child Left Behind.

Even if gifted children do receive appropriate modifications in an accelerated class, they are not with their true peers. A kindergartener with an IQ of 150 is not the same as a third grader with an average IQ even if he/she has the same cognitive ability. As the Forbes article notes, gifted children typically have:

"superior memories, a knack for creating original skits, the ability to concentrate intensely for long periods of time."

Dr. Webb points out some of the other characteristics that often set gifted children apart from average ones:

"[A gifted child] is very curious, talks early and asks a lot of questions .... If they're into chess, that's all they want to do. If they have a tantrum, it's over-the-top. If they have an imaginary friend, they don't just have one or two. They have 10 or 11, and each has imaginary pets."

Kazimierz Dabrowski calls these tendancies "overexcitabilities". Teachers and administrators who are unfamiliar with the literature on giftedness often misdiagnose such children as having ADHD and push medication.

Schools ought to provide gifted children the chance to learn with their intellectual peers in a class taught by someone who has completed training in how to meet their special educational needs. The teacher must be sensitive to uneven abilities across domains and must adapt the curriculum for the many gifted students whose cognitive skills are far ahead of their motor skills.

Advocates of acceleration often like to tout that it doesn't cost the school anything extra to provide it. The same argument could be made for districts with a sufficiently large student population to set aside one school for GATE. My local district covers an area with a population of roughly 125,000. There are 10,000 students enrolled K-8 plus however many private school and homeschool students (countywide, 18.7% of K-8 students attend private schools including private homeschools). Given the proximity to Silicon Valley and the fact that nearly 1/4 of the residents hold a graduate or professional degree, I suspect that a significant portion of the students living in the district are gifted. I also suspect that many of these families would prefer to send their children to a public GATE school if one were available. Similar GATE schools in other places such as Hunter in NYC and Balboa in LA receive dozens of applications for each slot.

There is a private GATE school nearby that charges a whopping $23k/yr per child for elementary school. Why should only gifted children from affluent families receive an appropriate education?


The Princess Mom said...

They shouldn't. There's a public GATE school in Denver called Cory Elementary, but we weren't there long enough to know what they would do with someone as wildly asynchronous as you describe. I've got a boy like that and I think that homeschooling or virtual charter schooling is the best way to address all their needs and skills.

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered said...

I'm an elementary g/t teacher and could not agree with you more. Parents and students alike year after year tell me that the g/t program is the one place where the true needs of these young children are met... where kids can think, analyze, share interests and opinions, create, debate, and not feel like they are nerds, geeks, or ALONE among their same age peers.
Sadly our community did not pass our recent school levy and our board of education does not see the necessity of such a program. After 25 years of serving gifted students, our program will be cut this fall. The grief the parents, students, and I share over the loss of this program is overwhelming.