Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eliminate gifted education (?)

What would happen if gifted services were eliminated? Would this better serve gifted children?

A recent article recommends not just finding a less controversial term, but eliminating the concept completely. The authors contend that budget-strapped school districts waste too much of their limited funding for gifted education on identifying students, leaving next to nothing for providing an education. They also claim that many gifted programs are still not serving the needs of advanced learners, that teachers can use differentiated instruction to address this problem, and that a label of gifted is unnecessary since all children deserve an education consistent with their learning needs.

The authors’ emphasis on meeting the needs of all students is commendable, and their critique of the current delivery of gifted services is certainly valid. Yet, their recommendation carries certain assumptions that pose serious consequences for gifted children:

1. It assumes that high ability (gifted) learners will be easily identified by classroom teachers. We know that gifted students (particularly those who are from low-income families, from a racial minority, are underachievers, or who are twice-exceptional learners) are underidentified. Many teachers have little education or training in gifted education, hold stereotypical views toward gifted children and their families, and don’t understand the depth of their academic needs. If many gifted children are not being identified despite efforts and regulations in many states, how would elimination of the gifted label benefit these children’s academic needs?

2. It assumes classroom teachers will readily focus on gifted students’ leaning needs. In spite of regulations in many states, gifted students are still underserved. Most school districts focus on the needs of struggling students, and little time is available for gifted students. Most teachers devote their energies to those who appear to be struggling the most. For example, a 2011 Fordham Institute report found that when teachers were asked where they would direct their energy if they had time available for individualized attention, 80% claimed that they would attend to their struggling students, whereas only 5% stated that their advanced learners would receive attention. 

3. It implies that diagnostic terms are unnecessary. The label or "diagnosis" of giftedness follows from an evaluation conducted by a psychologist or school psychologist. Regardless of whether the diagnosis is depression, a learning disability, or gifted intellectual abilities, the purpose of any label or diagnosis is to provide clear, understandable information that is consistent, easily communicated, and will aid teachers or therapists in their work with the child. Although the term “gifted” incites controversy, why is identifying individuals whose intellectual abilities are 5% above the norm considered unnecessary? Would these authors also recommend eliminating other diagnostic terms, such as those used to identify individuals with learning disabilities or special education needs?

In fact, while the authors claim to support NAGC, their opinions are not consistent with the organization's goals. The NAGC's 2012-2013 State of the Nation in Gifted Education report clearly supports widespread availability of gifted services:
"NAGC urges lawmakers and education leaders to develop a comprehensive state strategy that removes barriers and expands access for more students to a full range of high quality gifted education services, including:
• training in gifted education for all teachers and school leaders
• state policy allowing a wide range of acceleration options
• following gifted and talented students as a separate population in
student achievement accountability measures"
In yet another paper, the NAGC states their position:
"The National Association for Gifted Children recommends that gifted education services, including identification, educational programming and support services, and teacher training be mandated by legislation in all states and funded at appropriate levels." 
The authors also, unfortunately, convey the misconception that giftedness cannot be defined and that it carries an aura of status that excludes others. They state: "'gifted' is an educationally nondescript concept, yet it also connotes an endowment that some students receive while others do not."  While some school districts waffle on definitions of what constitutes a gifted program, gifted intellectual functioning can be identified (with some exceptions) by an IQ of 130 or greater. And to imply that the label of giftedness is an "endowment" fuels stereotypes that instill bitterness and misinform the public about gifted students' intellectual and social/emotional traits.

The authors conclude their article with the following: "By focusing less on the child's label and more on the child's needs, we will better serve those students in our schools"  These lofty goals would be wonderful in an ideal world. But parents of gifted children, and most educators and psychologists working with gifted individuals recognize that this utopia does not exist. 

Retaining a label that identifies gifted abilities safeguards the precious few services these children currently receive and ensures their future accessibility. Eliminating identification is a shortsighted solution and creates a dangerous precedent that could set gifted education back for decades. Improving and enhancing learning for all children is critical; eliminating identification of gifted children will not aid in this process. 

What do you think?

Friday, April 4, 2014

April 1st is no joke for some gifted high school seniors

April 1 can seem like consolation day for many gifted high school seniors. And it's no joke. College admissions letters have been received, and many families have to accept that their gifted child will not be attending the college of choice. With acceptance rates less than 10% at many highly selective colleges, even exceptional students are shut out. 

How can a family know what to expect? 

When gifted children are young, many parents assume that high school success will translate into an array of college choices. One blog post highlights the surprise that follows when a highly gifted child is rejected from a wide range of schools. The author was astonished, and admonished U.S. colleges for overlooking truly gifted children. 

And on April Fool's Day, many families are left with feelings of bitterness and anger. They may believe they have been deceived and betrayed; their child’s hard work and effort was ignored, and raw talent and ability overlooked. It feels like consolation day and it's not very funny.

Why do so many gifted children get rejected from colleges they are presumably qualified to attend?

When highly selective colleges are inundated with applications, they have to draw the line somewhere. They have quotas, priorities and long-range goals, along with financial burdens. While most would likely prefer to admit the most talented, high-achieving students they can find, selecting who fits this criteria is complicated. And the sheer number of academically successful applicants is astonishing. National Merit Finalist Valedictorians with stellar SAT's are viewed as commonplace, and most will be rejected without some additional compelling characteristic. 

College admissions officers at these selective schools will tell you they are compiling a well-rounded, diversified class of students. They claim to use “holistic admissions,” viewing the whole student and not just grades and SAT scores. Yet this term is often seen as a thinly veiled excuse for achieving quotas based on geographic location, race, ethnicity, first-generation status, athletic ability, wealth, and legacy connection (otherwise known as “hooks”). A 2012 study of priorities among admissions officers, for example, identified “underrepresented minority status” and having an “exceptional talent” as the factors that were of greatest importance in decision-making. 

While parents on forums such as College Confidential bitterly argue about the “fairness” of admissions policies, the reality is that most “unhooked” students will get rejected by many of their top choices. Debates rage on, polarizing accepted and rejected students alike, creating suspicion and bitterness, and implicating colleges as disingenuous about the admissions process.

Those “unhooked” gifted students often need to create a profile that is quite exceptional and well beyond the norm. When a gifted, high-achieving student does not possess the "hooks" that will ease the admission process, he or she will need to stand out from the crowd. This may mean performing independent research, excelling at college courses taken as part of dual enrollment, exceptional mastery in the arts, or truly innovative volunteer work. They need both breadth and intensity of focus. Their efforts need to clearly convey their giftedness.

Before applying to highly selective colleges, students and parents need to clearly assess their chances for admission. Look at the highest percentiles for admission at the colleges in terms of grades, SAT scores and other requirements. If your child is in that range, he or she may stand a chance. But realize that acceptance to an ivy league or comparable school (such as Stanford or MIT), is almost impossible to predict.

It is essential that gifted students identify less competitive schools that would be a good fit and would readily welcome them. Many schools offer honors programs and other specialized tracks that can provide a great education. Gifted students can excel wherever they go and will find mentors, excellent professors and innovative programs that can stimulate their creativity. Attachment to a "dream" school is a set-up for disappointment in the capricious, uncertain world of college admissions.

A note to current seniors:

If you have just gotten your letters of admission, hopefully you are relieved and excited. If you received rejections, it is important to appreciate the competitiveness of these schools and not assume it is a reflection on your abilities. It may not seem fair that you didn't get into the school of your choice. But you can use your abilities to thrive wherever you go. And perhaps this experience will help you gain perspective and develop resilience when facing future challenges. Good luck with your decisions!