Whatever we call them, there are students who are ill served by grade-level curriculum—some because they have already mastered it, and others because they are far behind.
One recent study found that, across the United States, 95 percent of kindergartners tested in the fall demonstrated mastery of counting up to 10, identifying one-digit numbers, and recognizing geometric shapes. Despite this widespread level of proficiency, teachers reported spending an average of 12.7 days per month reteaching this content, a finding negatively associated with student learning.
American schools have long focused on remediation with the goal of ensuring that all students reach basic proficiency. But just as struggling children deserve resources to help them catch up, advanced learners also deserve differentiated programming if they are to grow.
Many schools have tried to respond to the needs of advanced learners through gifted education programs. However, recent evidence has suggested that, overall, such programs are largely ineffective in raising student achievement.
Gifted education interventions are often delivered in very small doses (an hour of advanced instruction per week is not uncommon), and the most potent intervention for raising achievement—academic acceleration (which can include skipping a grade)—is rarely implemented, because of a range of unfounded concerns about negative social consequences. In some schools, all gifted education funding is spent on the tests needed to classify children as “gifted,” leaving no resources for programming.
Gifted education has been controversial since its earliest days and remains so today. Given public unease, it is difficult for schools to devote resources to the children who could be learning more quickly and more deeply than the ordinary curriculum allows.
At least since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, schools have focused on those students who are struggling. Educational policy is now moving away from a basic proficiency-based model, however, and toward a growth-based model. In many states, educators and schools will soon be evaluated on the basis of their students’ academic gains. It no longer will be enough that a majority of a school’s students are considered proficient—now, a majority must demonstrate academic growth for the school to be deemed effective.
This brings up an interesting question: Who hasn’t been effectively challenged by the regular grade-level curriculum? As far back as 1993, the report “National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent” acknowledged that schools were failing to properly educate the brightest students. More recently, a 2010 report from the National Science Board said advanced students were among those most poorly served by school programs.
A 2011 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that about two in five advanced learners fell behind as they progressed through school. And a 2007 report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that only 56 percent of high achievers from low-income families retained their status as high achievers in reading by 5th grade.
These students’ skills are not being fostered, resulting in an incredible loss of talent both for the individuals and for a society that badly needs more innovators and creative thinkers.
But how does the label of “gifted” help teachers and administrators determine the appropriate programming for students? In our view, the term is not only unhelpful, but actually harmful to the interests of bright students. “Gifted” is an educationally nondescript concept, yet it also connotes an endowment that some students receive while others do not. Moreover, the term seems to suggest that high academic performance is a permanent quality, both due to chance and applicable in all domains.
The truth is that “giftedness” is irrelevant to K-12 educational decisions. What is relevant is whether the instruction a child receives is sufficiently rigorous to challenge that child. When that is not the case, there are many potential causes.
For instance, maybe a student possesses extremely high intelligence, is highly motivated, and works hard in the subject, or maybe she already learned the content at home. The reason behind the lack of a challenge isn’t as important as the match—or mismatch—between student readiness and classroom curriculum.
The traditional model of gifted education proceeds as follows: Identify “gifted” students, using one or more tests of intelligence, achievement, or creativity, and provide programming.
But why is the gifted label necessary to provide programming? Are we as a society able to challenge students appropriately only when we give them a label? If a student has mastered all of the content that is about to be presented, should the decision regarding how or whether to appropriately educate him in that subject area revolve around whether he has been labeled as gifted?
We believe the concept of giftedness is not necessary to reach the goal of challenging all learners. In place of the traditional model, we suggest an alternative process:
• Identify academic needs that are not being met by existing educational programming;
• Create or locate appropriate interventions for those needs; and
• Locate all students who have a need for or would benefit from those interventions.
This new process is intensely local. Teachers should ask: “Who is not being challenged in my math classroom today? Which students won’t learn anything new from next year’s science curriculum?” Every school has students who could do more if they were appropriately challenged.
Once these questions are answered, the next step is to determine the educational intervention necessary to ensure that the student learns something new. For example, an 8th grader who has mastered algebra may be considered on grade level according to some content standards. But if, overall, the school is far behind, the teacher is probably not focused on keeping that child challenged. This results in the kind of mismatch between academic readiness and curriculum that is the very reason that differentiated programming is needed.
Schools need a program or policy so that administrators and teachers proactively consider such needs and put procedures in place to address them. This can be as simple as making age-based grade classifications more flexible, allowing for early entrance to kindergarten, or implementing policies that encourage teachers to plan lessons with differentiated content in mind.
Del Siegle, a former president of the National Association for Gifted Children, an organization we support, once said that all children deserve to learn something new every day. Students who are reading and writing at the college level should not be required to work on basic sentence structure. Those who are ready for calculus should not have to sit in an algebra class simply because that’s what most people their age are doing. Such practices undermine student motivation and result in little academic growth.
The time has come to create K-12 models that consider how to properly challenge all students who—at any point in time—are ready for more advanced curricula; not just those we deem “gifted” in some global, unchanging fashion divorced from the educational needs of the child. By focusing less on the child’s label and more on the child’s needs, we will better serve those students in our schools who are ready and hungry for greater academic challenges.