How America Is Failing Its Most Gifted Students
When it comes time for an American child to enroll in kindergarten, some parents are lucky enough to have a wealth of choices at their disposal. This comes down in large part to geographical location and income—factors that are frequently beyond our control.
But for parents of “gifted students,” the process of choosing a school can be particularly frustrating. Many schools in America simply don’t have the resources they need to cater to students who learn at different speeds. The sad truth is that many children simply aren’t being challenged the way they should during their years in the primary education system; being bored at school may be a familiar problem for many, but it’s also avoidable if we take steps to challenge each of our children according to their ability.
A friend of mine had a memorable encounter with a classroom teacher recently. She was looking for an environment that would test her gifted daughter appropriately. The teacher showed her a set of worksheets based on tracing letters of the alphabet and coloring in drawings of things related to that letter (apples and alligators for the letter A, for example). When she asked the teacher what resources were available for kids who already knew their letters and were reading independently, the teacher suggested that they could do additional worksheets or “just write more” in their journals quietly in a corner of the room.
Unsupervised busywork was not what she had envisioned as part of the definition of differentiated instruction, but it’s the solution used in far too many of America’s schools. This disappointing reality got me thinking: Just what are American schools doing to serve their gifted and talented populations? My anecdotal experience suggests that the answer is a depressing “not a lot,” so I dug into the research to find out more.
And that was depressing, too. Here are six shocking facts about the state of gifted education in the United States.
1. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standard-bearer in measuring student success around the world, only 8.8 percent of U.S. students score as “top performers” in math. Though that ranks us as average overall, we’re scoring far below average among wealthy nations. Also, PISA points out that the students who did best on the math test were the ones most open to problem solving—exactly the type of creative thinking traditionally fostered by gifted programs, but that has of late fallen by the wayside.
2. Researchers have measured the effects of a phenomenon known as “educational triage” as a response to the culture of high-stakes testing. Jennifer Booher-Jennings studied an elementary school in Texas and found that teachers there, under pressure to increase test scores, began dividing students into de-facto groups: safe cases, treatment cases, and hopeless cases. Gifted students are safe cases, and are allocated few resources because they are already sure to meet proficiency standards during testing. Most of the time, effort and funds are spent most heavily on getting borderline kids over the bar to proficiency, leaving little room for gifted students to thrive.
3. The problem faced by gifted students from low socio-economic backgrounds is even more dire. Brandon Wright dug deeper into those PISA scores and found that U.S. students from a solidly middle class home are four times as likely to score in the highest achievement group on the PISA exam than a student from a low-income home. Only about two percent of low-income students are high achievers in math. (In top-performing Shanghai, 35 percent of low-income students manage to be high achievers in math, so this isn’t about ability.
4. Low-income students are often stuck in public schools with few resources, and gifted students are often surrounded by peers who need much more help. Without resources for college counseling for these students, many low-income gifted students never get the help they need in applying to elite colleges. This just compounds the problem of decreasing service for gifted students: These students are being ignored in the classroom, and their potential to excel in the future is being frittered away.
5. On a hopeful note, the debate about reauthorizing the federal education law includes discussion of emphasizing growth for all students instead of just passing a minimum standard. This would entail measuring improvements for gifted students as well, most likely through a value-added measurement. While these measurements aren’t great for evaluating individual teachers, they could encourage schools to refocus on getting gifted kids the extra support they need to excel, rather than leaving them to languish in classes the bore them.
6. Common Core standards might be a wash for gifted students. The new standards are more rigorous than most states’ previous curriculum standards, which could be a boon for gifted students hoping to be challenged by more advanced material. On the other hand, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) points out that Common Core standards “fall short in meeting the specific needs of gifted learners, and if held strictly to the standard, could actually limit learning.” The new standards rely heavily on grade levels that make it harder for gifted children to skip ahead without support from creative teachers willing to work individualize instruction.
Both common sense and precedent tell us that the physical well-being of our children is, and should be, a national priority. When terrible things happen, as when a 17-month-old girl died in a day care fire last year, the legal and moral outrage was both expected and justified. We should be free to assume that the public places set aside for the stewardship of our children are as safe as we can possibly make them. I hope it’s not a stretch that our children’s intellectual well-being should be a national priority, as well.