30 years of education reform have left gifted education pretty much where it was when A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. Then the ultimate goal for excellence in education was “to develop the talents of all to their fullest.” A Nation at Risk also acknowledged that perhaps we were hanging too much on the shoulders of our Nation’s schools and that the drive to provide solutions to “personal, social and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve” had caused us to lose sight of the basic function of our public school system – education. The report referenced many troubling outcomes directly related to this neglect of focus on high education expectations – many of them which deeply effected students of high academic ability (“over half the population of gifted students do not match their tested ability with comparable achievement in school.”)
At the national level there has been very little progress. The only federal program in support of academically gifted students, The Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act (originally passed by Congress in 1988 as part of ESEA) was de-funded by Congress in 2011. At the state level we are greeted with a patchwork of education policies ranging from: no/services no/funding to some/services some/funding – all of which are subject to the whims and interpretations of current legislators and funding mechanisms. Undergirding all of this at the district and school level is a popularly held belief that gifted kids are somehow impervious to academic neglect and will be just fine if left to their own devices.
Parents of gifted children who are engaged in their child’s school experiences may discover the discontent revealed by falling grades, lack of interest or behavioral problems and act to discover solutions or accommodations. In this they have much more information and options at their fingertips than existed in 1983. The internet and social media have provided the gifted advocacy community an opportunity to connect and create a network of support. Online schools have proliferated, and can be part of a blended learning environment in a popular move toward homeschooling for this student population. Charter, independent and exam schools are other alternatives to the traditional lock-step schooling that still exists in much of the country.
But what about the parents who are not engaged in their child’s school experiences? Or who cannot afford to seek out independent school options? Or who do not have the time or confidence in their ability to homeschool a gifted child? What about the child who has never been identified because the state did not think grade-level testing was appropriate and the child didn’t “present” as gifted? Or the student who had other exceptionalities, spoke another language or had parents who were absent or not engaged in their schooling? These are the children that have been hurt the most by lack of federal or state mandates for identification and funding.
High-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds, when compared to their more advantaged peers, are twice as likely to drop out of school; more likely to lose ground as they move forward in their schooling; and are less likely to attend or graduate from college. (from The Achievement Trap: How America is failing millions of high-achieving students from lower income families)
44 % of children from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are considered high achieving when they enter school are no longer high achieving by 5th grade. (from Mind the (other) Gap: The growing excellence gap in K-12 education
What can we do now for this student population? From a grantmakers perspective continued funding for research is critical (both of the above cited studies were privately funded and more research is desperately needed on the effectiveness of interventions designed to keep these students engaged and learning.) From an education reform perspective, competency education provides many promising alternatives for high ability kids. Grouping kids by skill level rather than age has long been one of the greatest acceleration strategies in the gifted advocates’ toolkit.
Why expect children to sit through a year of instruction on a subject they long ago mastered when we know gifted children are more likely to mislearn math and science when forced drill and review more than 2-3 times?
Competency education should be viewed as more than an alternative pathway for remediation or a measure of proficiency for performing arts or leadership. As an alternative education strategy for children with academic abilities beyond their age-mates, competency education can provide advanced content knowledge organized around key ideas and principles applied in a meaningful way. It strips the last vestige of seat time away and offers the freedom of rigorous intellectual pursuits to high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds within the support framework of our public schools. Study what you love and then prove what you know or learned. Providing gifted students with this kind of option just might begin to undo 3 decades of indifference.