The last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was specifically designed “To close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.” Going into the next reauthorization of this law, there has already been much discussion about the extent to which each element of that goal has been achieved. While there is some evidence of a narrowing of the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their more advantaged peers when it comes to meeting minimum “proficiency” goals, the achievement gap among high-ability students has been widening. Some of our most promising students- the scientists, inventors, and problem solvers of the future- are being left behind.
I want to be clear that I am not necessarily talking just about high-achieving students. I’m talking about high-ability students with gifts and talents that go beyond simply the ability to master grade level content. There is sometimes a tendency to assume that gifted students are the straight A students and visa versa- the students we needn’t worry about because they are doing fine on their own. Sadly, that’s far from true. A student may get straight A’s because his or her abilities and pace of learning just happen to be exactly matched with the grade level curriculum and pace of instruction. Those are not the students I’m talking about. By definition, a gifted and talented student is one who gives evidence of high achievement capability and needs services beyond the standard content provided in the standard way in order to fully develop those capabilities.
In fact, gifted students may significantly underperform. Many high-ability students get poor grades due to boredom. Some drop out of school or exhibit problem behaviors, and gifted students are often well represented in alternative schools. Still, even if they are getting straight A’s on content that is not challenging to them, they are still underperforming. That hidden gap between achievement and potential ought to be alarming to all of us who are concerned about our nation’s future economic competitiveness.
On the most recent international tests, students in China topped the charts in math, science, and reading, while U.S. students were in the middle to bottom of the pack. Few American students are reaching the most advanced achievement levels on national and state-level tests, with miniscule numbers of children of color or children from poverty reaching those levels. A dynamic economy needs a steady supply of individuals capable of achieving at advanced levels, yet we rely on imported talent while systematically holding back our brightest young minds here at home.
I would recommend to my colleagues the book Genius Denied by Jan and Bob Davidson of the Davidson Institute in Nevada. It describes the many obstacles faced by some of our brightest students in trying to get an appropriate education. The book tells the story of a boy named Carlos who didn’t speak until he was three and a half years old, but then began to speak in complete sentences like a much older child. His mother had been told he might be autistic or have a learning disability, but when she had him tested, she learned he was actually gifted. He learned to read and write with incredible speed and was able to grasp simple algebra problems. However, in his Kindergarten class, they were learning to add single digits by grouping teddy bears. He was miserable, and despite his natural love of learning, he cried to stay home from school. He was teased for being different and the stress of school got to be so great that his hair started falling out. He began talking about wishing that he was dumb or even dead.
The book also talks about a boy named Tim who is dyslexic and also profoundly gifted. His gifts compensated for his inability to read so he was able to earn normal grades, but his school would not make appropriate accommodations for his learning disability because he was achieving at acceptable levels. School officials also maintained they had no obligation to accommodate his gifts. This left Tim frustrated. His zeal for learning waned because his disability held him back while his gifts went undeveloped, but both went unaddressed by his school because he was not failing. Eventually, his mother was forced to pull him out of the public school and educate him at home.
Many schools have special gifted and talented programs with staff trained in gifted education strategies, but a great many others do not. This leads to the uneven availability of appropriate services. Title I schools are far less likely to have any services for gifted students. Is this because there are no high-ability disadvantaged students? Certainly not. There are high-ability students in every school and low-income doesn’t mean low-ability. It is of course appropriate to ensure that struggling students receive the support they need to achieve to their potential, but when disadvantaged high-ability students got unrecognized and unchallenged, thus falling short of the level of achievement they are capable of attaining, the tremendous loss of human potential is truly tragic both for the students and for our society.
So should every cash-strapped Title I school hire special teachers with a background in gifted and talented education and start offering gifted education programming? Well, that would be ideal, and would likely help improve the academic achievement of all students in those schools, but a lack of funds need not be a barrier to schools meeting the unique learning needs of their high-ability students. For instance, a report by some of the leading experts in the field at the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center titled “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students” outlines both the problem of schools systematically failing to support their high-ability students and an almost no-cost solution - acceleration. Simply allowing students to take classes with their intellectual peers, where the curriculum is matched to their ability rather than to their age, often results in better academic results as well as happier, better adjusted students. Also, knowing that all teachers have high-ability students with unique learning needs in their classrooms, there is a great need for professional development opportunities to incorporate the ability to recognize and meet those needs.
Today, I am introducing a bill with Senator Casey of Pennsylvania to ensure that federal education policy no longer overlooks the needs of high-ability students. It’s called the TALENT Act, which stands for: To Aid Gifted and High-Ability Learners by Empowering the Nation's Teachers. My bill corrects the lack of focus on high-ability students, especially those students in underserved settings, including rural communities, by including them in the school, district, and state planning process that already exists under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It also raises the expectation that teachers have the skills to address the special learning needs of various populations of students, including gifted and high-ability learners. To that end, my bill provides for professional development grants to help general education teachers and other school personnel better understand how to recognize and respond to the needs of high-ability students. Finally, because we have much to learn about how best to address the very unique learning needs of this often overlooked population of students, my bill retools and builds upon the goals and purpose of the existing Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act so that we continue to explore and test strategies to identify and serve high-ability students from underserved groups. These strategies can then be put into the hands of teachers across the country.
Mr. President, meeting the needs of our brightest students, the ones our country is counting on for our future prosperity, is not a luxury, it is a necessity. That isn’t a justification for embarking on some sort of new spending and sticking them with the bill, however. Instead, my legislation would accomplish its goals in a cost-effective way by amending existing law to account for the needs of gifted and high-ability learners as well as retooling the old Javits program to have a greater impact. For too long, federal education policy has been so focused on preventing failure that we have neglected to promote and encourage success. We can no longer afford to ignore the needs of our brightest students and thus squander their potential. My legislation will put our country on track to tap that potential which is so essential to the future happiness of the students and the future prosperity of our nation.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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