Liam Goodowens takes gymnastics and is learning hip-hop dance. The 6-year-old from Florida also likes playing with friends and going to classic rock music concerts with his dad. Liam even enjoys school. In fact, he wishes that it were more challenging. "They feed me peanuts all day. I like peanuts and I get full, but what I really want is one big juicy hamburger," he said.
No, he isn't talking about school lunch. Rather, Liam uses the metaphor to describe the experience of being a profoundly gifted child in a mainstream kindergarten classroom.
Liam has an IQ in the top two percent of the population. But his school, part of the Orange County Public School District, provides few services for gifted children. So Liam spends his days in a mainstream classroom, waiting for his peers to catch up. "We are terrified of the average student being 'left behind,' " said his mother, Samantha Goodowens, "and yet, our brightest children are expected to stay behind."
Liam's experience is not unique. According to the National Association of Gifted Children, there are three million elementary and secondary students in the United States who have been identified as gifted. "It's a bad time to be a gifted child in America," said Sally Reis, professor of education at the University of Connecticut. Despite research suggesting that gifted children perform better academically when instructed together with similar ability peers, support for these programs is at an all-time low.
While the federal government spends nearly $12 billion a year on special education programs, only about $10 million has traditionally been set aside for gifted education. In 2011, however, Congress eliminated all federal funding for gifted children. States vary widely in terms of how much they allot for gifted education, ranging from nothing in Arizona to over $100 million in Texas during the 2010-2011 school year. Only six states require full funding of gifted programs by law, which means that in the face of budget shortfalls, monies for gifted education can often be diverted to cover deficits in other areas.
But funding isn't the only issue. Prominent voices in education policy, including Jeannie Oakes of UCLA and Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford, reject on principle the practice of separating gifted students from their peers for instruction. They argue the practice quickly evolves into a caste system in which students are grouped by race and socioeconomic background rather than ability. Research confirms that minority children are consistently underrepresented in gifted programs, according to Anne Wheelock, author of the book "Crossing the Tracks; How Untracking Can Save America's Schools."
Even as mixed ability classrooms become the norm in many states, options for enriching gifted children's educational experience are emerging. Software programs combined with better access to computer devices make it possible for children to receive individualized instruction. Numerous professional development programs instruct teachers on how to meet the needs of the gifted students in mainstream classrooms, including how to adapt assignments and help students move through course material at a faster pace. "Parents also need to be part of the talent-development process," said Reis. Community groups, summer camps and at home enrichment can significantly improve the experiences of gifted children and keep them engaged in learning.
Gifted education programs come under fire for two main reasons. First, as local, state and federal government agencies try to balance their budgets, it is easier to eliminate gifted classes than other special education programs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act and other federal laws ensure that those with disabilities receive adequate services. There is no counterpart in federal law for gifted children.
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