It's a bad time to be a gifted child in America. —Sally Reis, professor of education at the University of Connecticut
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.
The second reason is that most modern education reform efforts are focused on "closing the achievement gap." That is, they are concerned with ensuring that students who have historically not succeeded in school achieve a minimum level of competency, according to Reis. Gifted programs have come to be seen as a practice that increases the disparity in outcomes for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Assigning students to classrooms based on performance and ability gained popularity in the mid-19th century, when public schools began enrolling large numbers of immigrant children with limited preparation or capacity for schooling compared with native children. Tracking, as it became known, quickly took on the appearance of racial segregation, said Oakes, a professor of education at the UCLA and one of the most vocal advocates for mixed-ability classrooms.
Even when low-income minority students have the ability to succeed in high-level classes, they are often not enrolled in them. For example, based on Oakes' research, an Asian student is 10 times more likely to be enrolled in high-level math courses than a Latino student with the same scores on a standardized math exams. This persistent structural inequality has led some to suggest that the achievement gap is not a function of student ability. Differences in the performance of "gifted students" and "remedial students" reflect the curriculum they are exposed to and not their ability, argues Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University.
In addition to mitigating the effects of structural inequality, proponents of mixed-ability grouping suggest it improves academic outcomes for students who have not been identified as gifted. After a year of mixed-ability grouping at Cloonan Elementary School in Stamford, Conn., teachers reported fewer behavioral problems and better grades for struggling students. Good students model good behavior for other students, according to Deborah Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. "Less motivated children learn from the more motivated ones," she said.
Of course, not everyone at Cloonan Elementary was pleased with the results of the mixed-ability grouping experiment. High-performing students complained of boredom and said they were not learning as much, according to Kasak. Herein lies the heart of the problem: while mixed-ability classrooms may be good for student outcomes in the aggregate, they are certainly not the best arrangement for the gifted.
In their study of similar ability grouping, Ellis Page and Timothy Keith of Johns Hopkins University found that gifted children in mixed-ability classrooms do not perform as well as gifted children in gifted programs. These results are especially pronounced among gifted minority children. "Whereas homogeneity has a moderate positive impact on all high-ability youth, it has a very strong positive effect on high-ability black youth," the study found.
Page and Keith also found that ability grouping had no measurable effect on the academic performance of low-ability students. "Contrary to popular wisdom," Page said, "surrounding a low-ability student with a homogeneous group of students seems to have no effect."
The trend is "killing (gifted) kids," said Carole Tieso, a professor of education at the Collage of William and Mary in Virginia. When they aren't challenged they "lose their love of learning and their desire to achieve," she said.
Most students who drop out of high school say they could have had success with more challenging coursework and engaging classroom experiences, according to a report from Civic Enterprises, a Washington, D.C., an education policy organization.
But boredom is only part of the problem. For kids, being different can be hard. Connie Byrnes, a mother from Dana Park, Calif., noticed her highly-gifted son Riley disengaging shortly after joining a mainstream fifth-grade classroom. "He pulled back and underperformed. He was made fun of for his vocabulary. … He didn't want to be different," she said.
Another issue is that many teachers aren't equipped to teach gifted students. While there are methods teachers can learn to address the needs of gifted students in mixed-ability classrooms, few receive the necessary training. "Most teachers get one hour of gifted instruction at university," Tieso said.
Tracy Cross, also a professor of education at William and Mary, believes that too much is expected of teachers. "It is the only profession that expects each person to be an expert at everything," he said. "It defies logic," agreed Tieso. "Doctors specialize but we expect teachers to be equally good with special needs children and gifted learners." Inclusion can work if teachers understand how to teach gifted students, said Sally Ries, "and most teachers don't."
Options for the gifted
While parents of gifted children have plenty of cause for concern, the situation isn't all bad, Tieso said. New computer-based math programs are designed to be sensitive to the needs and abilities of each student. Those who struggle receive extra time to practice, while those who don't are able to move through material quickly.
"We've seen 12-year-olds who score at or above the 700 level on the SAT doing two years of calculus in three weeks," said Cross. "They need the opportunity to work as fast and as hard and they can," he said. According to Tieso, individualized approaches to material can make mixed ability classrooms friendlier for all students.
Teachers can also learn techniques to better serve the needs of gifted children. Professional development programs, such as a week-long summer program at the University of Connecticut, instruct teachers on curriculum enrichment and acceleration for gifted students.
"With a trend toward regular classroom services for all students, it is vital that all teachers be prepared and willing to serve the needs of the gifted appropriately," said Catherine Little, professor of education at the University of Connecticut.
Parents also need to think about how they can provide an enriching home life for their gifted children. "It is our role to challenge our kids," said Reis, who is also the mother of a gifted daughter.
"We have a responsibility to nurture their talents, to expose them to interesting problems and to ensure they have opportunities to be challenged."
Brynes has taken this responsibility to heart. Her son Riley participates in the activities and camps put on by Destination Imagination, a national non-profit organization that provides educational programs for kids. "It's a place where he can be who he is with other kids," said Brynes, "where he can be a geek among geeks and he doesn't have to downplay who he is to fit in."