Cuts in gifted education hurt kids’ potential

Aisha Sultan

“How can we measure the sonata unwritten, the curative drug undiscovered, the absence of political insight? They are the difference between what we are, and where we could be as a society.” — James Gallagher, former director of the FPG Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

There is a well-tolerated discrimination in our education system.

If a child has a disability, there are laws to protect and guarantee that he or she receives an appropriate education. But if a child has exceptional cognitive ability or talent, there is no similar promise.

I recently spoke to a group of parents of gifted children in the St. Louis area. One perplexed mother stood up to ask what recourse she had if the district would not test her child, who showed signs of giftedness.

You have no recourse, I told her. The school is not required to test your child or provide extra help if he is profoundly gifted and learns differently from his peers. Getting bored, being unchallenged, becoming disengaged and achieving below potential are expected risks for gifted children. The law requires no safety net for them.

The national conversation about education is focused on bringing the lowest performers up to proficiency. That compassion and a sense of urgency to help struggling learners is well-deserved, but rarely do we also talk about meeting the needs of the brightest students. Neglecting one end of the spectrum is more than just a disservice to those children. It is a loss of our country’s promising human capital, as well.

Critics argue that the brightest students already have an advantage, that they will coast through the system and succeed regardless of the support they receive. But research and countless families’ stories suggest otherwise. There are children with tremendous potential who never learn to study, who never work hard in elementary and middle school, who then crash and burn in high school or college. There are children who act out because they are bored, whose minds wander, who may struggle with emotional or social development despite their high IQs.

The most recent cuts in the federal budget eliminated the only federal grant for gifted education. Missouri eliminated its set-aside state funding for gifted education in 2006, and fewer of the state’s students have been served by gifted education since. Of the state’s 522 school districts, fewer than 60 percent report any gifted programming.

“It’s seen as something they can afford in good times but is not essential,” said Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director for the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University.

That trend raises questions: Does gifted education improve achievement for the brightest students? How often do gifted students slip through the cracks?

In the St. Louis area, there is no standardized way to identify gifted students. A child may be considered gifted in one district but not a neighboring one. The state recommends guidelines, such as minimum IQ scores, which can range from 125 to 132 or higher, but it depends on the district’s discretion. Some districts also consider achievement test scores and creativity. Experts now think that individuals can have areas of exceptional strength, such as gifted-level mathematical reasoning or verbal ability. The long-standing measure of two standard deviations above the average IQ is not as good of an identifier of giftedness, Olszewski-Kubilius says.

When Missouri funded gifted education, the guidelines said that 5 percent of the district’s students could be identified as needing gifted services.

But according to an analysis of the data provided by school districts to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the percentage of gifted students served in a district in the St. Louis area can range from 2 percent in Fort Zumwalt, Mo., and Bayless, Mo., to about 18 percent in Ladue, Mo. In the Rockwood, Mo., district, the state data indicates about 22 percent of the students are receiving gifted education, but school officials said the number was too high and they planned to revise it. Their own numbers indicate that about 17 percent of the students receive gifted services.

Even so, Linda Smith, director of the Rockwood gifted program, says the percentage is higher than the normal bell-curve distribution. The district has a separate facility for gifted education and has a high profile in the state for the services it provides, she said.

“We have parent after parent tell us they bought a house here so kids can go to the Rockwood gifted program,” Smith said.

The district uses a four-prong criteria test and raised the IQ cut-off to 132, one of the highest in the area. A child cannot get admitted based on how hard a parent lobbies or advocates for a child, Smith said. The goal is to admit fewer students as the district cuts back on hiring specialized teachers and tightens the budget, she said.

Joan Oakley, an assistant superintendent in Ladue who teaches a course on gifted education at Maryville University, agrees that the competition to get into these programs in high-achieving, affluent districts can be intense. She said gifted coordinators knew of cases in which parents spent $700 to buy the standard IQ test and coached their child. A tester can tell when a child has been coached, she said.

“It immediately invalidates the test, and those are very difficult conversations to have with parents,” she said.

Modern classrooms seem to be filled with either special-needs or gifted kids. No one is left in the middle, and being average is seen as a disability by some parents. It is an indictment of our educational system when parents view the higher-level critical thinking taught in gifted education as the only way to ensure a challenging learning experience for their child.

Recent research by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the effectiveness of a gifted education program in a middle school in the Southwest found little difference in achievement among those who got accepted to the program and those who narrowly missed it. Experts say the study raises important questions about how to best design and implement programs to raise achievement among gifted students. The best outcomes and gains come from programs that specifically address the needs of the students they admit, Olszewski-Kubilius said.

But we don’t value cognitive ability like we do athletic ability.

Maria Clifford, who lives in the Ladue district and initially sent her son to the private Forsyth School, said she was constantly going back and forth with teachers and administrators to get her son challenging work in his kindergarten classrooms. He started reading at the age of 2, and his IQ is in the exceptionally gifted range.

“It was a little frustrating for us,” she said. The Cliffords opted to send their son to the public school partnership known as the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted Students, or PEGS, which draws from students throughout the St. Louis region.

She is on the board of the St. Louis Association for Gifted Education and says she frequently hears from frustrated parents caught up in the bureaucracy of testing or trying to get challenging or appropriate work for a gifted child.

“The administrations feel like they have bigger fish to fry,” she said. “They’re thinking: What is she complaining about? Her kid is smart.”

In the era of No Child Left Behind, schools are judged by how many children are meeting standards, not by how well they are raising the bar for each child. And to cut even further into an imperfect system of helping gifted children reach their potential creates a future loss for all of us.