Gifted education for all


Budget woes result in disappearing gifted programs. Could this be a good thing? By Dan Weissmann

Illustrations by Jana Christy  

Gifted education programs look to be losing ground in Illinois schools. Advocates have plenty to be worried about. This year's state budget eliminated all funding specifically targeting gifted education, and the federal No Child Left Behind law is causing school districts to focus on students scoring below average on standardized tests, rather than high-scoring gifted kids.

So far, many programs seem to be holding their own, for several reasons. Many school districts had locked in their budgets for this year by the time the state passed its budget in late June. Parents of kids in gifted programs are often strong advocates and would, in the words of one administrator, "raise holy hell" if those programs were cut. Finally, state support for gifted programs never amounted to much. State funds make up only about a third of education funding in Illinois and less than .04 percent of that money was earmarked for gifted programs.

But a crunch is likely to come at some point. When the state cut funding for gifted education programs, legislators also removed all mention of gifted education from the Illinois School Code. The current situation places gifted programs in a kind of limbo. Under the old system, teachers in gifted programs needed "verification" from the state, which they got by taking training provided by state personnel. Now, there's no training and no verification, meaning that as gifted-education teachers retire or take other jobs, there may be no one to replace them in those roles.

The state budget crisis is unlikely to go away anytime soon, even if the economy improves. Although the slow economy hasn't helped matters, the state has what policy experts call a structural deficit: because of the state's tax structure, the costs of providing state services will continue to rise more quickly than state revenues, in good times or bad.

What's more, the pressure from No Child Left Behind is only going to become more intense. The federal law mandates that the entire country's educational system become like the fictional Lake Woebegone, Minn., "where all the children are above-average," within 10 years-with penalties for schools that fall out of step on the march to perfection. The state has adopted a schedule for compliance, raising the bar every year. Within a few years, most schools are expected to fall behind. As a result, local districts will get ever more focused on low-achieving kids in an effort to avoid sanctions. As that happens, expect gifted programs to face ever-tougher scrutiny.

But if this turns out to mean the end of gifted education as we know it, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Gifted education, as a concept, may be an obstacle to giving many kids the best education possible.

Which isn't to say that gifted-education advocates don't have good ideas. They do. In fact, maybe the concepts of gifted education just need to spread out to all education.

When it works Donna Betsanes of Chicago Ridge was surprised when Michael's teacher first suggested a gifted program, but the teacher's description of her son's behavior rang a bell. "She noticed that he might seem distracted, but when a question was asked, he could answer the question and get the right answer," she says. "But he could also tell you what was being said on the PA system, and who was walking by in the hallway, and what other people in the classroom were doing."

He's now a senior in high school, and his mom has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be gifted. "I don't look at it as intellectual capacity. And you can have a straight-A student who's not really gifted, but they're very motivated and they work very hard," she says. Gifted kids, she thinks, are the ones "who are off the beaten path but still get the right answers. My son was never a straight-A student, and he's not very motivated. It's the way he solves problems."

Her daughter Elizabeth works harder, has more motivation, is very bright, and does earn straight A's, Betsanes says. Elizabeth has also been in the gifted program, but "I always wondered if she was gifted," she says. "I don't see her being as unconventional as Michael."

Betsanes eventually joined the school board in Chicago Ridge and she considers herself an advocate for gifted programs. She was relieved when the administration decided to maintain the gifted program even without state funds. That may have been an easy decision-state funding amounted to just $12,399 in the school district's $14.5 million budget.

The money isn't enough to fund a teacher-it mostly goes for extra materials, according to Superintendent Bernard Jumbeck.

Chicago Ridge's gifted program amounts mostly to identifying kids and giving them special assignments. Sometimes, Betsanes admits, their assignments aren't special, just extra work. But there are exceptions, such as a second-grade teacher who let Michael read in the encyclopedia when he was done with his regular work, and a kindergarten teacher who saw how much Elizabeth loved reading and let her take books home.

These are examples of an important concept in gifted education, called "differentiation"-the idea that teachers should pay close attention to the particular strengths and interests of individual students.

"It's not a matter of just pushing a child," says Joan Smutny, director of the Center for Gifted at National-Louis University. "We need to determine individual learning needs, and the teacher modifies the curriculum based on individual needs."

Teachers can do that by splitting their classroom up into smaller groups, with each group assigned work that's appropriate to their skills and needs.

This isn't necessarily a matter of putting some kids in the "slow" group and some in the "fast" group. In a Social Studies class, some kids may get more out of reading a book, others from Internet research and still others may need more direct teacher guidance. The groupings may shift every hour: Some kids who are whizzes in reading may need extra help in math, and vice versa.

"So often, classrooms are pitched to meeting the needs of the average child," says Smutny. Gifted kids don't do well with a one-size-fits-all curriculum, she says. They need room to ask questions, work with ideas, express their creativity.

True. But don't all kids need that? Differentiation, high expectations and room for creativity are great ideas for everyone. How many children are well-served by a one-size fits-all approach? Who wouldn't benefit from having a teacher who knows their individual strengths and talents? Who doesn't need room to ask questions and express their creativity?

Setting aside such experiences for a few kids labeled "gifted" becomes harder to justify when you consider there are no generally agreed-upon criteria for what makes someone gifted.

The Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University uses standardized tests like the ACT to identify giftedness, but director Paula Olszewski-Kubilius acknowledges there are other approaches. Lots of them.

"Some people, when they talk about giftedness, confine themselves to academic areas. Others include things like the arts and creativity. So there's that level of non-agreement. The next level of non-agreement is, how do you define being gifted in math or science? Is it based on a standardized test score or teacher judgment?"

So, neither the definitions nor the methods of finding giftedness are set, says David Feldman, a child development professor at Tufts University.

"I've done research that shows, if you use 20 different methods that have been used to identify gifted kids, you get 20 different results," he says. "It just doesn't work."

He thinks the term "gifted" as it's used in education is a misnomer. "I wouldn't use it [gifted] except to describe someone who, through his or her accomplishments, has mastered some domain," says Feldman. "A ‘gifted pianist' makes sense. A ‘gifted 4-year-old' does not."

And the existence of gifted education as an institution is an obstacle to spreading the best ideas associated with it, he says. Feldman is a fan of "differentiation for all students," he says. Educators should be "trying to find a way to provide support for students to spread their wings and soar.

"But the problem is, there are now a set of vested interests. There are the testing companies, there are the people who are certified to teach gifted students, there are advocates and journals."

Feldman says he thinks the field is founded on good intentions-saving bright kids from classrooms that offer no academic stimulation. But he doesn't think current gifted programs are the best way to accomplish it.

Expecting more from all kids Smarting-up the general curriculum rather than tossing smart kids into a dumbed-down one might be a better approach. "If you set high standards and have high expectations, most kids will respond to that and most kids will do well," says Feldman. "But the core of the traditional field [of gifted education] isn't about that. It's really about kids going to the best colleges.

"I believe that the field of gifted education as traditionally practiced is dead."

Sally Walker, executive director of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, is fighting to get state funding restored. She doesn't agree gifted education is dead or that it should be abolished. She talked recently to the mother of a teenage girl who attempted suicide because she felt that none of her classmates or teachers understood her. Walker thinks the problem was a lack of outlets and support for the girl's intellectual gifts.

"Some kids say to me, ‘I just need to get through school so I can do my real work,' and they do that at home," she says. "School, for many of them, is a place just to be tolerated. It's not some place they love, and to me, that's a real crime."

However, Walker doesn't take offense at the suggestion that the problem is less about the lack of programs for gifted kids than the lack of challenge in the regular curriculum. She readily laments "the dumbing-down of textbooks."

And when pressed, she agrees. Sure, she says, get rid of gifted programs. "but then give me a well-trained teacher with a class size of eight. And then you're going to meet needs. But when you have a class size of 30 or more, and when you have textbooks that are insufficient, and teachers who don't know how to find resources or adapt them, it's very hard to meet the needs of these kids-of all kids."

In the meantime, Walker says, gifted education as an institution "provides the incentive and the professional development to ratchet up the curriculum for all. I've seen a lot of regular education really be improved because teachers have gone through gifted teaching. They see how they can differentiate, how they can use higher-order thinking skills, higher expectations. I've seen some wonderful things done."

State officials say they didn't actually cut gifted education, they just folded it into general state aid to schools, which increased by $303.5 million. Perhaps some of the increases will be used to train teachers in some of those methods that Walker promotes. For all kids.


RESOURCES Organizations Center for Gifted at National-Louis University Enrichment programs (847) 256-5150, ext. 2150

Illinois Association for Gifted Children Statewide advocacy group Annual convention is Feb. 8-10 at the Chicago Marriott Downtown (847) 963-1892

Northwestern Center for Talent Development Programs for gifted kids ages 3-18. Midwest Talent Search program administers identifying tests (847) 491-3782

Supporters and Advocates for Gifted Education (SAGE) Mount Prospect-based group of parents and teachers

Books The Survival Guide for Parents of Gifted Kids, by Sally Walker, director of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. Free Spirit Publishing, 2002, $14.95.

Rethinking Gifted Education, edited by James Borland, professor of education, Columbia University Teachers College. Teachers College Press, 2003, $48.



Dan Weissmann, a Chicago writer, spent 11 years writing about Chicago's public schools for Catalyst, an independent news-magazine about the city school system.


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