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Back to school: Gifted students are ill-served

  • Article by: Stephen Schroeder-Davis
  • August 27, 2014 - 5:36 PM

 

For many children in Minnesota, Sept. 2 will signal a return to school and the excitement of entering the next grade level, with all the learning challenges that will entail.

But for a significant number of students, Sept. 2 means that the joys of learning will come to a grinding halt. Why? Because grade-level curriculum, including that based on the Common Core State Standards, is taught to an age-based median and so will inhibit their learning. The standards are not sufficiently challenging for them. In a state that prides itself on excellence and equity, how can this be?

A significant portion of our learners in every grade are beyond or well beyond grade-level standards. But their teachers have to scramble to make state standards accessible to their classmates, and so rarely have the time, resources or ability to revise the mandated curriculum and keep higher-readiness students learning. These students will therefore learn little or nothing this coming school year.

The students in question are the 80,000 or so gifted students in Minnesota who experience an invisible achievement gap between what they are capable of learning and what little they actually learn each school year. Ironically, the push for a more rigorous curriculum amplifies the problem, as higher standards increase the attention devoted to students who struggle to meet the new requirements, further marginalizing students who exceed even more challenging standards.

Further, standardized tests will not measure these students’ growth, or lack thereof, because the tests do not take into account how much the student knows at the start of the school year. Without measuring a starting point, it’s not possible to measure “growth.”

In addition, most of these students’ teachers will not have been prepared in their licensure programs to challenge them. Over a 10-year period, I’ve had occasion to ask about 400 new teachers, representing virtually every Minnesota school of education, if they had coursework devoted to gifted students during their undergraduate training. Of the 400, two reported having a course (or at least part of a course) devoted to meeting the needs of gifted students.

Minnesota teachers receive little professional development regarding the unique needs of gifted learners and are not likely to receive the necessary training any time soon. Virtually all professional development focuses on instructional efforts toward learners who have not yet reached “proficiency.”

Alarmingly, there will be no penalty or systemic redress if gifted students learn nothing this year. They will be passed to the next grade level, where in 2015-16, the same thing very likely will happen.

In schools with major educational initiatives such as Response to Intervention (RTI), gifted and high-ability learners still will be marginalized, as remediation is RTI’s primary focus. RTI is a program of increasingly intense interventions designed to move struggling students to grade-level proficiency — a crucial and important goal, but one so consuming that students who are beyond grade level, and therefore struggling to learn anything, fall off the radar.

The federal government recently reinstated categorical funding for gifted education to the tune of $5 million, which works out to about $1.36 per gifted student, an amount so vanishingly small compared with the billions of dollars America spends on education that it wouldn’t be visible if I tried to show it on a chart.

Ignoring an entire population of students gives lie to every district mission statement I have ever read and violates everything “educational equity” should represent. But until education focuses on the growth of each student, stagnation will remain the painful reality for most gifted students.

 

Stephen Schroeder-Davis is a curriculum specialist for the Elk River Public Schools. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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