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The other end of the spectrum: Are we leaving them behind?

1st Oct '12 | by Bob Collins
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For many years I served as a Regional Superintendent and later as the Chief Instructional Officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District. By far, one of the most challenging aspects of those responsibilities was meeting the needs of gifted and talented children. They were the forgotten children as school districts balanced budgets and prioritized student needs. The statement most often heard was, “Those children will be O.K. They’re already ahead.” What we have learned is that without a focus on this student population’s needs, they will not be O.K. and we place at risk a significant number of our students.

How many students are we talking about? There are approximately 4 million identified gifted and talented young people in the U.S. in public and charter schools. Key is the word identified – experience tells us that many gifted and talented students are not formally identified.

The above figures do not include those students enrolled in private schools. In private schools that include both secular and parochial programs there are currently 4.5+ million students enrolled in elementary schools and 1.5+ million in secondary schools.

The issues continually raised by parents of gifted and talented students and reflected often in their child’s academic achievement are, “My child is bored and my child isn’t being challenged.” Why is this the case? More often than not, public and charter schools are constrained by funding issues. Supplemental funding to address the needs of this student population is insufficient, and more often than not, the first to be cut is times of fiscal stress. Gifted and talented instruction is also not a federal or state mandate like those funded under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), making it optional for schools and districts. And there just aren’t that many advocates for this child. While we often hear words of support, they are seldom followed with budgetary or policy actions.

Complicating the issue further is the idea among a large number of educators is that their program is already motivating and challenging and that every student is going to do fine. They just don’t understand that many of the students in front of them learned multiplication and division of fractions in the 2nd and 3rd grade by themselves.

"They're exceptional children. They aren't going to learn to the fullest extent of their abilities in the regular classroom with the regular curriculum. That's going to cause a whole set of problems. And until you understand it, your natural reaction is why do we need to pay any attention to these kids when there are so many others with problems." (Joseph Renzulli, Director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented)

The reality is that in most American schools gifted kids aren't getting much acceleration or enrichment because there's no federal mandate regarding gifted education, state spending isn't focused on it, and most teachers were never trained in how to do it. Unless they have particularly savvy--or pushy, depending how you view it--parents, gifted kids often languish away in the regular education system, perhaps treated to an hour or two of part-time, pull out gifted program a week. (Rebecca Sausner, District Administration, Sep 2005)
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