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Subtracting a 'gifted' gap in math education

Project M3 steers often-overlooked students from low income and minority backgrounds into advanced math classes.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2007



WEST HARTFORD, CONN.

When Katherine Gavin taught algebra to seventh-graders with advanced math skills, she found it was almost too late to tap into their potential. Accustomed to math coming easily, they sometimes resented the work. The key, she decided, is to grab kids when they still believe "the fun part of math is the challenge ... and persisting [until] you get that 'aha!' moment."

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Now she's witnessing those treasured discoveries among third- to fifth-graders as director of Project M3: Mentoring Mathematical Minds. Based at the University of Connecticut's Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, it's designed to nurture math talent in a diverse group of students. About half come from low-income families, and many are not native English speakers.

Ms. Gavin recalls a girl whose family spoke Spanish at home. When she was chosen for Project M3, her teacher was surprised, having planned to hold the girl back because she wasn't doing well at reading. "We said, 'We see a lot of good creative and critical thinking skills in her' ... and she ended up being one of the top students when she left fifth grade."

An independent evaluation shows students have significantly outperformed control groups in the 10 Connecticut and Kentucky schools where Project M3 has been piloted.

Too often, experts say, students from low-income backgrounds or certain minority groups are overlooked for placement in gifted and talented programs. "I can think of no other issue in the field of gifted education that is more important than that we find these students whose potential must not be lost," says Joyce VanTassel-Baska, president of the National Association for Gifted Children and a professor at the College of William & Mary.

Data on low-income students in gifted programs nationally dates back to the late 1980s, when a study of eighth-graders found that only 9 percent came from the lowest-income group, while 47 percent came from the highest.

In 1985, the federal government set up "Javits grants" to serve groups traditionally underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. Project M3 is now in its fifth and final year of a $3 million Javits grant. Overall, the federal money pales in comparison with other education programs – just about one penny per child identified as gifted, Dr. VanTassel-Baska says – but it has helped spur progress. School systems have begun to use a better variety of assessments, for instance, including nonverbal tests to find talents that might be masked if students are still mastering language skills.

One barrier is that many schools still look to teacher referrals before evaluating students for gifted programs, says Donna Ford, an education professor at Vanderbilt and codirector of that university's Achievement Gap Project. "Teacher training is critical to recognize potential," she says, but few teachers learn much about gifted education or how to work with culturally and linguistically diverse students. Project M3 took these issues to heart, using a wide range of measures to identify second-graders with "talent potential," and then building in extensive support for teachers.

"It's a little intimidating to an elementary teacher to try to teach a program like this, because it's high-level math," says Jo-Ann Lizon, who taught the M3 curriculum to two groups of fourth-graders at Charter Oak Academy of Global Studies in West Hartford, Conn. The students participate for three years, working on concepts one to two grade levels above what's typical. Every step of the way, Ms. Lizon says, "the support was unbelievable."

Nearly one-third from non-English-speaking households

For two weeks in the summer, she and fellow teachers went through the curriculum with the developers, pointing out any trouble spots. During the school year, they have four professional development days and weekly visits from a Project M3 specialist.

About 30 percent of the students at Charter Oak are from families that speak a language other than English at home. They particularly benefit from the emphasis on vocabulary, discourse, and writing in M3. "I've seen the growth – in discussions about math, working on a team, solving problems, thinking on a higher level," Principal Mary Thompson says.

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