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Back to school: Are we leaving gifted students behind?

Gifted students in US public schools can be overlooked and unappreciated. Parents, looking for better options, have begun to find some.

By Staff writer, Photos by Melanie Stetson FreemanStaff photographer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 31, 2011

Sarah MacHarg(r.) attends class at the Davidson Academy in Reno, Nev. This is the cover story in the Aug. 29 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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Reno, Nev.; and Hartford, Conn.

Ian McKeachie is a freckled 15-year-old who "drifted along" in elementary school. Not because he didn't love to learn or because it wasn't a good school, but because he mastered new concepts so quickly that the classroom work presented no challenge.

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"My teachers would usually use me as a tutor for the other kids," he says, "so I was engaged in school, just not in a way that had me learning."

Ian had hit a sort of "class ceiling" – the limits advanced students often encounter in an education system that groups kids by age and gives teachers little training or time to cater to individual needs.

Then he found a school designed to shatter that ceiling.

His first two weeks in world history class there were devoted to learning how to analyze historical events and the ideas that served as their driving force. They looked at overarching themes in history, not just individual events. Ian had never done such in-depth academic analysis. Before that, he says, "I didn't really know how much faster I could move, how much more I could learn."

The Davidson Academy opened in Ian's hometown of Reno, Nev., in 2006, and Ian entered a year later. All the students are considered "profoundly gifted," at the highest end of the ability range. It's a public school, free to students. But it has a private-school feel because philanthropic funding keeps student-teacher ratios low.

He and his schoolmates are, by definition, exceptional. But how many more American students share their experience of idling in their classrooms, unaware of their potential, or bursting with frustration because only a fraction of their curiosity and capability is tapped?

If public education helps all students achieve basic skill levels, is that enough? Should it be up to parents and students to find ways to take learning to a higher level, or does society have something to gain if more schools make it part of their mission?

What holds the ceiling in place?

One of the joists in the "class ceiling" that many observers point to is No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The goals of the federal education law, in effect since 2002, include bringing all students up to math and reading "proficiency" – grade-level skills – and closing achievement gaps correlated with race, income, and other factors.

Laudable goals, most agree, but critics take issue with how the resulting testing system has dominated schooling and led to unintended consequences – like neglect of students who might otherwise zoom ahead.

"Because the accountability systems are so focused on the lowest-performing students, teachers see A's and B's and good standardized test scores and they say, 'OK, they're fine, we don't have to focus attention on them,' " says John Bridgeland, chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, an education and policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

The teaching in many schools is prescriptive, even scripted. "We have squeezed out of the curriculum the kinds of things that really contribute to the next generation of highly creative, productive, inventive, entrepreneurial people," says Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. It happens most "oppressively" in schools that serve poor and minority children, he adds.

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