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.
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Jovan's fifth-grade teacher offered to help him work through an eighth-grade math book. And even more important, he recommended Jovan for a place in a relatively new public school in Hartford – The Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Breaking the class ceiling
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The school exudes a sense of order, but it's a place where students' enthusiasm bubbles as they hover over plants sprouting in a lab experiment or gather around an interactive whiteboard to roll virtual dice in a lesson on probability.
Such an atmosphere makes it more likely that students will stay engaged and go on to college, says Mr. Renzulli, cofounder of the academy. "They were so used to the disruptive nature of their [previous] schools ... [where] there was never any waiting their turn to speak," he says. "It was pushing and shoving.... Now [the kids have worked on] politeness, time management, self-control."
A highlight of Jovan's first year at Renzulli was the "Invention Convention" competition. His invention was "a prosthetic arm that could extend," he says. About a month before, during the school's "take apart day," students brought in old appliances and dismantled them. "I found a part of a fan that could rotate – I wanted the hand to rotate like this," he demonstrates as if turning a doorknob. Jovan's mom supplied a curtain rod. He dug out his sister's old arm brace and his dad's "big can of screws," and went on to win the local contest and compete statewide.
"What I like about this school is that there are many opportunities. You can make friends better," he says. "Bullying is not a problem."
Can we raise the ceiling and the floor?
Most American teachers are expected to reach students who are at wildly different points along the skills continuum. Their goal is to "differentiate" instruction to address individual students' needs. But it's not easy. Many teachers just don't have sufficient training or support.
Sixty-one percent of teachers say they can differentiate instruction a great deal. But among math teachers, only 46 percent say that, according to the 2010 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. In schools where fewer students go on to college, teachers are even less confident that they have this skill.
In some schools, technology is being deployed to give students more individualized tasks at whatever level challenges them.
But the majority of teachers know little about strategies to meet gifted students' needs. Only five states insist that all teachers have training in gifted education before they begin their jobs, notes a 2009 report by the NAGC. In 36 states, no such training is required of general education teachers at any point in their careers.
Students should be grouped by ability, some parents and educators say. But how that's done can be controversial. "Tracking" became a subject of hot debate in the 1980s, with critics saying that students who start off at a disadvantage, particularly minority and low-income kids, often get stuck in low-level classes and are not being prepared for higher education or skilled jobs.
Now, in some circles, even talking about ability grouping can be taboo. But supporters say the pendulum has swung too far.
"We have no problem having [varsity sports teams] and lavishing attention on those kids.... But we don't do that for math ... literature ... science," says Mr. Loveless, author of "The Tracking Wars."