GUEST COMMENTARY: Gifted programs are under siege; no child may be left to excel

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 | 3:01 p.m. CST; updated 6:42 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advocates for gifted education are worried.

They are concerned that Missouri School Improvement Program 4 will be revised in a  way that causes gifted students to suffer.

Currently, gifted children are identified and provided with differentiated instruction.

While each school district has the option to provide specialized instruction for gifted students, the present standard ensures that certain procedures are followed when gifted instruction is provided.  

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has said that proposed changes will not affect current standards for gifted education, but future changes could modify those standards.

Becky Smith, president of the Gifted Association of Missouri, said she isn't sure whether gifted programs will be affected. Part of the concern is due to the way standards are modified.

Originally, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was revising three types of standards — performance, process and resource.

Performance standards measure student performance. Those measures include tests, attendance rates and graduation rates.

Process standards are instructional and administrative processes. They apply to gifted education, as well as education for children with learning disabilities and requirements for curriculum guides, among others.

Resource standards deal with such issues as class size and program offerings.

According to Margie Vandeven, assistant commissioner with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the standard that applies to gifted education could be changed when process standards are addressed.

But, she said: "At this time it is premature to talk about how some of the social populations (such as gifted children) will be addressed at the process and resource standards."

The department has decided to revise performance standards first, then tackle process and resource revisions. The recommendations for process and resource standards are due in August. A comment period will occur before that, but the schedule has not been determined.

Gifted programs are under other stresses. Funding for schools was changed in 2005, and starting in the 2006-07 school year, gifted funding was combined with general funding for schools. Districts could allocate the money however they wished.

So, advocates for gifted education are not even thinking about improvements. They are in a defensive action to avoid even more cuts.

According to Marilyn Toalson, a gifted program teacher at Rock Bridge High School who has worked with gifted children since the early '80s, the effect has been to reduce resources for gifted education.

According to Toalson, "They put all the money in a pocket, so gifted was no longer on the top of that foundation formula. It just got rolled in like everything else. The standards got taken away. You can do whatever you want. So I just became like a regular FTE (full time employee).

"So (this is) what happens … in a small school or any school. It has happened here, too. If you have 35 kids in an English class, you want to hire another English teacher. If you have 220 kids in the gifted class, you are not worried about that. You’re saying, they’ll get what they need. So let’s take that FTE and hire another English teacher."

Toalson compared the resources for gifted students — the top 2 percent or 3 percent of the population — to the resources used for the learning-disabled students at Rock Bridge.

For roughly 220 children in each group, one person is assigned to gifted students, while learning-disabled children have about 25 teachers to work with them.

Robin Lady echoed this sentiment. She is a gifted education specialist for the Rockwood School District in suburban St. Louis and the legislative/public issues representative for GAM.

In her experience, there are often eight special education teachers for every gifted education teacher.

The No Child Left Behind Act serves the underachieving, but the brightest students are left by the wayside, Smith said.

No child may be left behind, but no child is left to excel.

Between budget cuts and No Child Left Behind, the debate seems to concentrate on ensuring that every student meets a basic level of achievement. This is a necessary and laudable goal.

What is missing is how to make education fun and exciting so students can naturally excel.

As long as the focus is on the underachieving, our education system will never become superior.

Greatness needs to be a focus at least as much as underachievement.

The best place to start would be with our brightest students.

Joseph Sparks is an MU student.

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Derrick Fogle November 23, 2011 | 5:35 p.m.

Under siege, as it should be. Why only 5% or 10% of students? The TAG student population is so overwhelmingly white male, there's no way it could possibly really represent truly "gifted" kids.

This model of education should be available to every student, not just the ones that score the best on tests designed by predominantly white male liberal academics.

Too bad we're headed in the opposite direction, and why?

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 23, 2011 | 9:27 p.m.

Some of the most talented students are minorities: females from countries such as India, China, South Korea and Pakistan. The current generation isn't the first to dominate, either. The fields of science, engineering and medicine are filled with those kids' parents and grandparents.

(Report Comment)

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