Gifted Children Left Behind: Advocacy & Alternatives
PHP Guest Blogger, Suzannah Kolbeck is the executive director of HoneyFern, Inc., a non-profit private school whose mission is to create a community that cultivates caring, intelligent and curious learners. Suzannah has over a decade of experience in public schools, teaching and learning with gifted students.
Most gifted kids in traditional schools are not being challenged. Shuffled between No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, reorganized into Common Core Standards stretching across the country, and then, in some school districts gifted program entry standards have been relaxed, or muddled entirely, to allow services for non-gifted but high-achieving students, or to block services for the gifted yet underachieving, twice-exceptional, or those with conduct challenges. Gifted students get short shrift in their schooling, which shows up in their persistence and motivation as they come of age. Best efforts are masked by work that is too easy. Rather than being compared to their intellectual peers and inherent ability, gifted learners are too often compared to same-age peers. At root, their unique needs are not taken into account when curriculum and process are being designed most classrooms.
According to a research conducted by the Gates Foundation and reported in The Silent Epidemic, the result of the inattention to the unique needs of gifted learners is:
Nearly half (47 percent) said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting. These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school. Almost as many (42 percent) spent time with peoplewho were not interested in school. These were among the top reasons selected by those with high GPAs and by those who said they were motivated to work hard.
Nearly 7 in 10 respondents (69 percent) said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard, 80 percent did one hour or less of homework each day in high school, two-thirds would have worked harder if more was demanded of them…
So how can we change this, especially given the extent of the economic climate that continues to impact schools and their funding, including consolidating or eliminating some gifted programs altogether? Think of education as a three-legged stool with the parent, the school and the student holding up the seat. If one leg doesn’t work, the stool falls down. Here are suggestions for all three legs:
You know your child better than anyone, and you can be your child’s most effective advocate. Watch for sudden changes in behavior patterns, such as:
- notations on the report card that your student is talking too much or bothering their peers, coupled with
- suddenly sloppy work
- a rise in grades across the board (e.g. all high-percentage A’s, 98-100% in academic classes),
- sudden withdrawal and a precipitous decline in grades, or
- an intellectually gifted student saying things like “I hate school,” or “It’s too boring/easy.”
These signs may indicate that your child is not being adequately challenged in class. Extreme fluctuations are warning signs, however, minor fluctuations one way or another is normal.
Talk with your student about the work being done in class. Sit down and look at their homework. Depending on your parenting style, there are a couple different approaches you can use:
- Express your concerns to your student and ask for their explanation of what is happening in class. Ask them if the work is interesting to them, why or why not, and ask them if they have spoken to the teacher. Check in to see what the class routine is like – lots of whole-class instruction, lots of movement and independent work, a bit of both: whatever the day looks like. You are trying to determine where your student fits in and where the disconnect might be. Stress to your child that that they are a big part of their education, and sometimes things aren’t always fun or interesting. Help them to find ways to focus on what excites them about what they are learning, even if they are not thrilled with the subject. For example, if you have a student who hates math but loves gardening, work the geometry angle by having them design and construct a raised bed garden, then research plants that will do well, planning the season from start to finish. Have them figure out how much they will need to plant to feed your family for the growing season and how much money they will save.
- Talk with the teacher. Tell them you have noticed that your student’s grades or engagement has changed and you are wondering what the teacher is observing in class. Work to keep the conversation with all school personnel win-win. Think of the teacher as your partner, and assume that they want the best for your child, too. Ask for suggestions of possible learning extensions for the curriculum, including field trips and other websites you can study with your student outside of class. Offer to provide needed classroom resources for your child. Keep an eye out for enrichment opportunities in your community that match your child’s interests, including volunteer opportunities for your student.
School culture is difficult to change and requires commitment and long-term thinking. However, there are some important developments happening in education that will help gifted students better engage in the classroom. Project-based learning (PBL, sometimes referred to as problem-based learning), an old idea in education that started in medical schools, is gaining new traction in schools, with successful projects all over the country. Even in standardized classrooms, PBL offers room for not only basic skill instruction, which is often what is holding back gifted students who already know the material, but also the chance to work collaboratively and deeply on a project of significance, building not only content and core knowledge but also critical thinking and problem-solving skills. PBL can be implemented school-wide or simply one classroom at a time providing both immediate solutions and an opportunity for cultural change. PBL helps students develop seven critical skills for success in life, not the least of which is flexibility and adaptability, as well as creativity and imagination.
In addition to PBL, schools can develop a way to individualize curriculum for students who must go farther to learn; this can be a period of independent study during the day (e.g. pursuing a student-led but teacher-mentored project), subject acceleration (e.g. if the student is highly gifted in reading they should move to an higher level for that class), whole grade acceleration for students who qualify with a combination of testing and portfolio evidence, or some combination of these techniques. Combined with daily quality instruction that includes tiered assignments, curriculum compacting and true differentiation of tasks, questions, reading materials and assessment opportunities gifted learners will have the opportunity to learn. Teachers can get better at getting to know their learners’ interests and abilities so that they can design effective and engaging activities for everyone in their classrooms!
The Center for the Gifted identifies five patterns for underachievement. The longer a child is sent to the corner to read, the more likely they are to fit one of these patterns. Motivation is a four-letter word for the checked-out gifted kid, and the longer they are checked out, the harder it is to bring them back. There is a very simple math formula to solve this problem, though:
Patience + persistence = success/time
Learners must be involved in their education. By empowering learners to make decisions about what they would like to learn, asking them how they would like to learn, and the manner in which they would like to show what they know, motivation is fostered and life-long learners are created
Consider the following 9th grade Common Core Standard:
Standard for Literacy in Ninth-Grade History
Compare and contrast findings presented in a text to those from other sources, noting when the findings support or contradict previous explanations or accounts.
Does it matter what the findings are in one text, or what the other sources are as long as they demonstrate these standards? And does it matter how the findings are presented for this particular standard? No. Students need to engage themselves in shaping their own understandings; this helps develop true confidence in their abilities while making them active participants instead of passive vessels.
Your advocacy for gifted child may make the difference in how her school approaches this standard.
There are other ways of educating gifted children outside of public school, away from expensive private schools. Many districts now offer free online schooling, which can be simply a continuation of public school, just at home, so be selective, and homeschooling has expanded its offerings to include co-ops, a wide array of classes specifically for homeschooled students and hybrid programs such as HoneyFern School that offer the accreditation and curriculum coordination of a private school with the flexibility and individualization of a homeschool. Dual enrollment and early enrollment in college, as well as internships and other travel and volunteer opportunities open up the world for gifted kids not being served in their traditional setting. Several families have sold everything they own, rented out their house and embarked upon a year of (low-budget) travel to experience the world they are preparing their children for firsthand. You can work and homeschool, and you need not spend your life savings to provide a good education for your child. One long-term, large-sample research study of homeschooled students showed that education level of parents did not matter at all when it came to the quality of schooling for homeschooled kids and that homeschooled kids scored an average of 18-28% higher on standardized tests (with no statistically significant differences for gender, income or race of the families). This is not your grandfather’s homeschool!
Regardless of the option you choose, do not let your child languish in the corner, skills undeveloped, talents wasted, bored. All students deserve to bloom!