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Minnesota’s schools should help often-overlooked gifted students shine

In recent years, the education debate has become increasingly politicized. Whether we’re talking about No Child Left Behind, vouchers, charter schools or Q-Comp, the future of Minnesota’s educational system relies now more than ever on decisions made largely along party lines. So in the midst of all this, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture: the goal of every school, public or private, charter or magnet, should be to help all students within their walls to reach their full potential, and to prepare them for the future in the manner most appropriate to each individual child.

The most visible example of students who require additional, specialized help in order to reach their full potential are those in special-education programs, and they both deserve and benefit from every bit of attention and care that these programs provide. However, an equal-sized pool of students exists, students who, like those in special education, need specialized curricula and one-on-one sessions outside the classroom in order for the school system to adequately serve their needs. These students are too often overlooked when school districts decide how to spend their education dollars. I know this because I was one of them, as I was identified as gifted when I was still in kindergarten.

The issue of giftedness and its role in our school system can be easily misunderstood. In middle school and high school, I heard fellow students, parents, and even teachers wonder aloud why there needed to be a specialized gifted program. After all, why focus money, time and energy on a small group of students who seem predisposed to succeed when there are a far greater number of students who struggle in a classroom setting? And who gets to define what it means to be gifted, anyway? These questions are understandable, and they still exist today because the gifted community has neglected to advocate on its own behalf. So my goal is to begin to address these issues as someone who’s been through the process firsthand.

Giftedness is hard to define
What does it mean to be gifted, anyway?  There is no simple answer, as giftedness is, admittedly, incredibly hard to define.  As an attempt to make a start, however, being gifted has a lot to do with potential and ability. Just as you have gifted musicians and gifted athletes, gifted students have the same potential for high achievement in academic areas. This doesn’t mean that these students are in some way better than everyone else, but for many of them, learning just comes more easily. In effect, they are “born to learn.”

It’s the difference between the piano student who learns Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata after two weeks of work and the student who’s still practicing it two months later. Both students can master the piece, but one needs to work harder to get there. Different things come naturally to different people, and for students like me, learning comes naturally.

This brings me to why gifted students need special attention in a school setting. Over the years, a traditional classroom education has become incredibly good at meeting the needs of most students. There might be a little variation in how well or how fast each of them learns, but all in all, it’s a great setup. Students who learn in a markedly different fashion from their peers, however, need specialized help to make sure that they’re challenged and to ensure that they’re learning at the pace best-suited to their abilities.

The question of pace
If someone is far ahead of her classmates in algebra, for example, she should have the opportunity to move on to the next topic ahead of her peers, and what’s more, she should be encouraged to do so, as should other students with similar talents.  Research by Dr. Karen Rogers, a renowned scholar in the field of gifted education, has shown that grouping high-performing, high-ability gifted students together in a social and academic setting increases achievement by up to 80 percent of an additional class year’s work for each subject studied, depending on the grouping option provided. For elementary and secondary students, that level of growth is incredible.

These students are, quite literally, our best and our brightest; we need to ensure that students who learn best when presented with additional challenges (at a faster pace) are given the help and expertise they need to make that happen.

Andrew Guyton is a communications associate with Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/04/2009 - 09:33 am.

    Some of the most gifted students I have known, both as classmates and as an adult, were close to flunking out of high school. Their extreme intelligence and quickness left them with a very low tolerance for conformity and an equally low tolerance for doing seemingly endless amounts of homework aimed at rehearsing skills they had long since mastered.

    (Failure to do such homework, or to do it in ways that appeared neat and well-organized, and failure to turn in assignments that were useless to them often resulted in very low grades.)

    Since these students also tended to be creative, and respond creatively to their boredom in the classroom in ways that may not have been helpful or amusing to their already-overworked teachers, many of their teachers saw them not as “gifted” but as problem students, if not downright pains in the backside.

    In the end, many of these very bright, very creative students end up having had such a negative experience of school that they are very unlikely ever to proceed to post secondary school and if they do, often have turned to marginally “anti-social” behaviors and have developed such attitude problems toward their teachers and authority figures in general as the result of their high school experience that they do not do well at the post secondary level, either.

    I can’t help but wonder how many of our brightest, most creative minds we’re wasting in this society because rather than providing the resources and programs necessary to identify, then help shape and direct these highly intelligent, creatively gifted, non-conforming students (regular classroom teachers can not be expected to do this), we ignore their intelligence and waste endless time trying to outsmart them in order to force them into our preconceived notions of what a “good student” is (i.e. a hard working, perfectly conformist, cheerful, and respectful little worker bee such as somewhat less gifted people like me were in high school).

    How much better off would we be, as a society if we identified our most gifted students early, provided them with psychologically healthy teachers who were their intellectual equals, taught them everything they could learn as fast as they could learn it, then turned them loose to see what new things they might create?

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 09/04/2009 - 01:59 pm.

    As a parent who has helped his gifted child maneuver through this, my sole focus was on what we believed was best for our child–and what she wanted to do. By the middle of her sophomore year at a public high school, she had churned her way through most of the AP courses available.

    As a high school junior, she began taking college courses through Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) half-time and spent the other half at her high school, completing the last few remaining classes she needed for graduation. Her senior year was 100 percent PSEO.

    Most of the support she needed from me was not to convince the secondary school of her desire to move on, but rather dealing with the MnSCU campus she went to as a junior, and the University of Minnesota during her senior year. By the midpoint of her sophomore year she determined that this was something she wanted to pursue with our help.

    Party politics certainly impact the larger view of developing programs that ostensibly help young people advance their education. At the micro level, however, the real issue is wading through the bureaucracies and making it all work.

    The mechanisms and opportunities are out there, but it is ultimately up to the student and his/her parents to take advantage of them.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/04/2009 - 06:56 pm.

    Another problem that gifted children face is the anti-intellectualism of our society.

    We have no problem at all honoring the athletically gifted. They are treated like royalty in most school districts, and colleges come knocking at their doors, even if they’re mediocre students. Mainstream newspapers write articles about them, and their college admissions process is reported on the local evening news.

    By contrast, the intellectually and artistically gifted learn early in life to keep a low profile. They become bully magnets at school. Their own parents may tell them, “You read too much,” or “Quit spending so much time with that violin. Do you want people to think you’re queer?” The school curriculum doesn’t challenge them, and they may not even go to college, because no one tells them that private colleges in particular want highly intelligent students and will even compete for them.

    Complaints like these invariably bring cries of “Oh, you’re a snob,” or “You think you’re so wonderful.”

    But stop and think. Do you consider a gifted athlete snobbish or egotistical if he shows you what he is capable of? No? Then why do you say that about an intellectually or artistically gifted young person?

  4. Submitted by Jacquelynn Goessling on 09/19/2009 - 11:32 am.

    As a parent of a “profoundly gifted” eight year-old who was identified as “different” at the age of three by the pre-school director who told us that they would like us to take him out of the school because there was simply “nothing more that they could do for him”, I would like to encourage every parent of a bright kid to learn as much as they can about gifted kids and to immediately start advocating for their child and those like them (many unidentified, especially children of color in MN) to receive the services that they deserve.

    At the Minneapolis Public Schools Three Year-Old Assessment we were told by the representative of the MPS system not to send our child to public school in Minneapolis unless we were prepared to advocate for him “as if he were profoundly retarded”. The MPS were simply “not equipped to teach anyone in the five percent on either end of the spectrum”, she said.

    There are, however, people who are prepared to do it and to help parents navigate the steep learning curve required to both understand their children and to understand the “systems” in place in MN to teach these outliers.

    We started with an assessment with a specialist, then joined the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented (http://www.mcgt.net/)which has monthly educational meetings, a resource library, social events and myriad people who have been there before you.

    It was at a MCGT gathering that we first saw our child unfold socially and interact in a way that was neither awkward or offensive; he had “found his people”.

    From there we started research into the metropolitan school districts that offered services to the gifted.

    What we found was that there is exponential difference between a “gifted child” and a “profoundly gifted child” in terms of academic work and that there are programs that are directed towards both, but that a gifted child will experience immense social gains just from being around other kids like him/her.

    We “parked” our child in a Bloomington Public School for a year so that he would be in position to enter a gifted program that began in Third Grade. There were seven other students in his class (and six-to-eight in each of the other two Second Grade classes) that were in that school for the same reason and during that year our son grew more socially than we really ever conceived would be possible because he realized that he wasn’t the “weirdo” that he had been labeled at his previous school and that he wasn’t alone.

    That there are so few resources in the public schools (and none in the MPS system with the exception of pull-out services)is atrocious and shameful.

    One of the reasons that the diabled community (both mental and physical) is so well-served today is the direct result of organizing and advocate training that took place in the 1960s and 1970s; the ADA didn’t just happen, it was made to happen.

    The parents that work today to pressure school districts to develop and fund programs for the gifted are the people that will make a difference for these special kids in years to come.

  5. Submitted by Jacquelynn Goessling on 09/19/2009 - 11:43 am.

    I also wanted to add something in relation to Greg’s comment

    “Some of the most gifted students I have known, both as classmates and as an adult, were close to flunking out of high school. Their extreme intelligence and quickness left them with a very low tolerance for conformity and an equally low tolerance for doing seemingly endless amounts of homework aimed at rehearsing skills they had long since mastered.”

    This is absolutely true, mostly of boys. Because of the “wiring” differences between boys and girls, there are drastic differences in their response to being bored.

    Boys tend to doodle, space out, become dispirited, depressed, angry and “check out”. Believe it or not, this first happens at about Fourth Grade and then again in high school. They often don’t finish the work they see as too simple for them and gradually give up on school all-together. Their behavior is seen as rebellious, anti-authoritarian and unacceptable thus furthering their sense of isolation and misunderstanding.

    Girls, on the other hand, are more social than boys of the same age and tend to quickly finish their work and move on to other things, such as working on the school paper, running the French Club or excelling in an out-of-school program like Girl Scouts. They rarely suffer the extremes of mood (although they do happen, girls seem better at being “chameleons” and seeming happy, which is not to say they are) and find ways to fit in socially even if they aren’t academically challenged.

    Studies show that the earlier children are identified as profoundly gifted, the less of this isolation they suffer. This is particularly critical in the case of children of color, as their parents tend to be less educated and less likely to identify the children as gifted, and the inherent racism of institutions make for late (if ever) identity of these kids. This also tends to be a concern mostly for African-American children, Native American children and Latinos, as (to make a gross generalization) Asian and East Indian families seem to value and expect more academically.

    There is so much work to be done here that it seems daunting, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are good school services.

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