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

In recent years, the education debate has become increasingly politicized.

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.