Committing to the challenge of addressing the needs of gifted learners
That Was Then
Middle schools and their guiding philosophies were created in reaction to junior and senior high schools’ lack of attention to developmental and academic needs of young adolescents. This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents and other writings of the last 60 years include the tenet that every student should be challenged and held to high expectations and the fundamental belief that all students should have the opportunity to engage with challenging curriculum. Prior generations addressed this through tracking, which in many schools was implemented for political reasons and resulted in discrimination and labeling that harmed many students. So this conflict between excellence and equity is not new.
Tom Erb’s 1997 book, Dilemmas in Talent Development, presented opposing views by Paul George (of National Middle School Association (NMSA)) and Joe Renzulli (of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)), which identified problems without offering any solutions. There didn’t seem to be common ground between developmental responsiveness and advanced academic and intellectual potential, between using achievement grouping and the value of heterogeneous classroom experiences, and about the role of education to meet individual needs or meet standards that were adequate for most, but not all.
When Carol Tomlinson’s differentiation work was first published in 1999 by ASCD (perhaps taking its title from Virgil Ward’s 1980 book Differential Education for the Gifted), many middle school advocates saw this as the solution for gifted and advanced learners who were not being adequately challenged and for whom expectations were often not high enough to stretch them. Tomlinson and others from NMSA and NAGC met and, after sometimes acrimonious debate, developed the 2004 NMSA/NAGC position statement and Call to Action. Personally, as a teacher with one foot in middle grades education and one in gifted education, I was excited and optimistic. It was designed to guide middle school teachers, administrators, and support personnel in creating developmentally appropriate, academically challenging experiences for gifted and advanced young adolescents. Interestingly, the word “gifted” was omitted because it carried too much baggage (political and social) and instead, the words “high ability and high potential” were substituted. Of course, this ignored the social and emotional aspects of intellectual and academic giftedness…but it was a good start for significant change. Or so I thought. Sadly, by 2011, my optimism had begun to fade.
The Call to Action section of the statement urged district and school leaders to ensure that there is a welcoming climate; help teachers gain “meaningful knowledge” about gifted learners and how to meet their needs; develop flexible identification systems for diverse populations; use organizational structures to meet the needs of high ability adolescents; encourage collaboration to ensure appropriate services for gifted learners; ensure a continuum of services; provide counseling; develop and communicate written plans to guide educational planning for advanced learners; and regularly evaluate the effectiveness of curriculum, instruction, resources, and other services. Based on my experiences in the middle level over the last decade or so, few of these have taken place in most schools. In fact, in many districts, middle school leaders are rarely aware that this initiative ever existed.
The Call to Action section of the statement also urged teachers, gifted education specialists, and support personnel to: be knowledgeable about gifted students and those with potential to achieve at exceptionally high levels; meet regularly to discuss high ability students; provide curriculum and instruction as well as other opportunities to meet these students’ needs; use developmentally appropriate instructional practices; collaborate with elementary and high school colleagues to ensure smooth transitions for gifted students; and keep parents informed about their children’s growth and provide them with a voice in educational planning. Again in my experience, preservice and inservice experiences provide little or no information or skills for meeting the needs of gifted learners. Team meetings are more about struggling and misbehaving students than gifted learners, especially the gifted who are cooperative and meeting the school behavior norms.
Developmentally appropriate instructional practices often omit the intellectual dimension of the development of the whole young adolescent, instead tending to focus on the typical young adolescent needs (frequent activity, hands-on experiences, socializing, basic skill building) and an outdated model that believes students are unable to do analytical and abstract thinking at this age.
While students may have received gifted programming and opportunities in elementary school, and while there are frequently conferences between elementary and middle school special education teachers, there are rarely such smooth transitions for gifted learners or their parents. High school teachers and counselors are rarely given important information about students entering their honors and advanced classes or those who were identified as gifted earlier in their school careers.
This Is Now
A 2017 study published in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted (Callahan, Moon, & Oh), “Describing the Status of Programs for the Gifted,” looked at elementary, middle, and high schools. The middle school data provided “a picture of current practices (that) was often a mirror of practices from 20 or more years ago.” More than 40% of the middle schools responded that they did not use any particular approach supported in the gifted education literature, indicating a continued lack of collaboration or “cross-pollinating” that was the goal of the joint position statement.
While the vision of gifted education identified in the position statement may need to be revised or updated, it would be naïve and useless not to reflect on some of the obstacles that have contributed to the stall in progress. No Child Left Behind and its subsequent incarnations demand for accountability and testing—with its accompanying pressure on teachers—as well as new teacher evaluation rubrics that emphasize students’ test scores. Once advanced students meet the minimum standards of their grade level, it is easy for teachers to ignore them and focus on “the bubble kids” and others who are not achieving where others believe they could or should be.
Increasing populations of second language learners and special needs students and the accompanying federal and state requirements certainly require our attention and our resources. And their needs are often urgent and sizeable. We have a responsibility to do our best to help bring these students up to grade level whenever possible and to identify gifts and talents that are easy to miss in these underserved populations.
In addition, misunderstanding of cooperative learning and groupwork (and their impact on gifted and advanced students) as well as outdated views on grouping (accompanied by the belief that any kind of achievement grouping is “tracking”) stand in the way of helping gifted and advanced learners maximize their potential. The current emphasis on “grit” and “effort” has contributed to our failure to recognize talent and inherent ability when and where it exists.
The students most affected by these biases are gifted minority students and those from poverty—exactly the individuals we were hoping to protect by eliminating honors and advanced classes and within-class achievement groups. While middle and upper class majority students and their families will build on their abilities through activities outside of school, it is our minority students who need our programming the most. This is why early and continual identification processes are essential, and for transient and late-blooming students we need to continue to look for academic and intellectual potential throughout middle school.
While elementary schools often have gifted intervention specialists on-site, middle schools might have part-time, itinerant gifted teachers who rarely have time to build relationships with or provide ongoing professional support to teachers, counselors, and parents.
And the Future?
The first steps in making change are knowledge and commitment. There are many resources—print, electronic, and human—to assist any middle school that decides that educating its gifted and advanced students is of importance, rather than waiting to just acknowledge students through MathCounts competitions or as National Merit Scholars later in high school.
State and local gifted conferences provide opportunities to network with other middle school educators as well as share resources and ideas.
Including in their observations and evaluations how teachers are addressing the needs of their gifted students may provide the incentive teachers need to add to their repertoire of skills and knowledge. Often this support can be provided in-house by the district’s own gifted intervention specialists.
Shared reading and study groups on this issue by teams and departments could shed light on how others are approaching this issue. For example, the English department could read the NAGC publication Using the Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts with Gifted and Advanced Learners. There are also similar volumes for mathematics and science.
It’s really about our will. Do we have the will to tackle this challenge and follow through on the commitments to action made decades ago by our professional organizations?
Callahan, C.M., Moon, T.R., and Oh, S. (2017). Describing the status of programs for the gifted: A call for action. Journal for the Education for the Gifted, 40(10), 20–49.
Erb, T.O. (Ed.). (1997). Dilemmas in talent development in the middle grades: Two views. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Tomlinson, C.A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Van Tassel-Baska, J., & Hughes, C. (2013). Using the Common Core State Standards with gifted and advanced learners in the English language arts. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Ward, V. (1980). Differential education for the gifted. Los Angeles, CA: National/State Leadership Training Institute on the Gifted and the Talented.