Sally M. Reis
Professor, Educational Psychology
Neag School of Education
Almost 24 years ago I returned home to my former school district to teach English in the junior high school I had attended. I began teaching, a veteran of two years of experience in another city, filled with excitement and a mission to improve my school, and worked with colleagues who had been my own teachers. After completing graduate courses in gifted and talented education, I faced the challenge of developing a comprehensive gifted program in my hometown. Almost twelve years later that program was in place, and comprehensive services were available to academically and artistically talented students at the elementary, middle and high school level. Nine full-time faculty, numerous grants, and opportunities for staff development all resulted in a gifted program that provided a wide range of services both in a resource setting and in classrooms, some self-contained and some with cluster groups of advanced learners. A theoretical model based on Renzulli’s (1978) definition of giftedness and Enrichment Triad programming model (Renzulli, 1977) was the basis for our efforts, and within five years, an effective program and popular was implemented and continued for many more years. Parent and teacher support was demonstrated in annual evaluation reports, and achievement tests, college placements, and student productivity indicated that opportunities that had not previously existed were now available for students.
Given the same amount of time, effort, and love that created this program, I wonder if a similar program could be created in this district today. My friends who still teach there paint a changed portrait of my largely blue-collar hometown, one of remediation and lowered expectations from both parents and teachers. A close friend who teaches kindergarten recently told me that the majority of students starting the year in her class had never held a crayon. Most of her students had seldom, if ever, had the opportunity to listen to a much-loved children’s book being read by a parent or grandparent. How does a program for gifted students fit into a community committed to remedial instruction and improving scores on the state mastery tests?
My reasons for becoming involved with the education of gifted students are tied to this city. As an advanced learner, I suffered from boredom for years. Never learning how to work, I coasted through high school as a National Honor Society member who did the absolute minimum necessary to achieve high, but not the highest, grades. Few teachers noticed, and the few who tried to get me to work were disappointed for I had learned the system and was rewarded with good grades, college scholarships and time to play. In college and graduate school, I encountered opportunities to learn the value of work and the rewards of doing one’s best not experienced in elementary and secondary school. In this chapter, I argue that the current climate in America does not always encourage educators to create gifted programs. If we are to be successful at encouraging and providing appropriately high levels of instruction and curriculum for our most talented students, we must reconsider the ways general education has evolved in the last decade, and the relationship between gifted and general education.
This chapter discusses the ramifications of dumbing down of curriculum and textbooks, repetition of content, and the ease with which gifted and talented students learn to go to school. The reasons that so many students begin to underachieve are also discussed, as is underachievement in diverse groups. The chapter also discusses the dumbing down of some gifted programs and the need for new directions in our field. These directions include: a commitment to address issues such as underachievement, a commitment to investing in the identification and programming for culturally diverse gifted students; and a reconsideration of identification procedures for all gifted students. The crucial partnership between gifted program opportunities and classroom teachers’ responsibilities in areas involving the regular curriculum are also highlighted.
The policy statements of almost every school district in the nation reflect a commitment to meeting students’ individual needs, and yet, many districts lack the capacity to put these policies into practice. What has happened to general education in America to cause us to need gifted education? An almost unlimited amount of remedial curricular material has helped teachers make necessary adjustments for lower achieving students; however, most schools do not have either a method or a commitment to make comparable adjustments for students who are already achieving at well above average levels. It is clear that a major problem facing our schools is the lack of curricular differentiation and academic challenge for many of the most able students. Research also supports this claim. In a recent study dealing with average and above-average readers, Taylor and Frye (1988) found that 78% to 88% of fifth and sixth grade average readers could pass pretests on basal comprehension skills before they were covered in the basal reader. The average readers were performing at approximately 92% accuracy while the better readers were performing at 93% accuracy on the comprehension skill pretests.
One reason that so many average and above average students demonstrate mastery of the curriculum is because contemporary textbooks have been “dumbed down,” a phrase used in 1984 by Terrel Bell, former secretary of education. Chall and Conard (1991) concur with Bell’s assessment, documenting a trend of decreasing difficulty in the most widely used textbooks over a thirty-year period from 1945-1975. “On the whole, the later the copyright dates of the textbooks for the same grade, the easier they were, as measured by indices of readability level, maturity level, difficulty of questions and extent of illustration” (p. 2). Kirst (1982) also believed that textbooks have dropped by two grade levels in difficulty over the previous 10-15 years. Most recently, Philip G. Altbach (1991), noted scholar and author on textbooks in America, suggests that textbooks, as evaluated across a spectrum of assessment measures, have declined in rigor.
Researchers have discussed the particular problems encountered by high ability students when textbooks are “dumbed down” because of readability formulas or the politics of textbook adoption. Bernstein (1985) summarized the particular problem with current textbooks used for high achieving students, “Even if there were good rules of thumb about the touchy subject of textbook adoption, the issue becomes moot when a school district buys only one textbook, usually at ‘grade level,’ for all students in a subject or grade. Such a purchasing policy pressures adoption committees to buy books that the least-able students can read. As a result, the needs of more advanced students are sacrificed” (p. 465). Chall and Conard (1991) also cite particular difficulties for the above-average student with regard to less difficult textbooks.
Further, Chall and Conard stress the importance of the match between a learner’s abilities and the difficulty of the instructional task, stating that the optimal match should be slightly above the learner’s current level of functioning. When the match is optimal, learning is enhanced. However, “if the match is not optimal [i.e., the match is below or above the child’s level of understanding/knowledge], learning is less efficient and development may be halted” (p. 19). It is clear that the current trend of selecting textbooks that the majority of students can read is a problem for high ability students.
Findings by Usiskin (1987) and Flanders (1987) indicate that not only have textbooks decreased in difficulty, but also that they incorporate a large percentage of repetition to facilitate learning. Usiskin argues that even average eighth grade students should study algebra since only 25% of the pages in typical seventh and eighth grade mathematics texts contain new content. Flanders corroborated this finding by investigating the mathematics textbook series of three popular publishers. Students in grades 2-5 who used these math textbooks encountered approximately 40 to 65% new content over the course of the school year, which equates to new material two to three days a week. By eighth grade, the amount of new content had dropped to 30% which translates to encountering new material once every one and one half days a week. Flanders (1987) suggests that these estimates are conservative because days for review and testing were not included in his analysis, and concludes, “There should be little wonder why good students get bored: they do the same thing year after year” (p. 22).
In light of the findings by recent researchers, a mismatch seems to exist between the difficulty of textbooks, the repetition of curricular material in these texts, and the needs of our high ability learners. These students spend much of their time in school practicing skills and “learning” content they already know. All of these factors may cause our most capable children to learn less and slow their development, thereby creating or at a minimum, encouraging their underachievement. Many of these bright students learn at an early age that if they do their best in school, they will be rewarded with endless more pages of the same kind of practice materials.
In many schools, the “underachieving” curriculum causes classrooms to be places in which students learn to expend minimum effort, causing a perpetual cycle of underachievement to take place. Students identified as gifted learn less, and gifted programs are directly affected as many talented students have not learned to do challenging work. Many are lacking content that might be considered core knowledge at an earlier time. In a study of high ability students in an urban high school, many students knew that were leaving high school without having been exposed to challenging literature, major historical trends or themes, and opportunities for advanced discussions in an academically challenging environment (Reis, Hébert, Díaz, Ratley, & Maxfield, 1995).
My experiences as a gifted program coordinator convinced me that some gifted programs actually serve a remedial purpose, when one considers what students must know in order to complete rudimentary research projects. Time spent in acquisition of basic skills such as finding information, taking notes, understanding the difference between primary and secondary sources results in less time to do advanced content or research in gifted programs. This might be referred to as the “Dumbing Down of Gifted Programs” in which teachers of talented students spend hours providing instruction in content and research skills that would have been considered a common core of knowledge twenty years ago. Coupled with the work habits and self-regulation skills that many of these talented students have not gained, this absence of knowledge leads to lower acquisition of skills and less advanced content than what may have been possible twenty years ago. McCall, Evahn and Kratzer (1992) explain:
It is interesting to note that the issue of dumbing down may be fairly easy to address, given the current explosion of technology, and the use of technology in instruction and curriculum. A variety of books, lessons, and interactive web sites currently offer a wide variety of options beyond those available only a few years ago to enable classroom teachers to address the learning needs of advanced students.
Student performance that falls noticeably short of potential, especially for young people with high ability, is bewildering and perhaps the most frustrating of all challenges facing teachers. The literature describing the problem of academic underachievement among high ability students dates back to Conklin (1940) who conducted research about students with high IQ scores who were failing. In spite of over five decades of research, underachievement among high ability students is still considered a major problem. As early as 1955, John Gowan described the gifted underachiever as “one of the greatest social wastes of our culture” (Gowan, 1955, p. 247). According to a 1990 national needs assessment survey conducted by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, the problem of underachievement was identified as the number one concern among educators of high ability students (Renzulli, Reid, & Gubbins, n.d.).
The conceptual and operational definitions of underachievement are complicated and problematic. Essentially, most people agree on a generic commonplace definition of underachievement as it applies to education such as the following: “the underachiever is a young person who performs more poorly in school than one would expect on the basis of his mental abilities” (McCall, Evahn, & Kratzer, 1992, p. 2). This conceptual definition represents a discrepancy between the actual and expected performance, but categorizing different types of underachievers continues to be problematic.
Since the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957, and the resulting concern over our country’s technological ability, both public and educational critics alleged that we were not doing enough educationally for its most capable students, many of whom were performing at mediocre levels in school. Social, political, and educational attention began to be focused on the gifted underachiever-the student of superior ability who performed academically much more poorly than was expected (McCall et al., 1992). Shaw and McCuen (1960) provided educators with an early definition, stating that “the underachiever with superior ability is one whose performance as judged either by grades or achievement test scores, is significantly below his high measured or demonstrated aptitudes or potential for academic achievement” (p. 15).
The label “gifted underachiever” implies that it is important to recognize a learner’s level of potential. A belief in this need provides a rationale for considering that appropriate academic performance constitutes fulfillment of potential. Although there appears to be no agreement on a definition of gifted underachievement, most researchers would agree that a general description involves a discrepancy between intellectual potential and academic performance.
Even more difficult than assessing a learner’s potential is the task of evaluating at what level of academic performance students should be identified as underachieving. Simply performing below average for the current grade level appeared to be the most commonly applied standard (Finney & Van Dalsem, 1969; Fitzpatrick, 1978; Morrow & Wilson, 1961; Perkins, 1976). Rather than targeting a particular school year, some researchers regard gifted underachievers as students who evidence a long standing, and therefore chronic, pattern of academic underachievement (Lukasic, Gorski, Lea, & Culross, 1992).
It is commonly reported that underachievement begins during the late elementary grades, certainly by middle or high school, and that it begins earlier for males than for females (McCall et al., 1992; Shaw & McCuen, 1960). The problem of underachievement may not really begin in adolescence; rather, it may simply become more visible in middle or secondary schools. For example, homework increases during these years, and students who refuse to complete homework or do so with little care or effort are easily identified. Some gifted students may achieve easily and without effort through the early years in school, but falter when they meet the challenge of strenuous effort, real production, or increased homework, and are labeled underachievers. The identification of smart students who underachieve raises an important question regarding the stability of underachievement and the resulting problem in defining it.
Causes and Contributors to Underachievement
Underachievement results in behaviors that would cause a capable learner to mask his/her ability? No definitive answers exist to this perplexing question, but theories discuss a variety of possible causes: biology, environment, self pressure, school pressure, peer pressure, parental pressure, boredom with school, and inappropriate teaching methods (Lukasic, et al., 1992).
Many researchers believe that school environments may cause bright students to lose their interest and drive. Some teachers may be too easily satisfied with good work, and their low expectations and unchallenging curriculum may have a negative impact on the academic achievement of bright youngsters (Pirozzo, 1982). In educational settings in which conformity is valued, classroom teachers may reward rote learning rather than critical or creative thinking and problem solving.
Inappropriate curriculum clearly contributed to underachievement in culturally diverse high ability urban high school students in a recent study (Reis, et al., 1995). The high school students who underachieved in school believed their school problems began because of particularly easy elementary school experiences. Our research indicated that these young people perceived that they never learned to work primarily because their elementary and middle school experiences had been too easy, which had a direct impact on their high school experiences. They believed that their daily elementary, non-challenging academic experiences played a dramatic role in the emergence of their underachievement in high school. Their classes and academic tasks were often “too easy,” and participants in our study recalled “breezing” through elementary school, indicating that schoolwork required no major effort. These students did not acquire appropriate opportunities to develop important academic skills or sophisticated study skills. Both students’ school work habits and self-discipline, in their classrooms and at home, were improperly developed, according to data gathered in this study. Students did not have early access to appropriate levels of challenge and educational services either within the regular classroom or in gifted programs. By the time the limited gifted program available in their urban district was offered in fifth grade, many of these students would not have been identified to participate, despite high scores on a number of aptitude and achievement tests.
During upper elementary, middle, and high school, the participants in our study encountered new situations requiring different amounts of effort and more efficient study skills. Consequently, opportunities to acquire new study skills and/or to improve students’ work habits were necessary, but few students received assistance in developing or improving their work habits. Few students gained self-discipline in their school experiences, and their underachievement intensified. Many of the culturally diverse underachieving participants in this study believed that if they had been identified as having a potential talent in the earlier grades, and challenged through appropriate programming options, their subsequent underachievement could have been avoided.
Recently, three studies conducted by the University of Connecticut site of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented have analyzed what occurs in American classrooms for high ability students and the results portray a disturbing pattern. The Classroom Practices Survey (Archambault, Westberg, Brown, Hallmark, Emmons, & Zhang, 1993) was conducted to determine the extent to which gifted and talented students receive differentiated education in regular classrooms. Approximately 7300 third and fourth grade teachers in public and private schools were randomly selected to participate in this research and over 51% of this national sample of classroom teachers responded to the survey. Sixty-one percent of public school teachers and 54% of private school teachers reported that they had never had any training in teaching gifted students. The major finding of this study is that classroom teachers made only minor modifications in the regular curriculum to meet the needs of gifted students. This result was consistent for all types of schools sampled and for classrooms in various parts of the country and for all types of communities.
The Classroom Practices Observational Study (Westberg, Archambault, Dobyns, & Salvin, 1993) examined the instructional and curricular practices used with gifted and talented students in regular elementary classrooms throughout the United States. Systematic observations were conducted in 46 third or fourth grade classrooms identified by school superintendents and principals. The observations were designed to determine if and how classroom teachers meet the needs of gifted students in the regular classroom. Two students, one high ability student and one average ability student, were selected as target students for each observation day and the types and frequencies of instruction that both students receive through modifications in curricular activities, materials, and teacher-student verbal interactions were documented by trained observers. The results indicated little differentiation in the instructional and curricular practices, including grouping arrangements and verbal interactions, for gifted students in the regular classroom. In all content areas in 92 observation days, gifted students rarely received instruction in homogeneous groups (only 21% of the time), and more alarmingly, the target gifted students experienced no instructional or curricular differentiation in 84% of the instructional activities in which they participated.
The daily summaries of these observations completed by the trained observers were also examined. The most dominant theme in this content analysis involved the use of identical practices for all targeted students. For example, phrases such as “no purposeful differentiation” appeared on 51 of the 92 daily summaries. Anecdotal summaries such as the following provided poignant glimpses into the daily experiences of high ability students: “It should be noted that the targeted gifted student was inattentive during all of her classes. She appeared to be sleepy, never volunteered, and was visibly unenthusiastic about all activities. No attempt was made to direct higher order thinking skills questions to her or to engage her in more challenging work. She never acted out in any way.”
A third study, The Curriculum Compacting Study (Reis, et al., 1993) examined the effects of using curriculum compacting to modify the curriculum and eliminate previously mastered work for high ability students. The work that is eliminated is content that is repeated from previous textbooks or content that may be new in the curriculum, which some students already know. Over 400 teachers participated in this study, identifying 783 students as gifted and in need of curriculum differentiation. Students took the next chronological grade level Iowa Test of Basic Skills in both October and May. When classroom teachers in the group eliminated between 40-50% of the previously mastered regular curriculum for high ability students, no differences were found between students whose work was compacted and students who did all the work in reading, math computation, social studies and spelling. In science and math concepts, students whose curriculum was compacted scored significantly higher than their counterparts in the control group. Accordingly teachers could eliminate as much as 40-50% of material without detrimental effects to achievement scores. And in some content areas, scores were actually higher when this elimination of previous mastered content took place. Teachers also identified additional students who had not been identified as gifted in their classrooms who could benefit from curriculum compacting.
The application of gifted program know-how to general education is supported by a variety of research on human abilities (Bloom, 1985; Gardner, 1983; Renzulli, 1986; Sternberg, 1984). This research provides a clear justification for much broader conceptions of talent development, and argues against the restrictive student selection practices that guided identification procedures in the past.
Tomlinson and Callahan (1992) cited several contributions of gifted education to general education including: expanded views of intelligence (Gardner, 1983; Reis & Renzulli, 1982; Renzulli, 1978; Sternberg, 1991); attention to underserved populations (Baldwin, 1985; Frasier, 1989; Whitmore, 1980); instructional techniques (Brandwein, 1981; Maker, 1982; Passow, 1982; Renzulli, 1977; Renzulli & Reis, 1985; 1997); differentiation of content, process, and product as well as theme-based learning (Kaplan, 1986), self-directed learning (Treffinger, 1986), and student productivity (Renzulli, 1977); individualization (Renzulli & Smith, 1979); teaching models (Feldhusen & Kolloff, 1986; Kaplan, 1986; Renzulli, 1977; Renzulli & Reis, 1997).
Some of the pedagogy used in gifted education programs can be extended to students who are not usually included in special programs for talented students. In a recent study, enrichment clusters (Renzulli, 1994; Renzulli & Reis, 1997) were implemented in two culturally diverse urban school districts during specially designated times each week (Reis, Gentry, & Park, 1995). During these cluster programs, everything in the school changed. Students left their classrooms and in a minute or two sped joyfully down the hallways to another room and another adult, to a cluster they had selected because of the topic being covered and the adult facilitating the cluster. Clusters are open-ended opportunities for students to work with an adult facilitator to learn new material and produce a service or product. Enrichment clusters in this study were offered in areas such as creative writing, inventions, historical studies, scientific studies, drama, and the arts. The implementation of enrichment clusters affected teachers’ use of differentiation, enrichment strategies and the use of advanced content. The use of advanced content in their enrichment clusters was a byproduct of the nature of clusters, the opportunity to delve into advanced issues and content based on the mutual interests of both children and adults.
The study investigated the use of advanced content and the application of advanced opportunities in the cluster facilitator’s regular classroom in two urban schools. The introduction of new concepts and advanced content by 95 % of the cluster facilitators was both gratifying and somewhat expected, given the design of the clusters, but the addition of a number of other strategies for providing advanced opportunities was higher than we had hoped for or expected. These included (in decreasing frequency of use): the development of a product or service by the facilitators; the teaching of specific, authentic methodologies; the use of advanced vocabulary; the use of authentic “tools” related to the topic; the use of advanced resources and reference materials; the use of advanced thinking and problem solving strategies; the integration of creative thinking and historical perspectives; and the development of presentations or performances.
The frequency with which these advanced strategies were used within the clusters indicated that some transference would occur from cluster to classroom. Many teachers reported that they began using the strategies used in their cluster in their classrooms. It appears that classroom teachers who have received appropriate professional development can implement differentiation strategies suggested in gifted education. The more time that teachers had to work on their clusters and to experiment with this more inductive way to teach, the more advanced the content and the more diverse the products and services became.
Based on previous findings of classroom practices studies by Archambault et al. (l993); and Westberg, et al. (1993), it would appear that the opportunity to teach in an enrichment cluster may result in much higher levels of use of differentiation strategies by classroom teachers in their own classroom teaching situations. The implementation of enrichment clusters may then provide a dual opportunity: high end learning (Renzulli, 1994), more advanced opportunities for all children, and professional development for teachers in differentiation strategies.
Reconsidering basic premises within our field results in a series of beliefs emerging from my more than two decades of work in gifted education. The following propositions have emerged from my thoughts regarding these issues.
Proposition One. We must systematically overhaul the ways we define and identify high potential students, and question whether formal identification is warranted if current systems continue to fail to identify so many students.
In the past, the general approach to the study of giftedness has led some observers to believe that giftedness is an absolute condition that is magically bestowed upon a person in much the same way that nature endows us with blue eyes, red hair, or a dark complexion (Renzulli, 1980). This position is simply not supported by current research. Multiple lists of traits exist and characteristics-some for girls and some for boys; some for students from the majority culture, others for students from diverse cultural and economically disadvantaged backgrounds (Borland & Wright, 1994; . For too many years we have pretended that we can identify THE traits of gifted children in an absolute and unequivocal fashion. Too many lists provide these traits and “the Termanology” by which we define “truly” gifted students.
Many people have been led to believe that certain individuals have been endowed with a golden chromosome (Renzulli, 1980) that makes him or her “a gifted person.” This belief has further led to the mistaken idea that all we need to do is find the right combination of traits that prove the existence of this “gift.” The further use of terms such as “the truly gifted,” “the highly gifted,” the “moderately gifted,” “the profoundly gifted” and the “borderline gifted” only serve to confound the issue. The misuse of the concept of giftedness has given rise to both criticism and confusion about identification and programming. The result of this criticism has been mixed messages sent to educators and the public at large, resulting in a justifiable skepticism about the credibility of gifted education and the inability of some educators of gifted students to offer services that are qualitatively different from those offered in general education.
Most of the confusion and controversy surrounding characteristics of giftedness can be placed into proper perspective if we examine a few key questions. Do we use specific characteristics of one group of people to identify another group? Are the characteristics of giftedness reflected in high ability Puerto Rican students in Willimantic, Connecticut the same characteristics of giftedness as those demonstrated by above average Mexican students in Texas? Do common characteristics exist within each group? If so, how are they exhibited? What happens to a child who consistently manifests these characteristics in the primary grades but who learns to underachieve in school because of an unchallenging curriculum? What curriculum adjustments can be made for an intelligent child with a learning disability whose disability masks the talents? Are characteristics of giftedness static (i.e., you have or you don’t have them) or are they dynamic (i.e., they vary within persons and among learning/performance situations) (Renzulli & Reis, 1985; 1997)?
A fundamental change should be considered in the ways the characteristics and traits of giftedness are viewed in the future. The characteristics of any group of advanced learners must be identified within the specific population group. That is, we should attempt to identify the characteristics of talented students in both the educational context and within the population group, and use this information to help us differentiate between all students and those who need different levels of service in school to realize their potential. These different levels of services may result in a wider range of students being served by a continuum of services that is broader and much more inclusive. This shift has implications for our considerations of the characteristics of giftedness and the ways in which we should structure our programming endeavors. This change may also provide the flexibility in both identification and programming endeavors that will encourage the inclusion of diverse students in our programs, therefore addressing the critical issue of widespread underachievement of high potential, economically disadvantaged, and culturally and linguistically diverse populations.
Proposition Two: The lines between gifted programs and regular education must become less defined and gifted education specialists should serve a dual role, providing direct service to students and professional development and consultation services to classroom teachers. In this way, we can apply some of what has been the pedagogy of “gifted” education to the development of talents in all students.
The widespread issues relating to dumbing down and a lower degree of challenge both in gifted programs and in regular education programs provides a superb rationale for why some gifted education practices and principles should be infused into regular education to upgrade the challenge level for all students. To some extent, this has already begun.
Renzulli (l994) believes that two reasons explain why practices that have been a mainstay of gifted programs are being absorbed into general education to upgrade the performance of all students. The first reason concerns the limited success of remedial-oriented compensatory education programs and practices, and the second reason is the success of practices developed in gifted programs and the need for these practices to be included in the regular curriculum. All students should have the opportunities to develop higher order thinking skills and to pursue more Not all students can, of course, participate in all advanced opportunities but many can work far beyond what they are currently asked to do. It is clear that our most advanced students need different types of educational experiences than they are currently receiving and that without these services, talents may not be nurtured in many American students, especially those who attend schools in which survival is a major daily goal. What is seldom discussed is whether and how these different types of educational experiences can help improve education for all students.
Efforts to change and improve education have been around for decades, but many of them ignore talent development in our schools. Time must be provided in school to enable students who want to work to be able to learn at an appropriate and challenging pace. Unless proactively addressed, the result of the dumbing down of the curriculum and the proliferation of basic skills practice material may result in the creation of the largest percentage of high ability underachievers in the history of public schools in
Our field’s pedagogy and innovative programs admittedly will not provide quick-fix solutions to issues such as these, but they can offer numerous creative alternatives regarding instruction and curriculum. In our relatively short history we have achieved a rather impressive menu of exciting curricular adaptations, thinking skills applications, methods for teaching independent study and numerous other innovations. Specialists in the area of education of the gifted have concentrated on identifying student interests and learning styles and providing relevant and challenging curricular experiences to individual students instead of identical experiences to 30 students in a classroom without consideration of their previous knowledge or background.
Specialists in the area of gifted education have also gained expertise in adjusting the regular curriculum to meet the needs of advanced students in a variety of ways including: accelerating content, incorporating a thematic approach, and substituting more challenging textbooks or assignments. The range of instructional techniques used in most classrooms observed by Goodlad (1984) and his colleagues is vastly different than what is currently recommended in gifted programs. It seems clear that gifted education can help to bring creativity and innovation to regular education by challenging conventional practices and offering stimulating alternatives. The flexibility in grouping encouraged in many gifted programs might also be helpful in other types of educational settings. For example, interest groups, achievement groups, grouping based on preferred styles of learning are often used in gifted education programs, and could be used in regular education programming efforts.
We can, therefore, make every attempt to share with other educators the technology we have gained in teaching students process and thinking skills, modifying and differentiating the regular curriculum, and helping students learn advanced reference skills, and independent self-directed work. We can extend enrichment activities and provide staff development in the many principles that guide our programming models. Yet, without the changes at the local, state and national policy making levels that will alter the current emphasis on raising test scores and purchasing unchallenging, flat and downright sterile textbooks, our efforts may appear insignificant.
Proposition Three: We must maintain our identity as a field while continuing to ask difficult questions causing us to reexamine and reconsider basic tenets in gifted education.
Because of fiscal constraints in many geographical areas, gifted programs are being eliminated (Purcell, 1993) and many above average students remain unchallenged by the regular curriculum encounter each day. While sharing our technology is, indeed, one of our goals, we must continue to create and maintain exemplary programs and practices that serve as models of what can be accomplished for high ability students. Through our professional organizations we must continue to advocate for the different needs of high ability students. We must argue logically and forcefully to maintain the programs, appropriate grouping practices, and the differentiated learning experiences that the students we represent need. To simply allow these youngsters to be placed in classrooms in which no provisions are made for their special needs is an enormous step backwards for our field. To lose our quest for excellence in the current move to guarantee equity will undoubtedly result in a disappointing education for our most potentially able children.
Although the use of gifted program pedagogy has been suggested as a way to improve the challenge level of content for all children, very little research exists on the extent to which this suggestion can actually be implemented. Which strategies used in gifted programs can be extended to benefit more students? Can students who are not traditionally identified as gifted benefit from some of the innovative curriculum being developed for gifted students in Javits projects such as those developed by Susan Baum, Steven Owen and Barry Oreck (1997); Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, (1996), James Borland and Lisa Wright (1994) and Sandra Kaplan (1986)? Can we make adaptations to gifted program strategies or instructional materials to make them more meaningful and appropriate for all children? How much advanced content can be introduced when these opportunities to participate in these classes are made available to all interested students? Do the use of gifted education teaching strategies have an impact on all children’s love of learning and interests in schools? Can parental attitudes about school be changed by the implementation of strategies advocated by gifted education specialists, such as differentiation of content and instruction? And most important, can we develop a plan for implementing these strategies that can be used with ethnically diverse populations as well as economically disadvantaged students? If so, then the potential significance of further research in this area may be far-reaching. As the federal report National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent (U. S. Department of Education, 1993) stated: “Over the past 20 years, while the regular school program focused on basic skills and minimum standards, programs for gifted and talented students served as laboratories for innovative and experimental approaches to teaching and learning” (p. 23).
Longitudinal studies of participants in these programs may also provide information for future program innovations (Subotnik & Arnold, 1994). We seldom ask how gifted program participants benefit from their experiences, and we rarely ask what else we should have been doing for gifted students who had some program involvement. It is clear that a continuum of services should be made available representing a variety of different approaches, including acceleration, counseling, regular curriculum modification and differentiation, separate classes, and a pull-out or resource room component. Longitudinal studies should also investigate the acquisition of self-regulated, self-directed learning, given the current explosion of knowledge available on the web. We must start to investigate how gifted students can gain access to this information while also learning the skills of synthesis, analysis, and evaluation necessary to understand how to interpret the large body of information they encounter.
The new millennium is causing us to ask questions about every area of our personal and professional lives. The explosion of knowledge has yet to be completely explored in the area of education. If we could imagine a perfect learning situation for every advanced learner, it might include some of the following: opportunities for advancement through the regular curriculum at an appropriately challenging rate and pace; depth and advanced content; independent, self-directed learning challenges; independent study; and varied learning opportunities based on interest, learning styles, product preferences and modality preferences. What must also be asked is what learning situation would we want for other students? Is what we might want for them so different?