Programs for gifted students, plagued for years by fuzzy definitions and multiple models, have faced an even tougher challenge recently as the nation focuses intensely on students who are not performing at adequate levels.
In a recent article in Gifted Child Quarterly, Joyce VanTassel-Baska of the College of William and Mary warns that unless gifted programs are enhanced in key areas in the next few years, they are vulnerable to erosion.
Gifted programs suffer from “superficiality” in program development and implementation, VanTassel-Baska says. “This program superficiality is most in evidence in (a) a lack of technical adequacy in identification tools, (b) a lack of understanding about how such tools should be employed, (c) a lack of fidelity in translating program goals to classroom practice, and (d) a decided absence of program impact data.”
Seven evaluations in 20 districts
In her study, VanTassel-Baska reviewed seven program evaluations of gifted programs in 20 very different districts in three states. She conducted more in-depth examinations of 15 districts with document reviews, coordinator interviews, focus groups of students, parents, teachers and administrators and classroom observation. She reviewed identification, curriculum, program design, staff development, parental involvement assessment, and evaluation.
The mix of urban, suburban, and rural districts ranged in size from 625 students to 76,265. Minority representation was more than 25% in nine of the districts. The percentage of students identified as gifted ranged from a low of 2% in an urban site to a high of 26% in a suburban district.
One key finding is that, in general, stakeholders found the process for identifying gifted students either too liberal or too strict. A frequent criticism that minorities are underrepresented in gifted programs was backed up by the data — disadvantaged gifted students (i.e. students on free- or reduced-lunch status) were underrepresented in gifted programs.
Nonverbal measures of intelligence were not widely employed at the elementary level, the researcher reports, adding that “at many sites the entire identification system was under siege.”
Skepticism about equity
While districts explored different ways of identifying gifted students, there was little evidence that stakeholders understood either the process or the reasons behind it. There was great skepticism about whether the processes were equitable, particularly for minority groups and disabled populations.
There was a lack of consistent curricular differentiation to meet the needs of gifted learners in gifted classrooms. In regular classrooms, differentiation for gifted students was significantly lacking, the researcher notes, “suggesting that gifted practices have not impacted general teaching practice to the extent necessary for gifted students to profit from them.”
Some districts had developed creative solutions to providing alternatives for gifted learners. In some rural communities, for example, distance learning provided supplemental services for gifted students while some urban areas established magnet schools and International Baccalaureate sites at secondary levels.
Her evaluation points to the need for better staff development for both teachers of the gifted and regular classroom teachers. “Not only was the amount of in-service perceived to be inadequate, but there was no empirical framework for enhancing teacher competence tied to the goals of the program or its effectiveness with learners,” according to the article.
There were significant gaps in certain subject areas, notably social studies, science and foreign language programs for gifted students. In all of the districts, VannTassel-Baska noted that “lack of resources at the teacher and coordinator level crippled the potential for program improvements.” Given the limited opportunities for training directly related to delivering a quality program for gifted students, VanTassel-Baska stresses the need to consider the needs of gifted programs in hiring decisions.
Lack of good models for parental involvement was a recurring theme. Only one-third of the districts had parent groups. Parents, while strongly supportive of the programs, were dissatisfied with the level of communication.
Stakeholders showed strong loyalty, even without data demonstrating the effectiveness of the programs. Instead of more formal evaluations, there was an overreliance on community perceptions of program effectiveness. “The desire for these programs to work often overrides their obvious limitations in selected settings.”
To encourage greater involvement by parents, she recommends that parent education programs focus on strengthening parent understanding of the gifted programs with written materials and workshops that could provide a more formal forum for parent education and dialogue. Programs’ heavy reliance on state dollars emphasize the need for strong parent networks to ensure and expand services at the local level, she writes.
Despite the challenges, many programs had a strong cadre of teachers and coordinators who worked hard to keep programs going despite limited resources and even though, the researcher notes, “many of these personnel suffer verbal abuse and derision because of their stance on program issues.”
VanTassel-Baska believes many programs face the common core challenge of devoting enough resources to building a solid infrastructure and service delivery. Districts facing difficult financial choices usually opt for fully funding general education needs rather than the needs of gifted programs.
It is also important to develop valid and reliable data on program effectiveness, she says, including a system of annual program evaluation that collects evidence of student growth at each transition stage of development, possibly at the end of grades 3, 6, 8 and 12.
Finally, the researcher believes identification practices need to be closely linked to program services and to students’ abilities. She believes there is no point in developing broad identification approaches that cannot match students to appropriate services. Once students are identified, they need to be given appropriate curriculum. She also recommends more consistent efforts to use nonverbal tests and performance-based assessments to identify underrepresented groups.
“A Content Analysis of Evaluation Findings Across 20 Gifted Programs: A Clarion Call for Enhanced Gifted Program Development,” by Joyce VanTassel-Baska, Gifted Child Quarterly, Summer 2006, Volume 50, Number 3, pps. 199-211.
Published in ERN, October 2006, Volume 19, Number 7