In some circles, gifted education has a bad reputation: elitist, ineffective or unnecessary are terms sometimes assigned to gifted programs. The concerns have been fueled, in large part, by under-representation of some groups of learners in gifted programs. Disparities in access have led to disparities in achievement, particularly between advantaged students and those from low-income homes.
And while it is possible to find examples that support the negative characterizations, the broader truths are these:
In this edition of Talent, we outline four steps toward positive change in the field of gifted education. We also highlight models of success and the good work being done by people like Carol Horn, Shelagh Gallagher, David Lohman, and our friends at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
One approach we highlight is identifying potential in students, not only through assessment, but through challenging curriculum provided to all students. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s now gaining a foothold.
A lot of people get discouraged, though, because they think, “What do we mean by giftedness? If it’s not a criteria of a certain percentile, what is it?” Giftedness is not an IQ or a test score. It’s a developmental process through which domain-specific potential in youth is transformed into outstanding performance and innovation in adulthood.
This is the vision CTD has for all its programs—seeing potential transformed into achievement, again and again. With your help, we’re excited to implement this expanded view of giftedness, developing talent in more children and ensuring that minimum standards are not our aim. Excellence is.
We at Center for Talent Development (CTD) are proud to be active participants in the forward-thinking movement toward positive change in the field of gifted education.
Research shows the U.S. is producing fewer top achievers in reading, math and science than other developed countries like Canada, Shanghai-China and Japan. Additionally, the highest levels of achievement suffer from underrepresentation of children from low-income families.
This means, essentially, that talent is languishing. Across the country, this untapped potential leads to scientific discoveries unmade, novels unwritten, and professors, doctors, musicians, businesspeople, and leaders untrained. It’s a serious problem—not just for educators, but also for society at large.
As director for Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University and past president of the National Association of Gifted Children, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius cares deeply about talent development and is therefore deeply disturbed by current data. “Progress is being made,” she says, “but more can—and must—be done.”
Below, Olszewski-Kubilius outlines four steps toward significant, positive change.
1. Identify Potential and Increase Access
“Disparities in achievement are largely disparities in access,” says Olszewski-Kubilius. Many children living in poverty are not receiving the same level of academic enrichment at home as kids from more advantaged homes, and they’re also not participating in gifted education programs in school or outside of school, due either to unidentified talent or a lack of financial resources.
Why is talent hard to identify in these children? “The research shows that poverty and low opportunity affects not just achievement, but ability, too,” says Olszewski-Kubilius. “That’s why these kids are so hard to notice.”
Many of these students aren’t performing at high levels in the classroom, nor are they scoring well on aptitude tests. That said, talent doesn’t have a common profile. “They may be very curious and motivated in school, while others show more interest in things outside of school—reading, writing or projects of various kinds,” Olszewski-Kubilius explains. “Some may even display their talents in ways that teachers and school systems don’t value. They might be telling stories and entertaining friends when the teacher wants them to listen and pay attention, for example, but that is how they’re demonstrating high-level imagination and verbal expression.”
“As a field, we’ve been stuck in a model of serving the already high-achieving child;” says Olszewski-Kubilius, “we need to develop models to serve kids with potential who aren’t as easy to identify.”
There are several approaches to identifying talent in underrepresented groups of students that have been experiencing success and gaining traction recently. The approach that hasn’t worked, however, has been nationally-normed, standardized testing.
Educators and researchers have been on a mission to find the right test, which could identify the potential of children with fewer resources and greater financial need. So the focus has been on developing instruments. “The truth is, though, if children come from an impoverished background, they cannot be expected to score well on any test.”
The Use of Local Norms
Knowing that scores will be deceiving, the only way to use standardized testing successfully with this population has been to interpret results using local, rather than national norms. David Lohman, a co-author of the coGAT test, has been instrumental in promoting this. “Instead of comparing kids to national norms, you compare them to a group of kids who are similar in their opportunities to learn,” Olszewski-Kubilius explains. “Enrichment is then provided to students who score at the highest levels, given the educational experiences they’ve had.”
Enrich, and then Assess
Perhaps an even more effective approach to identifying talent in these students, though, is to break the notion of a linear progression. At the foundation of testing and other traditional means of identifying talent is the idea that kids need to be assessed first, and then given enrichment classes and support if they demonstrate potential.
An alternative that should perhaps become the norm is to flip the order, providing enrichment to all children, assessing their response, and then providing additional support as needed. “This model has taken off,” says Olszewski-Kubilius. “The idea is to present challenging instruction and then observe behaviors. It’s hard to do, though. It involves a lot of teacher training to present the lessons and also to mine for talent amidst the responses to those lessons.”
One program that has done this successfully is Young Scholars, started in Fairfax Virginia by Carol Horn. “They start with really young kids, in kindergarten through grade 3, and train teachers to offer challenging lessons and then notice responses. Teachers learn to notice the child who, when challenged, draws on problem solving strategies that other kids don’t, makes sophisticated connections or asks insightful questions,” Olszewski-Kubilius says.
Young Scholars is particularly good, Olszewski-Kubilius says, because it prepares young students for the school district’s gifted programs starting in grade 4 or 5.
Catching kids when they are younger isn’t the only hope, however. Shelagh Gallagher and James Gallagher developed another approach to identifying unseen academic potential by using problem-based learning (PBL) units with middle-grade students. “By presenting students in grade 6 with really messy, open-ended problem-based learning units, researchers identified advanced reasoning abilities in students who hadn’t been identified using standardized tests,” Olszewski-Kubilius says.
Olszewski-Kubilius is encouraged by an increase in the number of schools incorporating PBL and preparatory programs like Young Scholars. “A commonality here is the use of challenging instruction and curriculum provided to all students. Teachers observe students grappling with the material and look for kids who display motivation, stick-to-it-iveness, resolve, and engage in problem-solving in ways that most kids don’t,” she says. “This is a great way to identify potential talent that might not show up in a standardized test.”
While more effort is needed in identifying potential, a parallel emphasis must be on developing identified talent.
“With all educational programming, the quality standard should be improvement and growth,” Olszewski-Kubilius says. When working with disadvantaged children, however, it’s important to have patience in the process. “You may be moving them up, but they still might not be at the 95th percentile initially. You have to allow time for them to catch up,” she adds.
The trick is to move them up while not ignoring the students who are already there.
For a number of years, the nation has been focused on shrinking the achievement gap, or bringing all kids to minimum or basic levels of performance. Thanks to the work of Jonathan Plucker, PhD, we’re now aware of the “excellence gap,” which refers to underrepresentation of particular student groups, not just at standard levels of achievement, but at the highest levels of achievement, as well. Plucker has even shown that some of the progress in decreasing the achievement gap is actually due to lowering the performance ceiling.
“By looking at the gap at the highest levels of achievement, two things emerge,” says Olszewski-Kubilius. “First, we’re not doing a great job of promoting the growth of high-achieving kids. Second, there are huge gaps in terms of who is in that high performing group, and it favors more advantaged white and Asian students.”
Olszewski-Kubilius is hopeful that discussions of the achievement gap will now include discussions of the excellence gap, as well. “There is certainly more awareness of it,” she says, “but whether people will put dollars behind it is a different story.”
Parents and educators can be powerful advocates for the funding and support needed to turn high potential into achievement. And one of the best directions for that support, according to Olszewski-Kubilius, would be the implementation of summer enrichment programs.
“Research shows that kids living in poverty lose a lot over the summer,” Olszewski-Kubilius says. “When it accumulates over their years of schooling, that makes a big difference.”
While some school districts offer free summer programs, they’re often solely focused on remediation. “We need to advocate for programs for kids who are already high achievers, with the goal of elevating them to even higher levels of achievement,” Olszewski-Kubilius adds.
There is also a need for making private summer programming, such as that offered by CTD, accessible to more students. “We all work hard to get more scholarship funds in order to level the playing field. It’s hard, though; there isn’t a lot of funding out there and the funding that does exist is for bringing kids to minimum levels, rather than excellent levels,” says Olszewski-Kubilius.
Parents and educators can work to change this reality by joining local and national advocacy groups. Olszewski-Kubilius also recommends asking questions of school administrators. “Challenge them to look at higher achieving kids and their growth, even if it’s not mandated. Ask the big questions,” she says. Big change requires them.
Students of color and students from low-income families are sorely underrepresented at the highest levels of achievement. It’s called the “excellence gap,” and it plagues the field of education. So how is Center for Talent Development working to combat it?
CTD recently addressed this question in an interview with Tammie Stewart, Center for Talent Development’s Community Outreach Manager.
Tammie, your title is Community Outreach Manager, but the way I understand it, you are really a miner, not of coal or natural resources, but of undeveloped talent in young people—and particularly young people in low-income families.
My job is to build awareness of the Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholars Program and College Scholarship among talented young people from low-income families. To do that, I spend a lot of time talking to teachers, counselors and gifted coordinators in the schools. I also conduct outreach in park and neighborhood programs and anywhere I think kids with high potential in the target income bracket may be hiding. Sometimes they’re in non-traditional places.
Tell us about the Young Scholars Program and why young people from low-income families should know about it.
The Young Scholars Program is a pre-college scholarship for high achieving grade 7 students with financial need. The scholarship provides individualized support through their senior year of high school. With this scholarship, recipients have access to anything they need academically throughout high school—from a computer to online classes and summer camps. The scholarship also supports students who have a talent in music, dance, or art.
The scholarship is unique, too, in that each student is assigned an educational advisor. After visiting with the family and the school staff, the advisor works with the student and his or her family to create an individualized plan for using the funding well. Each child is different, so it’s very individualized, and it changes as the students change, throughout all four years of high school.
What is the target income bracket for applicants?
The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation will accept applicants from families with an annual household income of $95,000 or below. Typically, though, the actual recipients of the award come from families with incomes much lower than that.
The goal of the Young Scholars Program is to decrease the excellence gap by helping promising students with financial need to achieve their full potential. Is the program making progress toward its goal?
Well, the program started in 2000 and has awarded $150 million in scholarships to 1,900 students and nearly $90 million in grants, including a generous grant to support CTD students.
To date, the Foundation has provided 600 students from across the nation with individualized advising and comprehensive financial support from 8th grade through their final year of high school. So yes, I’d say that’s progress!
In addition, the Young Scholars have the opportunity to apply for the Cooke College Scholarship Program, which provides up to $40,000 per year for four years of undergraduate study at a top-tier university. For those students who receive both scholarships, especially, their lives are literally changed forever, beginning in grade 8.
That is really amazing. On the one hand, one would think it would be easy to generate applications for that kind of opportunity. On the other hand, though, you could see how the parents of the desired applicants might be too busy working and trying to put food on the table to apply for scholarships. As you do your outreach and give presentations to parents, what objections do they raise? And how do you convince them to apply?
Sometimes people hear that it’s a national scholarship, with only 70 kids chosen across the country, and they don’t think it’s worth it to apply. My general response is, “If you qualify, apply!” I also ask the question, “How many of you play the lottery?” Most hands go up when I ask, and that gives me the chance to compare the two opportunities. With the lottery, you pay to have about a 1 in 175 million chance of earning a lot of money that you could use on your child’s education. With this scholarship, you pay nothing, and your chances of winning a lot of money for your child’s education are much improved. That usually helps encourage them. That said, some parents don’t know if their child has the kind of potential to be competitive for the program.
Yes, a parent might ask, “My child is smart, but is he that smart?” What do you say to those parents?
I usually talk with them about what their kids are doing in school. What are their grades? When they come home, are they done with homework quickly? Do they ask questions about it? Is that the norm? We talk. If, in my head, it’s even possible, I have them apply.
What about parents who might not think their child needs any special educational support? Wouldn’t many of the parents of desired applicants see their kids getting good grades in school, and think they don’t need additional help?
Absolutely. That’s another hurdle I have to help them overcome. People say, “They’re doing fine as they are.” Except they’re not fine. They may look like they’re fine because they’re doing well at grade level, but they really should be doing work at two and three grades above their grade level. They need motivation and challenge. I enjoy sharing this message with teachers and counselors in order to help them identify children with high potential and support them better.
And how do you support students and their families once they’ve decided to apply for the Young Scholars Program?
I walk them through the application, every step of the way. If they don’t have a computer, I encourage them to use the library or inquire at the school. I usually talk with the school counselor to make sure they are making time for these students, too.
Give us the nuts and bolts. When can students apply?
For the Young Scholars Program, the application is open from January through March. For the College Scholarship Program, applications are accepted from September through November.
Any last words of wisdom?
Well, one of the toughest parts of my job is going to high schools and having students see what’s required for the college scholarship, only to discover that they don’t qualify. If they knew about the scholarship a few years before, they might have improved their chances for the reward.
So my advice is to do everything early. If your kid wants to go to college, make a plan. Begin with the end in mind. It’s never too early to be an advocate for your child.
Excellent advice. Good luck getting the word out!