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This Is What’s at Stake in Gifted & Talented Programs

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“Special student populations” usually conjures images of students in special education, English learners, or those who need extra classroom support for various reasons.

One special population that is often overlooked? Gifted students.

Schools rightly spend substantial time and resources ensuring that those students with learning disabilities or who face other challenges receive the support they need to thrive. But, argues Kim Stewart, an Instructional Support Teacher for Gifted/Talented at Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, gifted students also need specialized instruction to grow to their fullest potential.

Kim joined us for a conversation in April to talk about Gifted and Talented programs, the opportunities and challenges facing such programs, and why these programs are so important not just to gifted students, but for entire schools.

Kim also invited Stephen McNierney, a GT (gifted/talented) student she taught in elementary school who’s now a sophomore Aerospace Engineering major at the University of Maryland, College Park. Stephen is currently taking part in a co-op with NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kim, could you first give us an overview: what are gifted programs all about? Who are you trying to reach?

Kim Stewart: There are lots of definitions, but typically we’re looking at students who display high capability in one or more areas. Some of those areas might include intellectual, creativity, artistic, even leadership. They could be exceptionally advanced in a specific academic area like math or science. But you’re comparing this in relationship to same-age peers with similar experience and background, which is critical in identifying gifted students.

Oftentimes the term ‘asynchronous development’ is used when describing giftedness, and that just generally means a child’s development is somewhat out of sync with itself. In other words, one or more areas are typically more advanced than others.

Let’s look at a history for a minute. When did gifted programs start to gain traction, and how have they evolved over time?

Kim Stewart: I honestly believe now is the best time to ever have been identified as gifted. Giftedness as a special diagnosis, if you will, emerged back in the mid-70’s.

A lot of districts will identify [gifted] students but not necessarily serve them in a particular way. It’s handled in a regular classroom, where the teachers are expected to differentiate for these highly advanced learners.

The problem with that is, when you have a general classroom with lots of different abilities, especially if you have both ends of the spectrum, teacher attention is going to need to be focused. It’s natural to get those kids who are below grade level up to speed, and that often leaves our advanced learners in situations where they’re utilized as peer tutors or asked to “Just go read a book at your desk.”

While there’s nothing wrong with reading books, our priority is to make sure all kids grow to their maximum potential. When we don’t address the needs of our advanced learners, that doesn’t always happen.

Stephen McNierney: It’s a double-edged sword, because being able to teach other people is a sign that you have a really firm understanding of that material in the first place. It was beneficial for me because I learned how to absorb knowledge at one end and then present it at the other.

But by the same token, that meant that I was not able to engage in new content. If that becomes the norm, then there’s a a real possibility to lose interest or to disengage from the learning environment because I’m not being challenged or stimulated.

So that’s where Ms. Stewart and my GT program came in. I needed that extra challenge.

Northside ISD is a large district. What other challenges does a district the size of yours have in offering a gifted program?

Kim Stewart: One of our hurdles is not just a local trend, but something we’ve seen nationally, and that is the underrepresentation of certain populations, such as economically disadvantaged, special education, and African American students. They are under-identified in our gifted programs. So I’m really proud of some of the initiatives that we have been taking.

First of all, we have been using local norms for as long as I can remember in efforts to combat this. We give a CogAT test to all third graders. We can take each campus and look at their top 5-10%. It’s critical that we look at the abilities of students in relation to their same-age peers with similar experience and background. Our district is extremely diverse, our campuses don’t all look the same, so when we look at a campus local norm, we’re able to identify students for a gifted program per campus as opposed to per district.

Once students are identified as part of the Gifted program, how do you support them? Is it solely by pulling them out of the regular classroom for special instruction?

Kim Stewart: One of the hurdles in gifted education in general is trying to meet the needs of gifted students in their regular classrooms. In elementary we do have a pull-out program — we have designed a very deep and rich curriculum that’s rooted in critical and creative thinking. Students are taught from a young age how to think through a lens using Depth and Complexity, which is a framework of thinking tools that pushes students to really extend their thinking to master content.

But a pull-out program only happens once a week. So we implemented a program that we call Mac-GT: Math and Clustering with GT students. It’s one way we aim to meet the needs of our gifted students all day, every day, and not just once a week during their pull-out GT class. GT students are clustered with high-ability math students who may not be identified for GT, but math is kind of their strength, and they’re clustered together in their general education classroom.

There are also students of average ability in that classroom. But the goal is not to have students who have true learning deficits — those students who need a great deal of teacher attention in which to grow — because then the teacher will have to spend her time bringing those kiddos up to speed.

For those teachers who have a Mac-GT group, they receive a series of professional development trainings that show them how to work with kids that can move faster, that can understand things at a deeper level than those at average grade level.

What effect does that have for the rest of the students, those who aren’t in the GT program or in the Mac-GT classroom?

Kim Stewart: We’re really proud of the results that we’ve seen so far — not just for the kids in our Mac-GT classes, but we’re actually getting to see what research had told us would happen: the kiddos who are not in the Mac-GT classroom, they have new leaders arising. Those kids who may have been overshadowed by the GT kids… oftentimes, for better or worse, they sit in the background and let those GT kids answer. The same kids like to raise their hands over and over.

It’s a natural instinct for teachers to choose the kids who are raising their hands, and that gives permission to the other kids. They know, “Hey, somebody else has me covered.” But when we pulled those Mac-GT kids out, those other classrooms began seeing new leaders arise. That’s good news.

Stephen McNierney: She’s right. When I was 10 or 12, I didn’t have the social skills to understand that I was running other people out of the conversation. But I can look back now and say, “Oh yeah, I answered way more questions than I should have.” To some extent, that could have been a barrier to other people wanting to get involved. Now I go to college and I’m not the smartest person in the room. I can see that those people step up and want to be the ones to answer the questions, and everybody else takes a back seat.

Kim Stewart: I think a lot of districts do what we did for many years, which is kind of farm out your GT kids so that all teachers have one or two or however many it is. I think that’s lonely for our GT kids when they don’t have peers to collaborate with.

Peers who are more like them academically?

Kim Stewart: We call those “like-minded peers,” other peers that they can really talk to. Otherwise, you’re the only one in a class. Again, you’re often used as a peer tutor, or you’re reading a book in a corner while the teacher’s working with the kiddos to bring them up to speed. And so this is an opportunity for kids to have a little group to collaborate with.

I won’t say there aren’t struggles — We have a lot of dominant personalities in one class. That presents other issues. But ultimately, we feel like kids are benefiting from being together and getting to work with kids that are more in sync with them in how they think.

Stephen McNierney:  If you’re sitting around in a classroom with no real motivation to push yourself, there’s only so far you’re going to go. If now you’ve got 10 of these GT students all together, you’re going to have them pushing each other, ideally in a friendly and competitive way, and it’s going to raise the overall performance of each of those students.

Do GT students face added pressures — either from their families or from schools or from themselves — that other students don’t?

Kim Stewart: One of the big pressures that we see among your stereotypical gifted students, if there is such a thing, is perfectionism. So many of our gifted students impose pressure upon themselves. Anything less than a hundred percent is not good enough.

However, that doesn’t always come from the students themselves. We, as teachers, sometimes impose pressure without intending to. Just because a student has the label of ‘gifted,’ we expect them to be gifted in everything — and that is absolutely not the case and we can’t expect that from them.

Also, parents. And I’m not advocating that we should not have high expectations for our very capable kids. I tend to have very high expectations for my own children, my own students. Steven can attest to that, I’m sure. But we need to be cautious about imposing unrealistic expectations.

Kids suffer from anxiety. Anxiety is very common among perfectionists, but there are lots of different types of giftedness. Stereotypically [gifted] kids often have what we call ‘multipotentiality.’ And that describes the student who is good at many, many things, and they enjoy many things, so they often try to do it all.

We don’t recognize this as a problem, necessarily, kind of like feeling sorry for the rich —nobody really has a lot of empathy for that — but it does cause stress and anxiety, because students are forced to make choices in how they spend their time. It’s very difficult for some of our kids to make those decisions, because they know that they’re giving up something in lieu of something else.

Do either of you have anything else you’d like to tell someone who might be trying to improve the GT program at their school or district?

Kim Stewart: I think an all-too-common misconception is that these kids will be okay with minimal intervention, without some direct intervention for them. When that philosophy is enacted, students do not learn at the rate at which they’re really able. But it’s more than that — sometimes we lose them. Today we’re talking to Stephen who is a self-motivated kid, but they’re not all like that. And sometimes they get lost in the system. Sometimes they give up on school, and sometimes they give up on more than school.

What I would hope people listening would take away is to recognize gifted students as a special population who need direct intervention in order to maximize their full learning potential. I truly believe that we have students sitting in our classrooms right now who can find ways to improve cybersecurity and solve real world problems like how we’re going to feed the masses as our population continues to grow, and even cure and prevent diseases so that we may never again see a pandemic of this proportion, right?

But they’re not going to do that alone. As educators, we absolutely need to meet the needs of our struggling students, but that cannot be at the expense of our more advanced students who are ready for more.

Stephen McNierney: This is a letter that I wrote a year and a half ago to my state representative when there was a house bill being debated that would have eliminated mandatory funding for GT programs. So districts could have chosen to fund the GT programs if they wanted to, but no longer would have been mandated to do so. Something I wrote was:

Contrary to popular belief, GT students don’t just ‘get by’ in regular classrooms. Instead, these students are often at risk of being left behind by an educational system that fails to push them to achieve their full potential.

If we leave these GT students to themselves and expect them to be peer mentors or to just read books, that’s our greatest source of untapped potential.