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Public schools are failing the most gifted students

Updated: December 22, 2011 8:05AM

I have a master’s degree in special education, but when I rack my brain, I can recall only one or two class sessions, tops, during my teacher training that were devoted to gifted students. And through hundreds of hours of classroom observations, I never once got to sit in on a class for gifted students.

This isn’t a surprise. Public schools are not set up to support or enrich gifted students, who often come across as bored and listless or energetic troublemakers, because they’re not being challenged.

The fact is that gifted students — defined by federal law as “youth who give evidence of high achievement capability . . . and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities” — are routinely ignored in public education.

Schools have forever been challenged by budget constraints, too few high-performing educators who have the necessary specialized training, and plenty of students with high needs that keep them from achieving even average grades.

But most significant was the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which took the wind out of the sails of gifted programs by forcing schools to put a greater focus on the achievements of their lowest performers.

According to a National Association for Gifted Children’s report released last week, gifted students are being held back by inadequate teacher preparation and professional development, little public accountability and inconsistent access to services.

“The nation’s infrastructure to serve our high-ability and high-potential students is in disrepair and in urgent need of attention,” said NAGC President Paula Olszweski-Kubilius, a professor of education at Northwestern University. “Unless the nation redoubles its effort to identify and serve our high-potential and high-ability students, we will fail to ensure our future competitiveness, security and prosperity.”

Just days after that report was released, the Chicago Public Schools announced that South Loop Elementary School will be cutting its entire gifted program.

The reason is a classic case of overcrowding. The school’s main building has too many students and no space in which to expand.

“Today I announce that we will [be] permanently phasing out the South Loop School Regional Gifted Center program. Thus, over an eight-year period, we will see a reduction in this source of enrollment pressure of approximately 28 students per year [one classroom] for a total reduction of 224 students [nine classrooms],” wrote principal Tara Shelton in a letter to parents.

What a terrible shame that the brightest students are considered a “source of enrollment pressure.”

But I’m not here to knock Ms. Shelton; this isn’t just a CPS issue. Illinois, in general, doesn’t value its most gifted students, a failure that trickles down.

According to NAGC, Illinois doesn’t know how many gifted students it has because, like many other states, it doesn’t bother to count them. And it doesn’t count them because, in part, the state is not accountable for their education. Illinois spends zero dollars on Gifted and Talented education.

We have no guidelines for identifying gifted students, don’t require teachers to have any training on how to instruct them, and don’t permit gifted students to get around our lack of programs by, for example, allowing grade school students to enroll in high school classes or allowing high schoolers to enroll in college courses.

What a phenomenally ridiculous waste.

And now we say farewell to South Loop’s gifted students. Tragically, we hardly knew ye.

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