- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

As students throughout the region settle into the new school year, heading back to school is a largely meaningless exercise for our highest-performing students.

Instead of eagerly anticipating a new beginning, most gifted students suffer through the first half of the school year in a state of boredom as their days are wasted with needless reviews of subject matter they’ve already mastered. Often, these learners see the holidays come and go before they are presented with challenging new material.

Some parents may view this scenario and think “if my child were only so lucky.” The reality, however, is that our failure to address this alarming underinvestment in our nation’s education system leaves us vulnerable and ill-prepared for the future.

Our inability to adequately challenge and stimulate our brightest minds is a critical indicator of how far we must go to regain our edge in an increasingly competitive global economy. While rising world powers recognize and invest in developing high-potential by providing years of rigorous education, our K-12 system allows many of these students to languish unchallenged.

For several years, my colleagues and I have studied classroom instruction for gifted readers. Despite their advanced reading levels, these students receive little reading instruction, spend the majority of their time reading well below their ability and have little opportunity to select more challenging material.

It doesn’t take very long for gifted students who are under-challenged or unchallenged to disengage from their schools academically, socially and emotionally. Some high-ability students already find it difficult to fit in with their classmates, and pushing them further to the margins exacerbates this problem. For far too many advanced learners, this downward spiral culminates in dropping out of school, a tragic example of lost potential.

If we could imagine an ideal situation for every student, it would include opportunities to learn at an appropriately challenging pace, engaging advanced content, independent, self-directed learning and curriculum opportunities based on interests. To turn this dream into reality, our entire education system - at the national, state and district levels - must admit this is a serious problem that requires urgent attention and a comprehensive solution.

No answer will emerge without recognizing this challenge is complex. Gifted students are a diverse lot, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. One highly damaging strategy we know doesn’t work is simply loading advanced learners with more homework from the very curriculum they’ve already mastered. We would never force stellar athletes or musical prodigies to repeat the same exercises and drills they’ve long mastered without introducing more difficult elements, and we cannot settle for an education system that allows the talents of our advanced learners to atrophy.

So what strategies do make sense?

First, it is essential that gifted students be taught by well-trained teachers and for schools to strive to ensure every teacher possesses some background and experience in gifted education. Only teachers empowered with this knowledge are able to recognize attributes of giftedness and fully understand how to reach this amazing yet challenging group of learners.

Second, our national education priorities must include sufficient resources to help today’s - and tomorrow’s - gifted students maximize their full potential. Stepping up to make this investment is the only way we can reverse decades of near national neglect of gifted learners.

Today, the federal investment in gifted education is a mere pittance amounting to 2.6 cents of every $100 in education funding provided by Washington. This paltry figure should be a national embarrassment, yet it often goes completely unnoticed.

Finally, our nation needs this commitment from Washington to help our states and school districts train teachers, develop rigorous curriculum, identify the countless number of gifted students who now go unnoticed and unserved and provide all gifted students - no matter their economic circumstances -with quality instruction.

In addition to better serving the needs of our gifted students, research indicates that when schools make this investment, the positive ramifications are widespread and benefit multiple students, even those not identified as gifted.

A clear choice is before us. We can continue with business as usual, disenfranchising a group of students on whom our nation’s future depends, or we can get serious about definitively addressing this crisis so back to school means something for future generations of gifted learners.

Sally M. Reis is a National Association for Gifted Children.

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