By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Ten years ago, gifted students received specialized instruction in Evergreen School District on a weekly basis. That was cut to a few hours every other week. Last year the district in San Jose decided to completely eliminate its program serving nearly 800 gifted students.
“Teachers are working hard to try and meet the needs of all of their students,” says Bryan Feci, a fourth-grade teacher at Holly Oak Elementary School. “But it can be very challenging when you have 30 students and so much emphasis about having kids from the bottom move upward. In the process, you don’t want to lose kids who are proficient and above.”
Some fear that may happen as districts struggle to keep their Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs afloat.
This year nearly $40 million in GATE funding was made available to districts (with $4.2 million deferred until next year), compared with $46.8 million allocated in 2008-09. But the Legislature put categorical programs into “Tier 3,” which allows districts to apply for GATE funding and then use the money for other purposes. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office reported that 68 percent of 231 school districts surveyed had shifted resources away from GATE education. At the federal level, the entire $7 million budget for GATE — used for the purpose of identifying gifted students — was eliminated.
Not all states have reduced GATE programs, comments Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. But those states, including California, where GATE programs have been cut or eliminated are under extreme pressure to bring up test scores.
“Under this type of thinking, the achievement gap separating students will be closed by pulling from the top rather than jacking it up from the bottom,” Renzulli says.
Other districts in California that have suspended or reduced GATE programs — or are considering putting GATE on the chopping block — include Los Banos Unified, Fairfax and Fruitvale school districts in Bakersfield, Merced City School District, Delano Unified, San Francisco Unified, and Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD).
Mentally dropping out
The impact of cutting GATE is potentially catastrophic, says Martha Flourney, a former special education teacher who serves on the legislation committee of the California Association for the Gifted (CAG). “You can have kids drop out of school mentally in third grade if they are not being challenged. They may attend school, but they may become depressed and have behavior problems. Don’t gifted children also deserve to learn something new at school every day?”
Beth Littrell, a resource specialist for the San Mateo-Foster City School District’s GATE program, believes there is a common misconception that gifted students will be fine regardless of what happens. “There are a lot of social and emotional issues that come with being gifted,” says Littrell, a member of the San Mateo Elementary Teachers Association. “Gifted students are a highly intense group of people who experience the world with stronger emotions and with heightened senses. When their cognitive and emotional needs aren’t being met, they tend to go underground. It’s a shame, because they might be the ones to find the cure for cancer and be our future leaders.”
Without proper training, it can be a big challenge for general education teachers to have gifted students in their class, adds Littrell. “Most districts don’t think about the fact that gifted students have incredibly different needs, and most districts don’t offer training to meet those needs,” she says.
Littrell knows that firsthand, since teachers from other districts often visit her school district — which has a strong commitment to GATE education — seeking ways to meet the needs of gifted students at their own sites. (See "Tips for teaching gifted students".)
Brain development at risk
Research on gifted students shows that ignoring their needs goes beyond boredom or a risk of having them drop out; it can also jeopardize brain development. Dr. Barbara Clark, author of the leading textbook on the subject, Growing Up Gifted, which has been translated into numerous languages, bases her beliefs on a new field called “neuroplasticity.”
“New brain cells are born every day and must be challenged and exercised by learning something new, or they disappear,” says Clark. “This finding is hugely important for learners, especially gifted learners. They are too often not challenged in regular classrooms, where they may already know the ideas and content being presented at their grade level. Just repeating old activities and information will not support these new brain cells.”
“For these reasons, it is critical that we advocate for appropriate education for gifted learners,” concludes Clark. “Without such educational provisions, we take the chance that much of their neural development will be slowed or even lost. The idiom ‘Use it or lose it’ can become all too real.”