As the education reform debate continues, most attention is focused on raising the achievement level of the lowest performing students by increasing their reading and math proficiency as well as graduation rates. While I agree that this is a vital area to improve in our country, we cannot overlook the needs of gifted students.
Innovation is a major source of our country’s economic growth and prosperity, and much of this innovation comes from many gifted individuals across the nation. In education, gifted students are sometimes referred to as the “talented tenth,” the highest performing ten percent of students.
Some schools have programs that challenge gifted students. However, there are some schools with weak or nonexistent gifted programs, and many of these schools serve low-income or minority students. Recent reports show that the fastest-growing gap between black and white students is in the area of advanced achievement.
But is it not just low-income and minority students who are lagging behind in gifted education. The most recently announced Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results place the United States 31 of 56 participating countries in the percentage of students achieving at an advanced level in mathematics.
Thankfully, it is not an either/or situation when choosing between investments in helping lower and higher achieving students. Differentiating instruction within the same classroom is an important strategy used by effective teachers, allowing students within the same classroom to do work that is on their level. This is often done by giving students reading materials or math problems that are on the lesson topic but at a level that will properly challenge each student. Technology can often be used in the same way by allowing students to complete work on a computer that is tailored for their abilities.
Newly developed standardized testing measurements can help teachers and schools measure their success at meeting the needs of their top students. Using value-added models, teachers can see the academic progress each student made during the year. Just as many teachers look closely at the progress of their lower level students, they can also closely track the progress of their high achievers.
Thus, most of the same reforms that will help lower level students will also help the highest achievers. A high quality teacher in every classroom will improve classroom differentiation; an increase in technology will allow all students to perform work tailored to their abilities; and accurate testing data and models will help teachers and schools measure their success.
Closing the achievement gap is necessary for our country’s continued growth and prosperity, but let’s not forget to challenge and develop our top students, knowing that much of our innovation and development will come from the skills and minds of our talented tenth.