Parent Question: My fifth grade son was just identified by his school to participate in the gifted and talented program. No plans are being made to customize instruction specifically to his strengths—they are just going to plug him into the pre-existing gifted program that meets once a week. Is this the most effective method for meeting the needs of the gifted? Shouldn’t the program be tailored to fit the student, not vice versa?
Expert Answer: One-size-fits-all programming may be efficient for the school district, but it is not effective for serving gifted students.
Just as in special education, the gifted student deserves an educational plan that is based on the student’s strengths and relative weaknesses. Would a school district serve a child with a learning disability only once a week? Of course not! The service, adapted to the level of severity of the disability, would be provided for with an individual education plan (IEP). Similarly, gifted students should be served daily in their talent areas. Two main factors influence services: identification and programming.
How was your son identified? Did the school’s procedures concentrate on test scores (e.g., quantitative assessments such as an intelligence test) that relate to broad areas of giftedness, such as general intellectual ability? If so, it likely did not provide sufficient information about your son’s strengths. Therefore, the identification committee would be interested only in whether your son met a numeric standard such as the 98th percentile (e.g., your son would score better than 98 percent of the students who took the test) or a score of 130 on an intelligence test. Then he would be placed in the program for gifted students, which would be composed of students who met the same standard. Establishing specific instructional goals for each student would be left to the teacher or to an established school curriculum in gifted education. This identification approach is based on a static conception of giftedness, in which a student’s performance on a test at a single point in time is indicative of the degree of giftedness. Once a student scores at a certain level, then he or she is labeled as gifted and is eligible to be placed in a gifted program. Students are seldom reassessed and their programming is not adjusted even though their learning needs may change.
Another method of identification uses descriptions of students’ characteristics such as product portfolios and classroom observations (qualitative assessments). When both quantitative and qualitative assessments are used, the committee has a more detailed impression of each student. Test scores show each child’s performance in relationship to other students, while anecdotal information describes their interests, learning characteristics, and talents. With this information, the committee can develop an educational plan with specific goals tailored to the individual student’s needs. Such a plan would be developed in collaboration with you and your son’s general education and gifted education teachers. Instead of a single program, he would receive a variety of services in both general and gifted education settings that would match his particular strengths. This approach views giftedness as a dynamic process of development. Your son’s talents would be nurtured through systematic training and practicing of skills within a specific domain.
What are your son’s academic strengths? Let’s say that he is strong in mathematics, and he has acquired knowledge and skills two grade levels above his current fifth grade placement. A gifted program that focuses on language arts or on interdisciplinary types of enrichment units would not develop his strength in math.
First, he would need to be served daily in an accelerated math program. A gifted specialist might provide this service one-on-one or with a small group of students who also need advanced math instruction. This might occur in a resource room (pull-out) or in the regular classroom. Simply placing him in a sixthgrade math class might not be appropriate either, since the teacher would beproviding instruction for students who do not have advanced aptitudes in math. Additionally, the instructor may not have training in gifted education.
Next, in the general education classroom, your son should be given opportunities to conduct research using his math skills (e.g., statistics for field day, independent study projects, or math concepts such as pi). The fifth grade teacher might use curriculum compacting, an assessment method that allows your son to skip math skills he already knows, allowing time for more complex math projects. For assistance, the teacher could collaborate with the gifted and talented specialist in the school district or a mentor at a local college to enrich and accelerate the general education math curriculum.
One-size-fits-all programming may be efficient for the school district, but it is not effective for serving gifted students. Now that your son is identified, he can be served in his talent areas. He deserves nothing less!
—Susan Johnsen, PhD
Susan Johnsen is a professor in the department of educational psychology at Baylor University. She has written over 150 publications, including the Independent Study Program and Identifying Gifted/Talented Students: A Practical Guide.