The 2021 Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted Fall Conference offered the opportunity to delve deeper into key issues around gifted education, both locally and nationally, with a specific focus on equity.
Regardless of the difficulties surrounding change, growth requires it. Dissecting what works versus what continues to challenge a system often begins the change process. For some, this dissection leads to refinement. “This worked, now all we need to do is…” For others, this dissection leads to complete system elimination. “This worked, but for reasons x, y, or z it no longer meets our needs.” Historians, however, dissect the past to develop a better understanding of the future. They ask, “How did we get to this point in time?”
One way to advocate for the continuation of gifted and talented services centers on dovetailing the service into specific niche settings. For instance, careful data analysis may indicate the need for highly targeted instruction. A student may benefit from full grade or subject-specific acceleration; promoting the child to a new class appears to eliminate the need.
Full grade and subject area acceleration models exist and show success. Nonetheless, as parents and educators note, these programs do not address the needs of all gifted students. Asynchrony (non-linear development) and other factors might work to undermine a student’s academic progress. For example, a four-year-old with a seven-year-old brain might still need a kindergarten structure. Similarly, highly talented musicians, athletes, or visual artists might require both talent development and advanced academics targeted to foster their needs.
However, these models often appear to perpetuate system biases. For numerous reasons, including, but not limited to test anxiety, lack of preparatory opportunities, and continued systemic bias, underserved and traditionally minority populations rarely receive the benefits of gifted programming. Indeed, this proves to be the biggest rationale for the rallying cry, “The program is inherently biased, eliminate it.”
Scholars from these very communities, however, propose an alternative path, tied to local norms and talent development. Within this framework, the goal becomes one of inclusion rather than exclusion. One strategy suggested focuses on the use of non-verbal identification tools. The importance of these instruments stems from their non-biased narratives.The challenge comes in disseminating and utilizing the data.
Used with prudence, nonverbal identification tools provide entry points. Rather than using these tools to find one or two students from diverse backgrounds in older grades, use them to find a strong cohort of kids early on. The data may or may not lead to a group that would reach a scale score of 130 on a traditional IQ test. The data, however, might lead to “students of promise.”
Data collection leads to service development and delivery. Recognizing the disparity in access to enriched opportunities, educational models should adopt an enrichment for all mentality. Talent development is good for all kids and allows brains to create higher-level problem-solving skills. Providing enrichment opportunities in the early grades allows for students to hone in on their passions and develop stronger social-emotional connections to their school community. Students and school systems benefit from this positive engagement.
Providing enrichment opportunities, moreover, increases the bonds between the school, home, and community. Parents who believe that their school district provides both appropriate educational opportunities and rewarding experiences become allies. Moreover, as students progress through their academic careers, these bonds ensure that a continuation of appropriate service opportunities remains. Families with strong local connections tend to maintain residency within their district.
Ultimately, to arrive at a point where targeted instruction utilizing full or subject-area acceleration becomes the norm, a foundation of opportunity for all must exist.
Dr. Maria Katsaros-Molzahn, Ed.D,
WATG Secretary for the Justice for All Taskforce