It has been my experience that our school system has a major flaw in how it treats children who are twice exceptional -- gifted with some kind of disability such as Asperger's Syndrome or a learning disability. We've spent nine years doing battle with the Department of Special Education trying to get the Asperger's side of my son's issues dealt with appropriately. However, the Department of Gifted Instruction has been as unwilling/unable to program for such children as the Special Education Department has been.
But it starts at a more basic level: consistent programming for highly abled students in our elementary schools. I believe that administration does not perceive highly able students as being in need when in fact such children are at risk. If we determine to reach this group of at-risk students, we first have to dispel the myths and prejudices that surround them.
Possibly the biggest myth is that this is not an at-risk population. Many educators and general members of the community believe that highly abled learners are just fine on their own, that they already have so much, what more do they need? However, if learning is “forward progress from what you know to what you don’t yet know” (Winebrenner, p. 4), then those most at risk of learning the least this year are the most abled learners. There is simply less new information presented to them than to any other group.
Imagine the child who enters the new school year already knowing 75% or more of the the math curriculum for that grade as based on beginning-of-the-year testing. She must sit and listen to all the lessons on concepts she has already mastered. She must complete the work and take the tests on information she has already demonstrated she knows. She might be exposed to some new information -- the 25% that she didn't know as of September -- but she is not making a year's worth of progress in a year. As our schools scramble to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the needs of less abled students are identified and addressed through remediation, mentoring, whatever it takes -- as they should be. If a less abled student were making only a quarter of a year's progress in a year, resources would be made available. Not so for the highly abled learner; her test scores do not negatively impact AYP -- she is doing just fine on her own -- she doesn't need anything.
Another point showing that highly abled students are indeed an at-risk population is the research that uncovers that 25-50% of highly abled students’ time is spent waiting for other students to catch up (Webb, p. 13). How many parents could paper their walls with the drawings on the backs of their children’s worksheets, drawings completed while other students finished their assignments? Even the excellent activity of reading after completing an assignment is still time spent waiting. And when highly abled students are presented with new information, they learn it quickly yet still must wait for their classmates to master it. One child routinely expressed her frustration, noting, "I understood it the first time [the teacher] said it; I didn't need to hear it over and over again."
Just as significantly, current research supports that highly abled students frequently lose self-esteem, lose motivation to learn, or opt to act less capable (“dumb down”). (This can be especially true for girls who are highly abled learners.) How frustrating is it to educators and to parents to see highly abled students become underachievers? Many highly abled students simply don’t reach their potential. Why should they? They can "get by" with minimum effort.
Another prejudice is that providing appropriate instruction for highly abled learners is somehow elitist. We have new accountability for many groups of at-risk students based on socioeconomic or cultural factors or academic performance. After school programs and mentoring programs, for example, are in place, and teachers automatically or because required adjust amount of work, pacing, amount of time for completion of work, content, teaching styles, options for expression of material learned, topics of interest, peer interactions, and level of knowledge about the learner to reach recognized at-risk students (Winebrenner, pp.2-3). However, “the level, pacing, amount, and type of learning activities that benefit average learners are as inappropriate for [highly abled students] as they are for students who are working ... below grade-level expectations” (Winebrenner, p. 3), yet the latter group receives attention without guilt. Highly abled students are as at risk as other groups; it is not elitist to see to their needs, nor is it unfair to other groups of students in the classroom.
Other myths also exist. One is that students who receive Special Education services cannot be highly abled learners. As the parent of one such student, I certainly can tell you that this profile exists. What danger to the student is there when his special needs mask his high cognitive abilities or vice versa, causing only one side of him to be seen, or causing him to appear "average" when in fact he is not. What danger is there, too, when staff acts on the belief that being highly abled means having to be perfect; since learning differences or another type of disability exists, this student cannot be gifted. Another myth is that Reading and Math are the only areas that need to be addressed, or that splitting parts of Reading and Math into abilities-based groupings is sufficient. If a student is highly abled, she may be quite capable of doing higher levels of work in Science or Social Studies. She may also be capable of doing more than what is presented to her in the "above grade level" Reading or Math group. Yet another myth is that highly abled students’ needs can be met with more work, extra “jobs,” or being peer tutors. A student who has mastered the teaching point does not need to practice it again, stifling motivation. A student who has finished her work is not enriched by doing the lunch count. A highly abled student who is tasked with peer tutoring postpones his own opportunities to learn.
Once educators accept that highly abled learners do indeed need appropriate programming, such programming must be implemented in a thoughtful, meaningful, purposeful way. It is not enough to throw a handful of enrichment opportunities at some students, nor is it enough to provide some materials without integrating them into the mandated curriculum. It is also not useful to deny highly abled learners such resources as mentors or after-school programs simply because of their high cognitive abilities; as already discussed, they are at risk, too, and also need these resources.
The Department of Curriculum and Instruction in our school district distributed a brochure that categorized what our elementary schools already have in existence for highly abled students during the past school year. Programs exist. However, in actuality, programs for highly abled learners in our elementary schools are not consistently implemented. Some schools access them; some don't. Some teachers access them; some don't. Additionally, the implication is that these programs have an integrated place within the curriculum, yet to date evidence of such has not been seen. And while the brochure categorizes what the school system already has in place, by extension, it also shows what the school system doesn’t have to program for this population. An additional point is that if elementary classes are to continue to be mixed ability classes, then general education teachers need training for identifying and appropriately working with highly abled learners. In our school system, it is not until middle school (with Honors Reading and Math plus one limited seating GT program) and high school (with AP classes and three new limited seating GT programs) that our students can access courses with appropriate rigor, with the exception of the elementary STEM Academy, which serves only 48 students per 4th and 5th grades each. Consistent, integrated programming is not in place in our elementary schools. (Note: middle school Honors Reading and Math courses are not enough either, nor is relying on AP classes for GT programming.)
Our school system has multiple programs in existence for other identified at-risk groups. Many students have been assigned mentors, and a new mentoring program was rolled out last year with plans to reach more students in the future; identified students participate in pull-out programs; and other after school programs are in place. Highly abled elementary students need similar programs but are typically denied access to them. Our school system also has staff and administration experienced in working with highly abled students, in working with highly abled students with special needs, or in meeting the needs of other identified at-risk groups. A purposeful, meaningful plan must be implemented to bring these people together to work for all students in need. All the resources that we already have in existence need to be used, and used consistently, to reach at-risk, highly abled learners, giving them appropriate rigor and interventions now, before we lose them.
Webb, James T., Elizabeth Meckstroth, & Stephanie S. Tolan. Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers (2005). Gifted Psychology Press, Scottsdale, AZ.
Winebrenner, Susan. Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom: Strategies and Techniques Every Teacher Can Use to Meet the Academic Needs of the Gifted and Talented (2001). Free Spirit Publishing, Inc., Minneapolis, MN.