What Percent Gifted?
USA Today has a a feature piece on its website about Dana Kelly, one of the paper's 2005 All-USA Teacher Team members.
Kelly teaches gifted education in what sounds like a very fun program at Southwest Elementary in Lakeland, Florida. This post is not about that program's merits, though.
What stuck out for me in the piece is that 8% of the school's population participates in the gifted program. This is twice the level at other schools, Kelly explains, but she also chooses high-achievers who don't meet the "gifted" qualifications the district sets out.
It's a noble thought. There's just one catch. When the percentage of students participating in a school or district's gifted program starts creeping up, and the program consists of lots of fun extra-curriculars in addition to (or, alas, often in place of) advanced academic work, it starts becoming a prize.
Then, you have to justify keeping that prize from other kids. Why not the top 10%? Why not the top 20%? At some well-to-do districts, I've seen percentages as high as 25% in the gifted programs -- which at that level becomes more of a way of mollifying parents than meeting kids' needs.
But it's not like 4%, as this district chose, is inherently good, either. The old 130 IQ standard set the level at roughly 1% of the population. Children with IQs north of 130 are often too intellectually advanced to fit in around the margins of a grade level class (something children only one standard deviation above the norm can do with a good teacher). Of course, a child with a 130 IQ, and a child with a 160 IQ have very different needs.
So what is the right level for the gifted program? I can't necessarily answer that (though I usually do say top 1-2%). I can point out other ways of dealing with the problem.
One is to make sure the gifted program is no more "fun" than the classes other kids experience. Gifted kids need advanced academic work in all fields, not the pull-outs that have them learning about the pyramids and pretending to be Sherlock Holmes and what have you. There is no reason other kids can't do the activities in most pull-outs.
Second, schools can't start treating gifted education as a prize doled out to high achievers. Getting an A on a test is great-- but if you had to work hard to get that A, you might be in the right class already. Gifted kids get A's without trying in grade level classes. Or they get lousy grades because they're so bored they won't dignify the work by doing it. Schools need to treat gifted education as an intervention for students who need it. High achievement alone doesn't indicate that.
To ward off the prize mentality, schools could even call the program something other than gifted education. Maybe the "double homework" class ... :)