Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Federal Priority

Over the past few months, many parents of gifted kids have written letters to their representatives imploring them to maintain funding levels for the Jacob K. Javits program -- the only federal funds appropriated for gifted education. Thanks to all their attention, the program will likely receive $7.5 million in federal funds for this upcoming fiscal year.

Unfortunately, the intentions of these parents -- and probably a lot of representatives who voted for this money -- are being completely thwarted by bureaucrats at the Department of Education.

Here's the story: While amounting to only a few dollars per gifted child in the U.S., the Javits program does do some good. It funds research on gifted education. The Department of Education also doles out a few grants from these funds to programs serving gifted children across the country.

This is where we get to the disturbing part of all this. During the annual grant-making process, various federal agencies alert the public, in something called The Federal Register, to what kinds of programs they are looking to fund. The Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education recently published a "Notice of Proposed Priority" in the Federal Register about the Javits money.

Assistant Secretary Kerri L. Briggs (a native of Midland, TX) says she is seeking "to support the implementation of models with demonstrated effectiveness in identifying and serving gifted and talented students who are economically disadvantaged or limited English proficient, or who have disabilities, and who may not be identified and served through typical strategies for identifying gifted children. We intend the priority to increase the availability of proven approaches for increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups performing at high levels of academic achievement."

The explanation follows: "In 2007, 32 percent of all 4th grade public school students scored at or above the proficient level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to only 17 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch under the National School Lunch program (i.e., students who are economically disadvantaged), 13 percent of students with disabilities, and 7 percent of students with limited English proficiency. Students from these three groups are significantly underrepresented at or above proficient levels on the 8th grade reading and 4th and 8th grade mathematics assessments."

All of this is unfortunate and true. But here's the big question: What does that have to do with gifted education?

Done right, gifted programs should be educational interventions for students who cannot be well-served in traditional classrooms. If 32% of students score at or above proficient, this is hardly indicative of a level at which students need educational intervention. Most good gifted programs aim for the top 5%, or even the top 1-2% of children's test scores.

Second, there is much to be said for helping disadvantaged children achieve at high levels. Indeed, the whole No Child Left Behind Act is focused on making sure children from disadvantaged backgrounds don't fall behind children who enter school with more advantages. But gifted education is not about normal "high levels of academic achievement" or, frankly, about traditional achievement at all.

If a child from a disadvantaged background scores at the 75th percentile on a grade-level test one year, and then at the 85th percentile the next, that's wonderful. If she goes from B's and C's to A's on her report card, that deserves to be celebrated. But what about the child with a 160 IQ who's reading Harry Potter books at age 5, who then starts kindergarten and has to spend six hours a day in a class where everyone is learning letters? What happens when she refuses to do school work anymore, or when she loses interest in school in general because she's so bored?

Under the proposed Javits guidelines, this child -- who scores in the 99th percentile on any available grade level test -- is not a priority. She's not a priority if she's from a disadvantaged background (since hey, she's already been identified -- and thus is not served by programs aiming to increase representation). And she's particularly not a priority if she happens to be white and/or middle class.

No, the Javits priority this year is about increasing representation of under-represented groups in the top third of grade-level achievement tests. To say this misses the point is putting it mildly.

As we say over and over again on this blog, gifted education is not a reward -- a kind of awards ceremony where the kids on the stage should "look like America." It should not be a bonus recognition for a kid who does well in school, or works hard, or overcomes obstacles, or what have you. All those things are worth celebrating. But they are not the point of gifted education, which is about accommodating kids whose frenetic intelligence means their needs cannot be met in normal grade level classrooms. Gifted education should be about challenging these children to the extent of their abilities.

There's so much money allocated to No Child Left Behind, and so little allocated to gifted education, that it's adding insult to injury to take Javits and turn it into yet another close-the-achievement gap program. But that is precisely what our federal government has stated is its priority.

I don't know what Assistant Secretary Briggs has against gifted education. Maybe it's nothing sinister. But it's clear she doesn't get it.


Kim Moldofsky said...

Last year I testified on behalf of gifted education at an Illinois State Board of Ed budget hearing.

I wrote about the experience on my blog. I came away from the meeting very discouraged. By the end of the ISBE hearing, it seemed that chances are slim to none that the state is going to do much to help my white, middle class, "enriched" PG boys and their middle class peers.

I'm encouraged by Harvard's recent move to have a sliding fee scale for tution- I only wish the private gifted school my boys attend had a large enough endowment to have such a program and make the school more accessible to middle class and lower families.

Thanks for this post, Laura. I'll give it a shout-out at Momformation.

More on the ISBE meeting here:

Queen of Shake-Shake said...

What great insight! It hits the nail on the head.

IMO, whenever the gov't gets involved in something, it always gets watered down and diluted away from what it was meant to be.

I feel resigned to the fact that I have to take much of the "challenging the child to the extent of their abilities" in my own hands for my son. More so for my child because his gift lies in one subject where he is extraordinarily gifted.

However, after reading your post, I finally took the leap I've been feeling. I called the school and finally raised the question that he isn't being challenged enough. We'll see where it goes!

Anonymous said...

While the diversion of the Jarvits funding is a particularly egregious example of the lack of Federal interest in gifted education, it is not clear that the Jarvits funding ever did much good. The research it supported seems not to get any distribution and has no lasting impact. Can anybody list even 3 research projects that have been funded by Jarvits? one?

Perhaps it would be better if the Jarvits funding went to actually teaching gifted children, though $7.5M isn't going to go very far no matter what you do with it.

Jonna said...

Thanks for the insight you have provided, I am a teacher of the gifted, I agree wholeheartedly with the intervention philosophy of gifted education.