Sunday, February 20, 2011

California gifted programs on the block

Flexibility sounds like a good thing. In tight times, local school districts need to be able to use their stretched funds to cover their most pressing needs. But as anyone who's followed the issue of gifted education will suspect, educating highly intelligent children is rarely deemed a pressing need.

According to a recent New York Times piece (done in conjunction with The Bay Citizen), in California, a quick glance would make someone think that California funding for gifted education had only fallen a bit in recent years: from $46.8 million in 2008-2009 to $44.2 million in 2009-2010. But, as the article notes, "those numbers obscure a more important change: in February 2009, the California Legislature adopted a plan that allowed public schools to divert state money for gifted children to “any educational purpose,” including closing budget deficits."

And the diversion happened like a stampede. According to the article, "A study by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, released last May, found that 68 percent of the 231 school districts surveyed had shifted resources away from education for gifted students since lawmakers approved the measure."

So there we go. Left to their own devices, only 32% of districts actually think that money appropriated for gifted education should go to gifted education. I know statistics like this are why many gifted education advocates believe that the only thing that will make gifted education a priority is a national mandate with teeth, similar to the one that exists for students with disabilities. As a generally fiscally conservative person, I'm always wary of mandates, and arguments that the things that I think the government should spend money on are somehow more worthy than things other people think the government should spend money on. Still, statistics like this are incredibly frustrating. It is hard to envision a more shortsighted policy than cutting gifted programs because, hey, that seems like the easiest way to solve the problem of paying this month's electricity bill.

Long term, this mindset will need to be attacked on a few fronts. First, gifted education advocates need to work with teachers colleges to expose more teachers to the needs and diversities of gifted students, and ways of meeting their needs. Right now, too many educators see gifted education as something for, as Mara Sapon-Shevin once wrote, "the kids with disposable income."

Second, gifted education itself needs to be yanked away from a reliance on short pull-out programs -- the worst of which involve doing something like taking the gifted kids to a science museum on a Friday when no one else gets to go. Everyone can benefit from enrichment and field trips, and 45 minutes of pull-out twice a week do little to truly challenge a gifted child. Acceleration is a great idea. So is broad based grouping by ability (or readiness, as we like to say here). Gifted education should not be seen as a reward. It needs to be seen as an educational intervention for kids who need it.

And finally, we need some high profile champions. Surely, some folks in the California legislature, in politics generally, in industry, in the arts, in journalism, were in gifted programs as young people and saw benefits from them. If this sounds like you, please step up and let the world know!


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

California schools have had it particularly tough lately, as the state has continued to reduce the money they get and they can't raise property taxes locally. At best they can try to pass parcel taxes, which don't distinguish between huge shopping centers and tiny lots with a one-bedroom cottage, and even then need a 2/3 majority of voters to pass.

I can understand why a school that has already reduced staff to the point of having one janitor, one principal, and one secretary (no nurses, teacher's aides, counselors, or other "frills") for a 600-student school may wish to use the tiny gifted education funds to retain core teachers or keep elementary class sizes below 40.

I don't think a federal mandate would help: the state has starved most of the school districts to the point where they couldn't afford to mount a gifted education program without an infusion of cash.

I do think that they could be a lot more creative about placement by achievement. (I posted on this subject just 2 days ago:

Heather Hanlin said...

The other problem with California is that there aren't even state mandates for gifted education--so many people see it as an expendable frill. (When districts have it at all.)
Because of this there is a huge population of gifted children who are homeschooled. My kids are among them. And part of the problem with getting the legal aspect moving is that by the time I'm done trying to keep up with the educational needs of my gifted kids, I have no energy left to lobby for anything (except maybe a bath.) Even living in Silicon Valley, CA is a difficult place to be a gifted kid.

Ginger said...

So, readiness grouping has kind of happened in CA as a result of public schools letting our gifted students down. Many parents take them out of the public system and home-school them or send them to private schools with more challenging/flexible curriculum. Great for those who can afford it, but of course there are still some gifted students for whom this is not an option. Sad.

Jenny said...

Thank you for your post! I grew up in the Seminar program in the San Diego Unified School District, which was amazing. Later on in life, I became a teacher in the Bay Area, where gifted programs were few and far between. There seemed to be the opion that "all kids are gifted" yada...yada..yada. What I found as a teacher, were that the children I could pick out as highly gifted, were really having a hard time socially, and were suffering.

Since I indentified with their special needs, I went out of my way to challenge them accademically, but other teachers gave them the typical "If you are so smart why can't you behave?" remarks. Or worse..."I'm not going to let you move on to fifth grade math because your handwriting is awful and you can't write two paragraphs about how you solved this complex problem in your head."

Ugh! I'm getting frustrated just thinking about it. Now I live in WA and am very glad we lived in a district with gifted programs. I blog about ways to help teach kids at home at:

scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
themom said...

As a mother of a gifted child and a California resident, I am truly disappointed in the gifted program we have at our school. The kids take a standardized test in the second grade (STAR) to determine their eligibility to take the Raven test in third grade. If they do well on this test, they are put in the "gifted program." Every teacher in our school is GATE certified so they are supposed to be able to nurture a gifted child. That has not been the case in my experience. My son is now in 5th grade. I don’t think he has gotten anything out of the GATE program. The kids are expected to do not only the regular school work but also enrichment packets, i.e., worksheets, on top of their regular schoolwork. I thought gifted programs were supposed to be about differentiation and acceleration? Anyway, my son used to be excited about learning new things. Now he seems to just be going through the motions just to get by. This is what we are doing to our gifted students? I am not sure what to do at this point. I am seriously considering homeschooling for middle school but I am sure that comes with its own issues as well. I am truly frustrated and feel like I am letting my child down. I think the gifted program has let a lot of kids down.