When ‘Gifted’ Kids Get Stuck in the Back of Class

Fresh evidence our public schools can't teach (or reach) our most talented students

America is not doing nearly enough to support its most talented young students, according to a recent report by a nonprofit — the National Association for Gifted Children — that has its eye on their well-being. In the group’s 2014-2015 “State of the Nation in Gifted Education” report, it found that U.S. schools have an “uneven delivery system with fragmented policies” for talented and gifted children.

Furthermore, the breakdown in public schools is inhibiting access to services for these talented and gifted students, also known as “TAG” students.

The needs of gifted students are often misunderstood, said M. René Islas, executive director of NAGC. One key reason is that teachers often are not trained to deal with children who learn at an accelerated rate.

Jenny Keep, a parent and educator in central Ohio, teaches eighth-grade math and language arts. Keep (not her real name) said her biggest struggle as a teacher is keeping kids engaged, and TAG students get bored fast. Really fast. Gifted children in her area get a specialized education plan tailored to their needs, much like children with disabilities.

“I really believe it should be individual instead of all the same,” she said. “They all learn differently.”

But if the teacher isn’t trained to handle kids who learn quickly, that hardly matters.

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“I try not to give them busywork, but it’s hard to help them grow, especially when I have them mixed with the regular students,” Keep said.

She said a lack of training is a big issue. Teachers are taught to help students who are struggling, but not those who are excelling.

As a parent, she has also seen the flip side. She said she really had to advocate to get her son the services he needed. He is bright, but needed to be pushed early on.

“I found that at times teachers didn’t know what to do with him, so they would just give him a book and stick him in the back of the room.”

Both her kids started doing better when they got to high school and could take advanced coursework, she said.

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She echoes what many other parents want for their children who are in TAG programs: Challenge my kids so they will be engaged at school.

That isn’t happening in many districts across the county.

One mother in Northern Virginia, who did not want to be named, is finding that her child’s TAG program simply accelerates learning rather than teaches critical thinking. She said that when she was a kid, the gifted and talented program taught her and her classmates out-of-the-box skills at early ages.

“It encouraged us to do things we didn’t think we could do — write persuasive speeches and construct challenging arguments — and gave us the tools to do it,” she said.

But in her children’s school, TAG students only receive more work, perhaps for older students — work that they would eventually get anyway.

Jeffrey Zack is a father of five living in Northern Virginia. Two of his children participated in the TAG program. He said his children liked the additional challenge but found some curriculum, especially that done on computers, not engaging. He added, “In some instances the school system did not have the resources to deliver the curriculum.”

When possible, teaching a smaller group of students does have advantages.

Marni Miller, a mother of two in Fairfax, Virginia, has one child in the TAG program and another in a general education setting. She said that seeing both sides shows her how much flexibility the TAG programs give its students.

“TAG is more open to creative solutions and going ‘outside the box,’” she said. She said her daughter is encouraged to share that information with her peers, which promotes further learning for all children.

The Future of TAG?
Even with groups like NAGC pushing for national, uniform measures to help the TAG population learn effectively, it will likely take years if not decades to truly impact change. In the meantime — are TAG programs worth it?

Parents who were in a TAG program when they were growing up resoundingly said it impacted their lives “not much.” Most TAG adults reported the curriculum was challenging and kept them busy but wasn’t life changing. Some disagreed.

Marigold Bergman, once a TAG student in the Northeast, said she felt like one of the dumber kids in her class, and it might have hurt her ambition level. She still feels conflicted about the experience. Dana Cawley endured extreme bullying during her TAG days in New Hampshire. She loved the educational aspect of it but her social education was horrible. Many of her classmates struggled with understanding social norms because they were so isolated and focused on academics.

Still, she said the positive praise of hearing how smart and special she was from her teachers stuck with her all of these years. She said she’s changed her career three times and was successful every time.

“I assume it’s because I was taught I can learn anything and excel if I just put my mind to it,” Cawley said. “Gifted or not, that’s something every kid should be taught.”

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