High Achievers

Joan Franklin Smutny

Although we consider creativity and critical thinking two of the most important skills today, children often have limited opportunities to flex their creative muscles. Parents and teachers need to encourage creative children to find at least one outlet, along with venues and audiences to showcase their work. With summer on the way, now is the right time for parents and teachers to help gifted children look for ways to expand their creative horizons.

The International Torrance Legacy Creativity Awards competition is one way gifted children ages from ages eight to eighteen can nurture their inventiveness in the areas of writing, visual arts, musical composition, and inventions. Judged by professionals in those fields, the competition (now in its eighth year) has grown to include original submissions from hundreds of students around the world, including Australia, Bahrain, China, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States.

The awards honor the fundamental contributions of psychologist E. Paul Torrance (1915–2003), who devoted his life to examining correlations between intelligence and creativity. Throughout his career, Torrance wrote over 1,500 books and articles and enabled thousands of young people around the world to realize their potential. He described the talents and abilities of gifted children in...

Last week, the Department of Education released the 2015 Nation’s Report Card for twelfth graders. As with the fourth- and eighth-grade scores provided last fall, there was little to celebrate. In the core subjects of math and reading, average scores held firm at the same unimpressive level they’ve been at since 2009. The scores of low-performers—whether defined as the proportion of students “below Basic” or those in the bottom decile—actually declined for the first time in at least a decade.

There was one glimmer of good news: High-end reading scores (whether defined as the top decile or the percentage of students at NAEP’s “Advanced” level) rose by a statistically significant margin—the first time that’s happened since 1998. Indeed, this qualified as only the second such upward bump ever for high-end twelfth graders. (Since 1990, there has never been a statistically significant jump at the high end in math or science for high school seniors.)

Moreover, this year’s high-end reading gains occurred despite all other scores (average and low-end reading and math, as well as high-end math) being down or flat across all core subjects in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. That fact that is itself rather unusual. High-end fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores,...

Barbara Clark

Observing what a young person is capable of is always exciting. Many of the limits we thought children had do not seem to be as absolute as we once believed. The more we study children, the more we discover that our beliefs are limited, not the abilities of kids.

Are children born gifted?

The potential for giftedness or a high level of intellectual development begins very early in a child’s life. Studies since the early 1970s consistently show that such development is the result of an interaction between the child’s genetic endowment and a rich and appropriate environment in which the child grows. No child is born gifted—only with the potential for giftedness. Although all children have amazing potential, only those who are fortunate enough to have opportunities to develop their talents in an environment that responds to their particular needs will be able to actualize their abilities to high levels. Research in psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and early learning can help parents create responsive environments that allow their children to develop their potential to the fullest—that is, to create giftedness.

Giftedness is a changing concept

Giftedness can now be seen as a biologically rooted label for a high level of intelligence, which indicates...

Lisa Riggs

Over the past year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has published numerous articles (including a book) explaining how schools across the country are overlooking high-achieving poor students. In the age of ESSA, the role of the states and districts in serving its high-achievers is more important than ever before. In Texas, where I live and work, nearly 8 percent of children are identified as gifted and talented, but before my arrival in the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), only 4.5 percent of students were so identified. That percentage was unacceptable, so the district reinvented its approach. Its current methods—now much improved—ought to be an example of what other districts across the country can do to better serve high-ability boys and girls.

In December 2015, the SAISD board approved a universal screening assessment and matrix for all first and fifth graders for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). Therefore, every student would have an equal opportunity to be identified for these essential GATE services. (In a district where 92 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged and 98 percent of students are Latino or African American, this work is even more critical.)

Identification is just the first step in...

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires a “negotiated rulemaking” process whenever the Department of Education issues regulations under parts of the law pertaining to assessments, academic standards, and several other topics. This process requires a panel of experts, which the agency assembled in March. Their work thus far (they’ve met twice) has revealed major problems on the regulatory front concerning gifted and high-achieving students. These issues need immediate attention, including close scrutiny by the lawmakers who crafted ESSA.

As Education Week explains the process, panel members “essentially get together in a room and try to hammer out an agreement with the department. If the process fails, which it often does, the feds go back to the drawing board and negotiate through the regular process, which involves releasing a draft rule, getting comments on it, and then putting out a final rule.” The Department of Education assists this process with issues papers (which provide background), discussion questions, and draft regulatory language that the panel can edit based on its discussions.

Last week, the group tackled assessments, an area of ESSA that directly affects gifted and high-achieving students. Unfortunately, in the twenty-plus pages of draft regulations and seven issue papers that accompanied those discussions,...

Allow me to let you in on a little secret from deep inside the nation's policy making machinery: Policy elites view the rise of Donald Trump—the candidate and everything he stands for—with equal parts alarm and revulsion. That's probably not much of a secret. A campaign that draws its oxygen from anti-elite sentiments probably doesn't expect much attention or affection from think tanks and serious people in education reform. Not surprisingly, there hasn't been much.

But it's well past time to start thinking seriously about education reform in the Trump era. Even if 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue becomes the one piece of real estate destined never to be festooned with the candidate's surname, the restive 2016 campaign should serve as a wake-up call. Broad swaths of Americans feel disconnected from public institutions and are convinced that policy makers don't understand or much care about them.

Education policy has done little to bridge that divide. When downwardly mobile white, working-class Americans hear us talking about education reform, it's a fair bet they don't think we're talking about them and their children. And they're not mistaken. The priorities and language of reformers—achievement gaps, no-excuses schools, social justice, and the "civil rights issue of our...

M. René Islas

How often have you heard, “Gifted students will do fine on their own?” This is just one of the many myths that become barriers to properly educating millions of high-potential students. The following is a list of the most prevalent myths in gifted education, accompanied by evidence rebutting each of them. (For a student’s perspective, watch The Top 10 Myths in Gifted Education, produced by teens in the Baltimore County Public Schools for the Maryland State Department of Education.)

Myth 1: Gifted students don’t need help; they’ll do fine on their own

Would you send a star athlete to train for the Olympics without a coach? Gifted students need guidance from well-trained teachers who challenge and support them in order to fully develop their abilities. Many gifted students may be so far ahead of their same-age peers that they know more than half of the grade-level curriculum before the school year begins. Their resulting boredom and frustration can lead to low achievement, despondency, or unhealthy work habits. The role of the teacher is crucial for spotting and nurturing talents in school.

Myth 2: Teachers challenge all the students, so gifted kids will be fine in the regular classroom

Although teachers...

Myles Mendoza

As a parent of three young children in Chicago Public Schools, I’m starting to get nervous.

Luckily, my family can afford to live in a neighborhood with one of the city’s few higher-performing elementary schools that aren’t governed by selective enrollment. But in the upper grades, even Chicago’s best neighborhoods have almost no high-quality options unless you can afford a private school.

So we’ve begun the effort to get our kids tested to see if they can be among the lucky few to gain entry into Chicago’s selective enrollment schools. Because the system is point-based, families strategize on how to get their kids into these coveted programs. Parents in the know find tutorials online. Some even spend hundreds of dollars for test preparation.

Recently, as I sat in a testing center waiting for my son to finish his exam, I looked around and saw a lot of affluent parents like me. I wondered, what about the children without parents to advocate for them? What about those families without social capital or financial means—do they even know these gifted programs exist?

Gifted schools and programs are supposed to be for all students with unique abilities, but as I sat in the...

This study examines the impact of achievement-based “tracking” in a large school district. The district in question required schools to create a separate class in fourth or fifth grade if they enrolled at least one gifted student (as identified by an IQ test). However, since most schools had only five or six gifted kids per grade, the bulk of the seats in these newly created classes were filled by the non-gifted students with the highest scores on the previous year’s standardized tests. This allowed the authors to estimate the effect of participating in a so-called Gifted and High Achieving (GHA) class using a “regression discontinuity” model.

Based on this approach, the authors arrive at two main findings: First, placement in a GHA class boosts the reading and math scores of high-achieving black and Hispanic students by roughly half of one standard deviation, but has no impact on white students. Second, creating a new GHA class has no impact on the achievement of other students at a school, including those who just miss the cutoff for admission. Importantly, the benefits of GHA admission seem to be driven by race as opposed to socioeconomic status. They are also slightly larger for minority...

Way back in the early days of the accountability movement, Jeb Bush’s Florida developed an innovative approach to evaluating school quality. First, the state looked at individual student progress over time—making it one of the first to do so. Then it put special emphasis on the gains (or lack thereof) of the lowest-performing kids in the state.

Many of us were fans of this approach, including the focus on low-achievers. It was an elegant way to highlight the performance of the children who were most at risk of being “left behind,” without resorting to an explicitly race-based approach like No Child Left Behind’s.

Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners recently interviewed one of the designers of the Florida system, Christy Hovanetz, who elaborates:

By focusing on the lowest-performing students, we want to create a system that truly focuses on students who need the most help and is equitable across all schools. We strongly support the focus on the lowest-performing students, no matter what group they come from.

That does a number of things. It reduces the number of components…within the accountability system and places the focus on students who truly need the most help….It also reduces the need for...

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