Perceptions mired in mythology: Progress for gifted students in Washington State

Last week, I walked the halls of the Washington State Legislature with more than 250 parents, teachers, and advocates for gifted children and testified before the Senate Education Committee (read remarks). We are all united by the common vision of a nation where giftedness and high potential are fully recognized, universally valued, and actively nurtured to support children from all backgrounds as they reach for their personal best and contribute to their communities.

Gifted and talented children often amaze us with their uncanny ability to learn new information rapidly, their extraordinary ability to memorize information, their large vocabularies, their unusually mature insights and their intense levels of concentration on things that interest them. When we encounter these children we are surprised, compelled to smile and intuitively know they are special.

Yet, the perceptions of these children have long been mired in mythology. These dangerous fallacies range from believing that gifted students will naturally rise to the top without explicit support to believing that such students don’t exist in schools in low-income and minority communities. After decades of these myths leading to a national neglect of this student population, it is clear that we must build the public’s understanding of the unique needs of gifted and talented children, needs that absolutely require different types of support.

Thankfully, legislators in Washington are making a renewed effort to increase understanding and support for gifted education. While the state takes a bold step in establishing its highly capable program as basic education, my hope is that the legislature will make certain that the programs and services offered to gifted children have stable and reliable financial support to ensure excellence and equity. Absent such funding, the result is a very uneven system of access with a few haves and many more have-nots.

Across the nation, too many barriers have been erected to hinder equitable access to quality instruction, services, and supports, a problem that is particularly acute for gifted learners. These obstructions for gifted learners include prohibitions on students starting Kindergarten early or from being able to take college courses while enrolled in high school; state polices that do not explicitly require one district to recognize a gifted designation granted by another; and reluctance to employ evidence-based gifted education strategies and tactics in the classroom. We need to ensure the implementation of identification policies that support all students, strong professional development, and the inclusion of gifted and talented students in state accountability systems.

Many well-intentioned leaders and educators are actively working to solve this ugly problem for students broadly. But most, however, are not fully aware that we also must address this issue for gifted children. Too often, there are those that believe poverty and other factors may be insurmountable barriers to high achievement. We know that this is not the case.

According to federally-funded research from the National Center for Research on Gifted Education, children who are living in poverty, are from racial and ethnic minority groups, and English learners are 2.5 times less likely to be identified for gifted programs, despite achieving at the same exact levels as their peers in gifted programs. This is unacceptable, and we must all work together to eliminate this unequal access to the services needed by these children. As a nation, we can and must do better!

To ensure that gifted children from all backgrounds thrive, we must first be willing to dispel the myths, and we must live up to our commitment to fair identification. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has a strong policy on identification for the highly capable program, but we must expand professional development for teachers and administrators to ensure the promise of the policy and process. Without this awareness, too many children with amazing potential will go unidentified.

Finally, we must make sure all gifted children have access to the services and supports they need to thrive. While many are reluctant to participate or implement strategies like grade and subject acceleration, we need to implore them to rely on the evidence that shows that these supports are effective for gifted children.

President John F. Kennedy once said, “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.” His quote highlights why I am proud to stand in solidarity with the leaders in Washington. We know that with increased understanding about the nature and needs of gifted children, we will be able to develop supportive environments for learning and implement research-based practices that help all gifted children flourish.

Today’s Equity Summit on Gifted Education, hosted by the University of Washington’s Robinson Center for Young Scholars, is an opportunity to once again shine a light on all gifted and talented children, particularly the underserved.

M. René Islas is the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.