We need to keep our most advanced students engaged. Here's how.

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Maryann Woods-Murphy

I am a gifted and talented specialist for a school district in New Jersey. It is my job to make sure that students receive the proper level of acceleration and enrichment in elementary school.

But every single day, I fail at my job.

I pull students out for challenging lessons or guide them through academic competitions and enrichment experiences, but it is not enough.

They seek me out, even in crowded hallways. “I’m studying botany now,” said one fifth-grader as he lugged his backpack to class, making sure to keep in a straight line. “I’ll let you know how it goes.” I remind him that he can check in on our Google classroom to get feedback on his project and I feel confident that his classroom teacher will be interested in listening to his ideas.

The teachers I work with are magicians at differentiating instruction, creating online folders and spaces for students to go when they are finished early with their regularly scheduled work. Still, they too admit that they can never do enough for their gifted, talented, and advanced learners.

In recent years, the need for extreme differentiation has become even greater, as knowledgeable parents load their children’s after-school time with advanced math and reading lessons, robotics classes, and public speaking opportunities. Aware that schools are still figuring out how to prepare students for jobs that have not been invented, families themselves are taking on the challenge of accelerating their children’s learning outside of school.

“I want my child to be prepared for the challenges of the real world,” said one parent of an accomplished kindergartner. The result is that these children—who might not be identified as “gifted”—simply know much more in key academic areas than their peers, making them what I call “advanced” learners.

It’s these advanced learners who worry me most. I lay awake at night seeing the faces of these children, imagining them sitting in classrooms across the country, bored, but dutifully completing yet another worksheet or packet that they do not need.

They raise their hands but believe they won’t get called on, because the teacher “knows that they know it already.” They look up from their desks for their share of attention, only to see their teachers swooping around the classroom, zooming in on struggling learners who have basic questions and concerns.

Sometimes while waiting, they cause a commotion by making a provocative comment, or they simply fall into a kind of quiet despair. More compliant learners often pull a thick chapter book out of their desks because they don’t want to bother anyone.

School, for many of our advanced learners, begins to feel like a kind of prison where they feel trapped, misunderstood, and bored.

This has got to stop

How do we as educators attend to the needs of our most advanced youth? How can parents advocate for their kids to receive the personalized instruction they deserve?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Accelerate math: At each grade level, find the teacher who loves and is amazing at math and allow children who have demonstrated proficiency in a skill to work with that teacher every single day.

When new skills are introduced, students could be quickly assessed by being given a few hard problems, and if they already know the answers, they could go to an accelerated grouping.

Artful scheduling and thinking outside of the box can make this happen. I want to be clear that I am not talking about tracking—because such groupings would be based on individual skills not academic years.

2. Find hard books at the right developmental level: As students learn to read earlier, some of our youngest learners are reading books that used to be for middle school children. The problem, however, is that the content is a bad fit for a third-grader. (Think about a book whose challenge is a rebellious boyfriend and picture an 8-year-old furrowing her brows.)

We need more high-level books in schools that discuss the issues and dreams of younger children.

3. Offer project-based options: Students have great ideas. Genius Hour or Passion Projects should be offered to any and all students who are motivated to create projects.

Again, we can easily find at least one teacher at each grade level to work with these students. By creating more hybrid teacher leadership roles, we can easily meet this need.

In addition, experts like Joe Renzulli, a noted gifted and talented researcher at the University of Connecticut, has many ideas for ways this can happen in schools.

4. Personalize learning with technology: Khan Academy, for example, offers students an individualized approach to learning that uses mini-lessons and videos to help them move forward independently.

Students need to be freed from the confines of brick and mortar to allow them to soar and learn at their own pace.

These ideas are just a few of the many that we could use to get education right for our most talented youth.

We are at a juncture where the times demand that we dare to break through traditional scheduling, use of teacher talent and grade-level thinking to support all learners—even the ones we don’t think need our help.

Maryann Woods-Murphy is a gifted and talented specialist in New Jersey and the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Education Post.

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