Creating a Bright Future: Supporting High Achievement Among Diverse Learners

Smiling Children by School Bus

For those of us who work with gifted and talented students, frustrations and challenges abound about identifying low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students to participate in the programs and services from which they would benefit.

Because of a lack of preparation, general classroom teachers are often ill equipped to identify high ability in learners who may not currently be high achievers.  Without the necessary training, they may not be able to provide in-class support to improve these students’ achievement or to know that they should refer them to the gifted education professionals for assessment and support.

The result is an alarming gap between the numbers of students from low-income backgrounds who are performing at advanced levels and those who are not.

NAEP testing data, as well as state assessment results, reveal substantial Excellence Gaps for Black, Hispanic, and Free and Reduced Lunch Eligible (FARM) students in Maryland, (See Excellence Gap State Profile-MD).  Supportive policies are often limited as well, with far too few education leaders and policymakers truly recognizing the connection between our national interests and prioritizing the needs of our high achieving and high-potential students.

But perhaps most distressing is the continuing misconception that high-ability students simply don’t exist in schools with high rates of poverty.  I’m sure each of us has spotted signs of promise in a student who, because of his or her background, would most likely have sat ignored, gifts atrophying over time.

Perhaps even worse, such students may have been singled out as disciplinary problems more worthy of a trip to the principal’s office than a recommendation to the gifted program.

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) published a landmark report that provides a clear roadmap of action to reverse the longstanding neglect of our nation’s high-potential students from low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The report – entitled Unlocking Emergent Talent: Supporting High Achievement of Low-Income, High-Ability Students, was developed out of the National Summit on Low-Income, High-Ability Learners that was convened by NAGC and underwritten in part by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. This event brought together many of the nation’s authorities – including researchers, teachers, administrators, and operators of programs that serve high-ability students in disadvantaged settings – to share best practices and put forward recommendations for reforms.

Released last fall, Unlocking Emergent Talent identifies the major barriers that impede serving these students, including:

·      Conceptions of giftedness that fail to include the potential for achievement;

·      Belief that few high-ability students exist in low-income settings;

·      Inadequate training of teachers to identify high-potential students;

·      Supplemental programs that are not easily accessible or affordable; and

·      Students who may reject a gifted label out of fear of being ostracized.

But the report also identifies factors common to successful in-school and outside-of-school programs that can be broadly replicated. Characteristics identified in the report include a rigorous curriculum; greatly expanded learning time; deliberate development of psychosocial factors such as motivation, mindsets, resiliency, and academic self-concept that are critical to achievement and receipt of support services; and identification systems that rely on multiple indicators calibrated to account for previous opportunities to learn, and that are not limited to only one point during a student’s academic career.

For example, expanded learning time was identified as a universal characteristic of successful programs with all of them offering significant additional learning time – after the school day, on weekends and evenings, during summers and online – to catch up on and build skills not developed earlier.

Other common attributes include providing participants with access to adult advisors or mentors to whom they can turn for additional support and reinforcement, and seeking to identify students earlier in their educational careers.

Perhaps most exciting for those on the front lines of gifted education, the report provides recommended best practices educators can use to identify students from low income and CLD backgrounds, build programs and services, develop self-efficacy strategies, and foster school cultures and climates that support these students.

As a comprehensive report, the document also makes recommendations for policy, recognizing that supportive public policies are necessary to drive widespread education practice.  In Washington, DC, the Congress once again begins the long-overdue process of rewriting our nation’s core elementary and secondary education law.  Legislation known as the TALENT Act, which is strongly supported by NAGC, was recently introduced in the Senate by long-standing gifted education champions.  The bill, S.512, builds upon several of the recommendations in the report to move towards meaningful gifted education reforms at the federal level.  An identical version of the bill was introduced in the House on Wednesday.

It states in the Maryland State Department of Education COMAR 13A.04.07 regulations, “Gifted and talented students are found in all Maryland schools and in all cultural, ethnic, and economic groups.  It then mandates that the identification pool for gifted and talented students shall encompass all students [italics added].

Unlocking Emergent Talent also poses a number of questions to the research community to influence future work that will provide educators with additional knowledge and skills we can use to serve this challenging population.