County Schools Reinterpret Gifted Instruction

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Maureen Jensen, lead coach for gifted education in Albemarle County Public Schools. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Ask any gifted resource teacher what the definition of “giftedness” is, and you’ll get a different answer. Some rely on the federal government’s verbiage: “children with exceptional traits in areas of critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and performance.” Others say giftedness is a social construct designed to mirror the values of a particular culture, and is thus a flawed concept by nature. Many describe it as a misperceived notion to begin with. “Giftedness is not neurobiological, or something that exists in one kid’s brain and not in another’s,” said Maureen Jensen, lead coach for gifted education in Albemarle county schools. 

Esoteric definitions aside, for parents of a child who is consistently working at levels significantly above his or her peers, the question becomes deeply personal—what should be done to meet the academic and creative needs of my (apparently) gifted child? And the school division’s answer to that question is changing.

“Every single child has a gift that we can support with attention and encouragement,” said Superintendent Matt Haas to the School Board earlier this year, advocating a reorientation of gifted education to address imbalances in equity, achievement, and access among students. “Let’s begin looking for gifted behaviors that all students can develop, rather than looking for gifted individuals.”

Old school

Virginia state rules require all schools to identify gifted students (though the state doesn’t specify how), and to provide services based on that identification (though it doesn’t dictate which services or how many to provide). In Albemarle County, gifted identification (ID) is an arduous process that involves nominating a student based on a portfolio of materials including standardized test scores and other evidence of giftedness documented by parents and teachers. A committee comprised of teachers, administrators, and the school’s gifted resource teacher (GRT) makes the ID decision, usually during the student’s second grade year.

Laura Richardson, gifted resource teacher at Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Parents are often keen to have their child identified as gifted as early as possible, believing that the ID is a rare portal to enhanced instruction and special opportunities in school. For decades, this was true. GRT’s collected “pull-out” groups of gifted students on a weekly or bi-weekly basis for enrichment activities, advanced reading groups, and field trips. In recent years, however, teachers and administrators have come to view this model as problematic, starting with the ID process itself.

“Gifted identification is completely faulty,” said Jensen. “The COGAT [the Cognitive Ability Test often used as a screener] has flaws that are evident across demographics.” Jensen noted that the scores of the top 10% of white test-takers fell in a much higher range than those of the top 10% of black and Hispanic test-takers, which she attributes to test bias. “In addition, the portfolio has to be created by a student and family, so that adds a layer of bias between those who do or don’t have access to that support. And teacher input as to which children are nominated is based on what they believe giftedness looks like, so that has some implicit bias too.”

Local elementary school GRT’s see problems with how services are delivered as well. “A model where we pull a cohort for an hour or two each week, and they do an extension activity that’s not related to what’s happening in their classroom instruction, and then they return to class where they may be bored the rest of the time—that just isn’t flexible and doesn’t serve those students’ sense of community,” said Laura Richardson, GRT at Murray Elementary. In this sense, parents of identified gifted students may be grossly overestimating the benefits of the designation.

Identification data presented by Albemarle County Public Schools officials at an October 14 information session at Brownsville. Courtesy Albemarle County Public Schools.

“Identification is not a prerequisite for gifted services, and I work with lots of students who are not necessarily ID’d,” said Richardson. “Nor is it a guarantee of services, because real-time data is changing every week and enrichment may not be needed all the time. I feel that the ID is what gets a lot of attention because it’s a label, and that can feel important to some families, but I try to de-emphasize it, in part because the ID process takes an enormous amount of time.”

As educators describe gifted ID using terms like “faulty,” “extraneous,” and “inequitable,” the tension between state requirements and widening achievement gaps have led to frustration with the current system. “We’re struggling with the purpose of gifted ID because we don’t have an isolated program to serve those students who are identified,” said Jensen, “so there’s a mismatch.” Much better, say educators, is to provide gifted services to all students so that every child benefits.

At your service

Four community meetings were hosted by the school division during October as “information and feedback sessions” to describe the evolution of gifted education to concerned parents. Among the almost 100 attendees at the October 14 session at Brownsville Elementary, the mood was both curious and anxious. “My daughter is in first grade and is reading at a third grade level,” said a mother with a pre-K child in tow. “I’m not sure what they will do for her, but I don’t want her to lose that love of reading. I don’t know how to get her that attention at school.” 

Data presented by Jensen and county talent development specialist Melanie Lichtenstein at the meetings illustrated a gifted ID gap between racial groups that the division hopes to narrow. For example, Hispanic students make up 14% of the total school division population but only 4% of the gifted ID population. (See above for Identification Data chart.) Lichtenstein pointed to these gaps as “a problem we are trying to solve,” by changing both the way students are identified as gifted and the way gifted services are provided.

Hope Aghaebrahim, gifted resource teacher at Brownsville Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Aiming for a model in which “all students get what they need, when they need it,” Jensen and Lichtenstein described a bright line distinction between “gifted ID” and “gifted services,” highlighting the latter’s prime benefit of being available to all students. These newly enhanced and widely accessible services are to be provided by the school GRT, the same teacher who, in years past, had been primarily responsible for the gifted ID kids.

While gifted ID will still exist and will continue to be limited to the students who are nominated and approved, the job of GRT’s has rapidly expanded into a collaborative role where they work with every teacher to explain and model “differentiation” in the classroom. Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs of students using techniques like ongoing assessments and flexible grouping across many subjects every day. School size makes a difference: a GRT might push into classrooms in a smaller school, but may function more like an instructional coach for teachers in a larger school.

“We need to change our perceptions of student behaviors and what success looks like, and our beliefs about what students can and can’t do,” said Jensen. “We will start looking at gifted traits in a more malleable way.” To begin to close the racial divide in gifted ID, teachers are focusing on “talent development” at the K-2 level to find students who don’t conform to traditional giftedness, and GRT’s are doing professional development work in culturally responsive teaching and differentiated instruction.

‘Let me help you get there’

After the Brownsville information session, another parent described feeling “frustrated overall” at her local elementary school’s muted response to her young son’s advanced math ability, and doubted any school could provide the expanded gifted services plan with current staffing. “I don’t think they have enough people,” she said. “I’ve been a teacher [at another school] for a long time and I think differentiated instruction is really challenging and takes a lot of time on the teacher’s part, especially with the [larger] class sizes. I have very little faith that my son’s teacher has a pulse on where he is academically.”

The presenters took no questions from the assembled parents, instead encouraging them to write their concerns on sticky notes and affix them to posters on the wall. A few of the stickies asked about the transferability of the gifted ID designation if a student changes schools, or about push-in versus pull-out types of services. Most, however, expressed strong concerns about how Brownsville Elementary’s 850 students could possibly be served by a single gifted resource teacher. 

Hope Aghaebrahim is Brownsville’s GRT, and she does as much as she can. Her mandate is to push in to every classroom from kindergarten through second grade each week (a total of 21 classes, about 400 students), while also pulling out groups of students in grades 3-5 for activities during the rest of her available time. A twist: she has to match up the schedules so that the subject she is pulling for is the same one going on in the class at that time, e.g., a gifted reading group may leave only during regular language arts time. Every day is a logistical balancing act, but she doesn’t complain.

“The [gifted education] mindset has shifted to the idea that all kids need access to high quality instruction,” says Aghaebrahim. “It’s for everyone; let me help you get there.” Because one GRT is stretched thin at a school Brownsville’s size, her job involves co-teaching with the classroom teachers, helping them perform assessments and develop and execute challenging lessons themselves, in effect teaching them parts of her job.

Aghaebrahim’s personal perception of giftedness is wide and includes aspects such as artistic talent as well as traditional measures. “The COGAT can serve as a screener so we don’t miss kids,” she said. “There might be a child who scores really high that I need to investigate more, but it’s part of a portfolio of performance.” Aghaebrahim feels that the services model is much better than focusing only on ID to allow her to reach many more students. “We don’t have many students identified right now, but our service numbers are huge!”

Even so, Brownsville’s fifth grade could not schedule a pull-out reading group this year due to the GRT’s time and access limitations, and Jensen acknowledges that a common parent concern is the need for more staffing in the schools. “The more targeted teaching becomes, we know there will have to be added staffing to make it a school-wide approach,” she said. “We’re doing an overall program evaluation this year, and identifying the resources needed to carry out this vision.

“What we don’t want to happen is that students who are ID’d do higher thinking skill activities, class discussions, and research projects, while students who aren’t do worksheets, lower level thinking, and recall activities, because those high/low groupings contribute to the achievement gap,” said Jensen. “There are lots of other realms of talent—artistic, leadership, English, technology—beyond just IQ, that can be developed in many kids and those are just as important.”  

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