Schools Focus on Student Talents, Instead of Giftedness

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Albemarle school officials are pleased with the results of a new approach to addressing the needs of students who are identified as “gifted.” Instead of a Gifted Education program, the new strategy is called Talent Development and focuses on using student demographic data and precise tracking of time spent on in-class activities to rebalance focused instruction across student groups.

“This is a framework of talent development for all, instead of a program just for some, which is where we were in 2018,” said Melanie Lichtenstein, Talent Development Specialist for Albemarle County schools, during a review of the program at the School Board’s January 13 meeting. While the process of gifted student identification (ID)—in which students are nominated by teachers relying mainly on standardized cognitive abilities test scores—remains in place, the new model aims to define talent more broadly, in keeping with the division’s equity goals. 

“We changed the name from Gifted Education to Talent Development Services to reflect both a paradigm shift and also a mindset shift,” said Lichtenstein, “The word ‘gifted’ itself has so many different connotations attached to it that it almost becomes a barrier. So, because talent development is centered around looking at all students’ potential and understanding that all students have potential, then it’s more of a verb—we are developing talent.”

In the past, each school had a Gifted Resource Teacher (GRT) who helped identify gifted students and provide them with targeted instruction, sometimes by “pushing in” to a class to work with a small group on, say, reading or math, and sometimes by “pulling out” students for advanced lessons or enrichment work. Those GRT’s are now called Talent Development Resource Teachers (TDRT’s) and a substantial part of their job under the new paradigm is helping classroom teachers learn how to provide leveled instruction for all students. “Now there is differentiation happening in the classroom, so it’s not focused with a single [GRT] but instead with all teachers,” said Lichtenstein. 

To find student talent, classroom teachers in the early grades at some schools are being trained in a program called TOPS (Teacher’s Observation of Potential in Students). Using TOPS, teachers are constantly on the lookout for talent in all students in one or more of nine “domains,” such as curiosity, motivation, social perceptiveness, technology, and leadership. The observations are tabulated and matched with PowerSchool demographic data to perform “equity audits,” to ensure equal representation for talent development “services” like small-group or whole-class enrichment activities.

In the “results to date” section of her presentation, Lichtenstein highlighted data showing that every demographic group except white students had increased its percentage share of the gifted ID population in 2020-21. School Board member Jonno Alcaro said that he “loved seeing those arrows up in the right places,” and asked, “What are the targets in three years if we’re trying to get up to parity with the percentage of population?”

Lichtenstein replied that the “Office of Civil Rights frowns upon creating quotas, so the goal is to assure that teachers know what talent looks like, and if they’re missing certain groups because of structural barriers, we can make adjustments around that.”

Those adjustments help the division meet its equity goals. Lichtenstein concluded that the intentional identification of historically excluded students, along with other measures, “has resulted in an increase in the number of historically underrepresented groups of students who have the gifted label.” The data from 2016 to 2021 [see below] shows that several of the “representation indexes”—the ratio of the percentage of students ID’d as gifted in each demographic group as compared to that group’s percentage of the school population—have been inching up steadily.

Cognitive Dissonance

Even as the Talent Development model is installed in schools, division officials seem to be of two minds regarding the gifted ID label itself. On one hand, staff and TDRT’s have worked hard to increase racial group congruence among ID’d students, while on the other, they often dismiss the label entirely, telling parents that a gifted ID makes no difference in what services their child receives because services are now available to all students. But if the label has lost meaning, why not simply end gifted identification?

The answer lies in part with Virginia mandates. “The state requires that we provide a pathway to get a gifted label—that is a non-negotiable—and we are just trying to be more intentional about how we use it,” said Lichtenstein. “We’ve tried to figure out, if it’s not being used to determine who gets into what classes or who gets [access] to what teacher, then what is the purpose of the label?” In the end, the label seems to have become a token that does little more than comply with state rules and placate parents who request it for their children. “Albemarle has decided that the label will no longer be the determinant of who gets to participate in things.”

As the gifted label continues to be phased out of relevance, both teachers and parents have observed that schools’ attention to (traditionally defined) academically gifted students is waning, as the former GRT’s become TDRT’s and have less time to focus their attention on those students. 

“When Talent Development first came on, so many other things went away—instructional leveling, root word study, pulling kids out for math—all at the same time,” said Crozet parent Julie Bergert, whose children have participated in gifted instruction in western district schools. “Now the advanced learners have to sit in class and wait during a review they don’t need. These are kids who want to learn, who love to learn, and they sit there and are bored.”

The Talent Development model of service places a tremendous onus on elementary school classroom teachers, who are now responsible for noticing, probing, and documenting all forms of talent their students display each day, and for providing meaningful differentiated instruction to students whose abilities may be poles apart, particularly in reading and math. As the support of TDRT’s moves from hands-on instruction to more of an advisory role, teachers wonder if there are enough hours in the day for them to bridge the gap. 

“With kids at so many different levels, I want to say to every parent that I’m going to do everything I can, every single day, to meet the needs of every student,” said Bethany Robinson, veteran Brownsville third grade teacher. “But I’m making a lot of promises, then carrying a heavy burden, not knowing if I can actually make it all happen.”

Most schools currently have only one TDRT to serve the entire student body, a job that includes tasks such as gifted ID testing, co-teaching lessons that classroom teachers, and helping groups of teachers learn how to perform differentiated instruction. Teachers say that if a TDRT is out sick or on leave, an adequate substitute is nearly impossible to find as their responsibilities are so complex. Though Brownsville has two TDRT’s (one of whom is also a music teacher), Robinson wonders what will happen when the transition to the Talent Development model is complete.

Graph showing the differences between the percentage of student groups in the total school population and the percentage of each group’s representation among gifted ID students over the last five years. The graph indicates that Economically Disadvantaged students have the highest levels of disparity as a group.

“I would say that so far there has been a gradual shift,” she said. “We have very supportive TDRT’s and admin team, so that has probably made it seem doable, but I think we fear that the support will disappear. I absolutely understand that there is talent, there is ability, there is achievement among kids who might not have been looked at closely before, but what they receive in terms of instruction, differentiation, and resources is no different in terms of quality [between ID’d and non-ID’d students]. To make this change work, what we need more of is time.”

Robinson thinks that a better approach would be to provide enough staffing to serve the entire spectrum of needs. “It’s really two different positions,” she said. “Students would most benefit from funding both the talent development for the K-2 grades, and also the support needed to instruct everybody where they are in 3-5. So, if you have students developing on a variety of levels, then let’s get all hands on deck to support the people who were promised that they would receive personalized instruction.”

Brain Trust

Parents of gifted children agree wholeheartedly. Bergert and Laura Allen, both moms of current county school students, talk about the pre-2016 years at Brownsville Elementary when gifted education meant more access to on-level instruction for all kids. “It was a flexible system where the GRT would pull kids who maybe needed a little extra extension,” said Allen. “This was pre-labeling so they weren’t even ID’d—the teachers just noticed who was ready for more. That allowed the classroom teachers to have the time and support they needed to work with the kids who needed intervention, and everybody improved.”

Bergert has volunteered in the Book Buddies program with kids who needed extra help and witnessed the same thing. “What we saw was that by pulling these higher-level learners, the teachers were able to spend more time with this other level of student as well and both groups could truly advance at their own pace. It was very fluid and open, not just to the kids who were getting high [cognitive test] scores, but to any kid who could stretch and wanted to try, and once they were stretched, they were happy.” 

The parents said that the new Talent Development model removes most of the pull-out activities and leaves the gifted kids with only worksheets to do, or non-targeted “whole class” activities that don’t allow them to build on their knowledge. “They’re not being challenged to where their brain is growing, and everybody wants to grow,” said Bergert. She gave as an example an isolated whole-class STEM activity with no specific follow-up. “It’s just an exposure, an experience. These kids are already at a certain level and you’re not growing them, so they’re missing out on achieving their potential.”

Lichtenstein acknowledged that while the ultimate goal is to “build capacity” by moving talent development away from being dependent on one person (the TDRT), there is also a problem with consistency across schools even among those specialists. “I reached out to all of my elementary TDRT’s and said, ‘So, how often are you able to see your Kindergarten, first, and second graders?’” she said. “And across the 15 different elementary schools, [their answers were] completely different.”

“The irony of the whole thing is, the old way of doing it was actually helping equity, because more kids were getting focused attention and everybody was rising,” said Allen. “I don’t care if you’re six grades behind or three grades ahead, every kid deserves to be at their full potential, and that is absolutely gone now.” She also stressed the need for schools to provide a consistent community for advanced learners. “These are kids who just want to learn, and [the Talent Development program] is shutting them down,” she said. “The mental health impact of that is tremendous.”

In the short term, increased support for teachers and gifted students doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. The division’s Talent Development “local plan” does not indicate that hiring more than one TDRT per school is a priority, and the school system’s strategic plan, upon which future budget requests are based, mentions neither gifted education nor talent development in its objectives. The Superintendent will present next year’s funding request to the School Board on February 17.

Graph representing the elementary school service data for one school during the spring semester of 2021 (hybrid instruction). The green line indicates that about 5500 minutes were spent providing services to gifted and talented students over the semester, primarily via small group and whole-class activities. Minutes are counted by student, so a 30-minute whole-class activity for a 20-student class would count in the graph as 600 minutes
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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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