How to Expand Who Gets Gifted Services

There were more than 140 comments on my last Local Living column, where I said gifted education programs were too selective and did not appear to educate bright children any better than challenging courses we offer everyone in this region.

This is a sensitive topic, particularly with parents of gifted children. I expected the worst of those comments, but instead, they were intelligent and unthreatening. Many shared my yearning for more research on the issue. I did some more reading and reacquainted myself with the work of Joseph Renzulli, a University of Connecticut scholar who has much to say about how gifted programs can work for all students.

Like me, Renzulli thinks gifted programs in public schools have admission rules that are too restrictive. Many designate only 5 percent or less of the student population for gifted services. Renzulli’s research has convinced him that 10 to 15 percent of students could benefit from the gifted services we have now. Even a few students below that level who have demonstrated unusual motivation and performance in certain areas should be included, he said. “That’s how we find the Edisons and the Helen Kellers,” he said.

How does he propose finding that untapped reservoir? He says schools should consider not only students who score high on achievement or intelligence tests — the most-used method — but also those who show unusual intelligence, perseverance and creativity at home or school and are nominated by their teachers, parents or themselves.

He calls this the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. He has been working on it since the mid-1970s. The idea is to identify and enhance not only academic giftedness but what Renzulli calls “creative-productive” giftedness. He and his wife, Sally M. Reis, like him an educational psychologist, defined this in a recent report as human activity that places a premium “on the development of original material and products.”

They say giftedness is a combination of “above average ability, high levels of task commitment, and high levels of creativity.” They want to move from deciding who is gifted and who isn’t to developing academic talent and creative behavior in students who have a great potential

Their program, used in about 2,000 schools, including six D.C. public middle schools, focuses on three kinds of enrichment: (1) exposing students to a wide variety of disciplines, occupations, hobbies and people to stimulate new interests, (2) training in creative thinking and problem-solving and learning research and communication skills and (3) creating individual or small- group projects inspired and nurtured by the first two types of enrichment or regular curriculum experiences.

As an example, they cite a Massachusetts fifth-grader who turned her interest in Louisa May Alcott and cooking into “The Louisa May Alcott Cookbook” — the first contract its publisher ever signed with a child author.

Renzulli and Reis have research indicating that their method has benefited nearly all teachers and students at some schools. They say it helps educators identify talents in students who were not designated as gifted. Its projects enhance learning. It accelerates instruction for many so there is more time for enrichment.

But there is a problem. Many schools that welcome their system are often motivated by what they call “mistaken beliefs,” such as the notion that the Renzulli method will let the school do away with teachers trained to teach advanced and creative students and eliminate grouping of some students by ability, achievement or interests.

When budgets are cut, enrichment specialists and gifted teacher slots are often the first to go. Money has always been the issue with helping our brightest kids. Many legislators and taxpayers think that if those students are smart, they don’t need extra help. In the next and final column in this series, I will suggest ways to deal with that.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post.