Life for high-ability and high-potential students in Maryland and the nation may be getting just a little bit brighter.
After years of being silent on the issue, the state now requires that local school districts identify and serve gifted students, joining 27 states that require such actions. Unfortunately, Maryland does not provide any state funding to districts specifically to support this work, which means we may not have raised the floor for these students in some of the state's less well-off counties. It also still leaves most key decisions entirely up to local districts, producing an uneven service delivery system with tremendous variability from county to county.
Additionally, as part of the recently enacted $1.1 trillion spending bill that funds the federal government through the end of September, Congress included a modest amount of money for the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Education program, which supports gifted students residing in disadvantaged communities or who are from underrepresented populations. This action — championed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski — begins to restore a program that has not been funded in four years.
Both of these developments should be welcomed as recognition by advocates and policymakers that our state and nation must do more to develop our top academic talent. The action by Congress to restore funding to the Javits program came just one month after the most recent round of international test results showed a continued decline in the performance of top U.S. students compared to their global counterparts.
These most recent results continue a decades-long trend of declining performances by U.S. students, a trend that carries serious implications for our ability to compete in an increasingly dynamic global economy.
However, $5 million for Javits out of a $70 billion federal education budget is a drop in the bucket and alone won't make a dent in the declining performance of our high-ability learners. But it will restore funding to a small but mighty program with a long history of doing much with limited funding.
The Javits program supports classroom-based research to develop practices for teachers to spot high-ability and high-potential students and to subsequently serve these learners. Work funded by the program has led to improved assessments used to identify limited English language learners for gifted education. It has also developed teaching strategies to help educators differentiate or target their instruction to students at different levels, an increasingly necessary tool as more gifted students are served in the general classroom.
To reverse the neglect of our high-ability students, our leaders must make developing our top talent a national priority, and a near-term next step would be fully restoring the Javits program in the 2015 budget.
Beyond the Javits program, federal lawmakers must commit to a comprehensive policy to develop high levels of talent, one that builds upon our rich legacy from the space race a half-century ago and that leads to a national, rigorous and equitable commitment to excellence that restores U.S. competitiveness. Such a strategy would produce more teachers better prepared to identify and serve high-ability students; would support the development of more specialized schools, such as dedicated math and science middle and high schools; and would require public reporting on the learning progress made by our top students, just as we measure and report on students at the lower ends.
Closer to home, Maryland can build upon its service requirement by providing funding to help districts support this obligation, perhaps following our neighbor Virginia, which commits upward of $40 million each year to this end.
Beyond funding, Maryland can remove some barriers that hinder student access to services, such as establishing a state policy that specifically allows for accelerated learning and brings greater uniformity to gifted education programs between districts. The state could also require greater levels of training for all teachers — before they enter the classroom and on an ongoing basis — as to how to meet the needs of advanced learners.
The recent developments in Annapolis and Washington are exciting reversals long-overdue. Now is the time to build upon these gains to ensure the precious resource of our talented students is squandered no longer.
Helaine Zinaman is executive director of the Maryland Educators of Gifted Students. Nancy Green is executive director of the National Association for Gifted Education. Their emails are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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