Don't leave gifted students behind

Maryland public schools are rightfully acclaimed as some of the best in the nation. And yet these outstanding schools are at risk of leaving their top students behind.

The problem is not limited to our state; it's a growing national concern. A recent study by the Fordham Institute examining how U.S. students testing in the 90th percentile or above fared over time found that 30 percent to 50 percent of them lost ground as they moved from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school.

We can argue about the reasons for this decline, but we can't argue away the sense of loss and disappointment it creates. Too much potential talent is going to waste.

Maryland is trying to do something about this sad fact, and on Feb. 28, the State Board of Education has a chance to take an essential step in the right direction. The board will vote on giving local school systems directives for identifying gifted and talented students, developing programs that increase their learning, and ensuring that teachers have relevant professional training.

Currently, Maryland has no formal regulations governing how gifted K-12 students should be served. While you'll find state regulations on educational programs ranging from mathematics and Spanish to driver's education and cosmetology, there are no instructions about how schools should be educating our brightest students. Many schools have at least some programs in place for advanced learners, but the consistency and quality varies greatly.

Why this uneven attention to academic excellence? Many blame the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind. For the last decade, our country has focused almost exclusively on raising the achievement levels of students striving to meet minimum academic competencies. States across the country slashed their gifted education programs to provide more funds for other vital needs. Policymakers reinforced the widespread myth that intelligence is fixed and needs little or no special attention to flourish. And programs and institutions focused on highly promising students were dismissed as elitist and irrelevant.

"Don't worry about the gifted kids," the sentiment was. "They'll be fine."

But as the facts now show, smart kids don't always stay smart, and when they are bored or bullied or ridiculed or neglected, some turn off and some drop out. Thirty-plus years of experience and research into how these students learn has taught us that the academically able can and must be challenged and engaged, inspired and encouraged in order to cultivate their creativity, spirit of innovation, and passion for learning.

Concern for talent development, moreover, isn't an elitist movement to help the fortunate few; it's now more than ever a question of equity and access. The decade of focus by U.S. public schools on low-achieving students has disproportionately left more talented minority and low-income kids behind, according to a 2010 policy study, "Mind the (Other) Gap! The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education." Researchers at the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy collected data showing smaller gains for minority and low-income students at the higher levels of achievement — i.e. an "excellence gap." The existence of such gaps, the researchers write, "raises doubts about the success of federal and state governments in providing greater and more equitable educational opportunities, particularly as the proportion of minority and low-income students continues to rise."

Other researchers have also linked our lack of focus on high performance to growing worries about global competitiveness. Education achievement in the U.S. has fallen to the middle of the pack among developed nations, according to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment report, which ranked the knowledge of 15-year-olds in 65 countries. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in mathematics. And between 1995 and 2008, American college graduation rates slipped from second in the world to 13th.

We surely agree in principle that all children deserve a chance to reach their fullest potential. In practice, that means Maryland should welcome this opportunity to adopt state regulations establishing minimum standards for ensuring that our brightest students continue to shine.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth in Baltimore. Her email is

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