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High academic achievers need attention, too

In many instances, we have difficulty acknowledging students of high achievement. We have no problem identifying, acknowledging and rewarding outstanding athletes, but we are extremely hesitant to identify students with high academic potential in our system, which tends to want to homogenize students when it comes to academics. It is as if we are afraid that by recognizing some students as gifted and talented, we somehow diminish the rest. We must be open to new ways to define and identify gifted and talented students; provide additional support and resources; expand their access to high level, rigorous instruction; and provide them with content-rich experiences.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required a huge effort to have all students reach a proficient level of academic performance. Obviously, schools placed most of their time and funding on supporting students who were working below that level. There was not equal importance given to challenging students who were capable of meeting more advanced levels of achievement or beyond. However, we cannot claim we are closing the achievement gap if we are inadvertently neglecting the performance of highly capable students.

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I was often disturbed to hear parents of academically high achieving students say that it was necessary to send their students to private schools, as their needs were not being met. High quality public education should be available for all children, and that includes students who are extremely high achieving. Some progress is possible now that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 gives states some flexibility in using funds to support gifted and talented education. Further, the category of gifted and talented is finally recognized and given a place in the regular reporting of student achievement, documenting their growth and giving schools credit for their progress. This is a small, but important first step.

Many of us have a very narrow view of giftedness, often limiting it to academics. But, in fact, there are many different types and areas of talent. In Maryland, we have done a credible job of beginning to recognize and embrace students who have extraordinary talents in various forms of the arts. Two examples in are The Baltimore School for the Arts and George Washington Carver Center for the Arts. These schools audition students for acceptance, and acceptance is based on their talent, not on their academic record. However, interestingly, these highly motivated, creative students routinely achieve at a very high academic level. The teachers in these public schools have exceptional skills in working with these talented artists. This is the same expertise we need for all of our students who have the potential to be high achievers. One inhibitor is the fact that too many of our institutions of higher education do not have specific programs to prepare future teachers to identify and work with academically talented students.

People are often surprised to learn that we have a drop-out issue, not only with underachieving students, but also with academically talented students. These students become bored and do not see the relevance of doing more of the same work that they have already mastered. They are capable of working at a faster pace than their peers or than a traditional classroom setting can provide. Further, these children often have needs beyond their academic issues that must be addressed as well. Their behavior can be different and misunderstood. We must find ways to work with parents to help them understand the needs of their exceptional children so that they can be informed, effective advocates.

Our nation is in a race to be the most competitive internationally. The issues of leadership and talent are critical to keeping our nation competitive. We must identify and acknowledge our gifted and highly talented students; provide them an individualized curriculum with interest-based learning experiences; provide highly qualified, knowledgeable teachers, and challenge their creativity. In this way, we will reinforce the fact that public education is a worthy and desirable choice for the effective education of all students.

Nancy S. Grasmick is a presidential scholar at Towson University and a former Maryland superintendent of schools. Her email is ngrasmick@towson.edu.

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