ESSA and Gifted Education

For my entire career in education—and I started teaching in 1977—the federal government limited its involvement in gifted education to Javits grants, investing millions of dollars over the decades in scientifically-based research into gifted education.

Javits grants have not gone away. But the federal government has finally moved beyond Javits grants in addressing the needs of gifted students in America. I am thrilled that directives regarding gifted and talented students are peppered throughout the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The overarching goal of the ESSA is “to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education.” The law requires that “each local educational agency will monitor students’ progress in meeting the challenging State academic standards by … developing and implementing a well-rounded program of instruction to meet the academic needs of all students” (page 134, lines 10-22, emphasis mine).

In the past, states and districts reported data for students performing at the proficient level and below. Now they must also provide data for students performing at advanced levels. That PLC question 4 might look a lot more important to school and district administrators when the high scores are disaggregated out!

The feds know their requirements are going to cost money, so for the first time they say districts (“local educational agencies”) may use Title I funds to “assist schools in identifying and serving gifted and talented students” (page 138, lines 17-18, emphasis mine). One huge impact that funding could have is allowing districts to employ universal screening for gifted and talented programs, which we do at my district in second grade and which can help overcome the “gifted gap” among racial groups (see article).

Districts applying for Title II professional development funds must supply “a description of how the State educational agency will improve the skills of teachers, principals, or other school leaders in order to enable them

  • to identify students with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels, and
  • provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 9-17, bullets mine).

In that professional development, districts are to provide “training to support the identification of students who are gifted and talented, including high-ability students who have not been formally identified for gifted education services, and implementing instructional practices that support the education of such students, such as:

  • early entrance to kindergarten;
  • enrichment, acceleration, and curriculum compacting activities; and
  • dual or concurrent enrollment programs in secondary school and postsecondary education” (page 343, lines 1-13).

Let’s look at the kinds of practices the feds recommend, starting with early entrance. At a Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG) conference years ago, I met a parent who came to get advice about her four-year-old son. He was auditing courses at the university where her husband was a professor. She said she didn’t want to enroll him and make him a media sensation, but those classes were the only places where he got his intellectual needs met.

I asked where they lived and told her they might want to consider moving since there were about five schools in the country with elementary programs for the severely and profoundly gifted. She said if those schools existed, then moving made sense. “After all, his little brother? He’s even smarter.”

Some students need to start school before five years old.

When you think of enrichment activities, don’t be limited by suggestions in trade books. Gifted students crave novelty—they find learning brand new information and skills exciting. My lesson comparing causes of World Wars 1 and 2 went well over an hour, and when I finally put a stop to it, my students objected vehemently. “No!” they howled. “Don’t stop! Keep going!” Why? Depth and richness of information. The students were building connections. I was helping them make sense of the world.

There is more research in the literature supporting acceleration than any other intervention for gifted. My student who is currently triple-accelerated in math (my fourth grader in seventh grade math) is one of the best students in his math group. He could probably move up another grade level, but then he’d be working on his own, and his mom and I decided we’d keep him in this group this year. He’s happy there.

Curriculum compacting has been around for decades. My high school teachers did it in the 1960s. My sophomore year advanced placement English teacher gave our class the end-of-the-year exam at the beginning of the year. After he graded it, he told us, “You know most of the stuff on the test except you are shaky on punctuation, and you really don’t understand commas.” So we spent a month learning punctuation. Three weeks of that was commas. At the end of September we took the test again and did fine. Then we had the rest of the year to do the actual work of the class—learning public speaking. It’s a time-tested idea, which is probably why it’s on the list of recommended practices.

As for dual or concurrent enrollment programs, we do well. In Washington we have both AP and Running Start. But, in my humble opinion, we ought to be open, in a similar way, to students taking a three-year middle school program in two years. Or taking middle school and high school classes at the same time. Those options would certainly be allowed, and I think encouraged, under the ESSA.

The Javits grants studied gifted students for generations and decided that gifted students can be identified, they have educational needs, and that those needs can be met through several well-documented strategies. Now the ESSA is saying, “Go meet those needs. Here are some excellent ways to do it. And you can use federal money to help!” If your district needs help finding Highly Capable professional development specialists, go to the WAETAG site.

3 thoughts on “ESSA and Gifted Education

  1. Charlotte Akin

    This is a well-thought-out look at ESSA and the possibilities for serving gifted children. For years we have had a range of services for other students with specialized learning needs. Hooray for bringing up the array of things that can and should be done for gifted students.

  2. Kari DeMarco

    Thanks for distilling complex thoughts down into something so easily understood! I am going to share this article with others. ;p

  3. Marcia Holland

    Your description of the ESSA and its references to gifted is very useful. All districts need this article to inform their decision-making on developing their gifted programs.

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