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What's best for the brightest?

First in a three part series

Sunday, June 10, 2001

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Julie Nascone is 10 years old and gifted.

In the Mt. Lebanon School District, that means the fourth-grader takes classes every day with children of all abilities; mostly does the same homework as other students; goes to "academic events" once a month; and this year got to produce a library research project.

Mt. Lebanon High School seniors Noa Wheeler, left, and Joe Wildfire are editing a history documentary as part of their course work. By high school, the debate over separating gifted students tends to fade, because gifted programs in many schools are replaced by Advanced Placement and honors courses open to any high-achieving student. Even opponents of separate gifted classes say some tracking is inevitable in high school, because students have a better idea of what course of study they want to pursue. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Katherine Kunkel is 14 years old and gifted.

In the North Allegheny School District, that means the eighth-grader is taking every advanced course available to her, plus 10th-grade math; has special "pullout" classes once a week with other gifted students; goes on field trips with gifted students; and can go to a special resource room for the gifted to study, play chess or talk with a mentor.

Melissa Gilmore is a 15-year-old student at the Quaker Valley School District.

The 10th-grader has never been identified as gifted.

Still, when she asked last year to complete a year's worth of honors trigonometry during the summer, as part of her dream of pursuing a medical degree, school officials let her try. She not only passed the exam and moved on to 11th-grade honors precalculus this year, but has been admitted to the Pennsylvania Governor's School of Excellence for Health Care.

As the experiences of these three young students show, being gifted in Pennsylvania means different things to different children, depending on where they live.

Thirty years ago, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to mandate gifted education, but it has always left it up to individual school districts to figure out the best way to accomplish that goal.

First of Three Parts

They are streaming through our public schools in small but growing numbers.
They are "gifted" children, a term that used to mean a prodigy, but today is applied to 12 percent of the nation's school population.
Do these exceptionally bright children require special nurture in separate classes with their intellectual peers? Or is that an elitist approach that clashes with public education's traditional mission of educating all children equally?
In a three-part series starting today, Staff Writer Mackenzie Carpenter looks at how four school districts in the Pittsburgh region deal with this difficult issue, why they approach the job differently, and why it matters.
But first, we'll give you an overview of the debate in this main story, and take a look at the touchy topics of IQ tests and pushy parents.

Also in today's report

Squeaky wheels: Parents who demand gifted classes say they only want what's best for their children

The IQ factor: Despite advances in defining gifted children, intelligence testing still plays a large role

About the author

Day Two:
Teaching the gifted at Mt. Lebanon and North Allegheny school districts

Day Three:
A look at Quaker Valley and Greene County schools, plus Internet resources for parents, teachers


The result has been an uneven mix throughout the state of different programs that vary in quality, duration and size, because educators can't agree on the best way to teach their brightest students.

At the core of the debate is this politically loaded question:

Should gifted children be separated from other students to do advanced work together, or should they be kept in regular classrooms so that other children can benefit from their presence?

In this region, schools have come up with several different answers.

In Julie Nascone's district, Mt. Lebanon, administrators identify very few of the children as gifted, and for the most part try to keep them in regular classes.

In Katherine Kunkel's district, North Allegheny, school officials are eager to create separate classes and other activities for gifted students, and meet regularly with parents of those children.

And in Melissa Gilmore's district, Quaker Valley, administrators have rethought their entire approach to the subject, and have decided to try to enhance education for each student based on his or her abilities, without a formal process of identifying children as gifted.

Why they matter

The issue of gifted education seems to hover just under the radar of most parents, administrators and state officials, who are more concerned with eternally pressing issues like budgets and programs for underachieving students.

But the needs of gifted children matter too, advocates say. From a legal standpoint, every child is entitled to an appropriate education, notes Ellen Winner, a Boston College researcher and author of a book on gifted education, and some gifted children, if they're lucky, will get that.

Many others, however, suffer the taunts of envious peers and the indifference of a community that thinks smart children "will make it no matter what."

"When these kids are forced to be in school day after day and learn at a level they have long since passed, and be with kids who can't share their interests, they are very, very unhappy. I really think the key issue is whether gifted kids are allowed to learn at their own level, and that seems fundamentally tied to whether they can be in a classroom with others at their own high level."

And, she adds, there's the simple, cure-for-cancer argument.

"These kids are our most precious intellectual capital resources," says Winner. "They should be nurtured. These are the kids who are most likely to grow up to be our major thinkers, scientists, artists, writers."

Yet putting bright kids in a classroom with each other unsettles many educators, who believe it creates a meritocracy, countering the traditional American idea of public education as a place where children of all backgrounds learn together.

"As a society, we don't like to group intellectuals together. It makes us nervous," says Ann Shoplik, who is director of the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary Students and a strong proponent of grouping children by ability.

Peter Rosenstein of the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington, D.C., says the 19th century French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville said it accurately: "We are a very middling society. We feel uncomfortable about separating out groups for special attention, unless it's in sports. If we do anything different for gifted children, it's elitist."

Shoplik and others cite studies by James and Chen-Lin Kulik at the University of Michigan, who found that gifted students did much better on standardized tests when they were educated in separate, advanced classes than when they were taught in mixed-ability classes.

"When those children are grouped together and you adjust the curriculum so it's presented at a more advanced level, the gains are much greater than if we keep the students in the regular classroom," says Shoplik.

On the other side, proponents of heterogeneous grouping cite UCLA's Jeannie Oakes, who wrote the first book on "tracking" in 1985, and studies by Robert Slavin at Johns Hopkins University.

Tracking refers to putting students into strictly segregated vocational, basic or college prep programs, and Oakes' passionate critique persuaded a generation of educators to stop the practice, particularly in urban schools.

Using similar arguments, Syracuse University researcher Mara Sapon-Shevin says gifted programs are segregationist, and notes that low-achieving children do better in classes of mixed ability. In schools with gifted programs, the gifted children tend to get the best teachers and the best instructional materials, she says.

"Gifted children tend to be an upper-middle-class group, and some urban districts use [gifted classes] intentionally as a way of stemming white flight," Sapon-Shevin says. "They say, 'Don't take these children out; we'll give them something special.' "

Pushing 'differentiation'

Sapon-Shevin supports a technique called "differentiation" in the classroom, in which a teacher gives a brilliant child a different curriculum than a lower-achieving child, but they remain in the same room.

Schools that emphasize "pullout" programs, in which gifted children leave once or twice a week for special math or science or language arts instruction, can increase social isolation, not just among those children, but among the ones left behind.

"How do we teach children to value diversity when we say that some children are 'better' than others?" Sapon-Shevin asks.

But many parents of gifted students, faced with children who say they're bored in the classroom, don't see it that way.

Defining giftedness

Pennsylvania lists several criteria for defining gifted students.

An IQ of 130 or higher.

Achievement test scores.

Students with lower IQs may be admitted when other criteria strongly indicate gifted ability. They include:

• Demonstrated achievement performance or expertise in one or more academic areas.

• High level thinking skills, academic creativity, leadership skills, academic interest areas, communication skills, foreign language apptitude or technology expertise.

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education.


"My child has the same right to a stimulating and challenging experience in the classroom as any other child, and when you deny him that, it's as much a crime as denying a child a chance to learn how to read," says Carol Baicker-McKee, a child psychologist who has children in the Mt. Lebanon schools.

The research on gifted programs presents parents and educators with a difficult choice, says Tom Loveless, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who wrote a 1999 book exploring the politics of tracking.

"With highly gifted children who are achieving way beyond their age-mates, they almost always need and benefit from some kind of grouping. But looking at the tracking research overall, there's a negative effect on the lower achiever."

Loveless doesn't think getting rid of gifted programs is the answer, though.

"The Oakes solution is to abolish tracking. My solution is, you make remedial programs more effective. You don't throw out the tracking, you track better. You make sure that remedial tracks are good programs, rigorous, with high academic standards."

That would be a tough task, notes Charles Torrito, the principal of Fox Chapel Area High School and a proponent of mixed-ability grouping.

"When you do that kind of segmentation or stratification, a mind set develops within the school community that these lower achieving children have to be offered a lesser curriculum. And any kid sitting with a group of children who have very bad habits and skills in learning, and [who] doesn't have an opportunity to see their colleagues and peers who are achievers, well, I don't see how that benefits them."

Torrito remembers when Carnegie Mellon University researchers came to his district in the late 1980s and found that low-achieving children were suffering far more from the effects of ability grouping than children at the top level.

Children from less affluent neighborhoods would always end up taking wood shop, metal shop and home economics, while the wealthier students would take foreign languages or music.

"It was like running two different schools," Torrito says.

The high school's original decision to go with mixed ability classes in 1990 has evolved, though, he says. Today, some grouping is done both inside the class and outside it, in response to feedback from parents, teachers and students, who said more individualization was necessary.

"Flexibility is the key," he says. "We seem to have found a middle ground."

Judy Cunningham, gifted program administrator for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which provides special educational services to the county's 42 suburban school districts, says the pendulum may be swinging back toward ability grouping in different classes -- but accompanied, this time, with increasing use of "differentiation."

With classes of 25 to 30 children or more, however, asking a teacher to "differentiate" among students with a wide range of abilities is unrealistic, say many advocates for gifted children. That's why many school districts instead provide enrichment "pullout" classes for gifted children once or twice a week.

State regulations are silent on how much enrichment these children should get. Pittsburgh elementary and middle-school gifted students are sent once a week for a full day to special gifted centers. In Latrobe, it can mean being pulled out of regular classes five days a week, for 45 minutes at a stretch. In North Allegheny, it's twice a week for 90 minutes for elementary children; once a week for middle-schoolers.

And not all pullout programs have the same quality.

If a pullout program is good, it will feature independent study, academic competitions, or investigative, hands-on projects that build critical thinking skills and creativity. If it's mediocre, it is merely "fun" -- a place "where you learn to make puppets," says Pam Nelson, a Beaver County parent of three gifted children who works as an advocate for parents seeking services.

For those who encourage separate programs for the gifted, pullouts often seem half-hearted.

"For many districts, it's like you're gifted one day a week, and the other four days you're not," says Carnegie Mellon's Shoplik.

"I see pullout programs as a way for school districts not to do anything radical, like grouping by ability or allowing children to skip grades," adds Winner, the Boston College researcher. "It's a kind of compromise for them."

Big spending differences

The ambivalence over gifted programs is reflected in hard numbers.

While about two dozen states, including Pennsylvania, require schools to meet the needs of gifted students, the amount of money spent on such programs varies tremendously -- from about half a million dollars annually in Massachusetts to $50 million in Texas. There are no actual dollar figures available in Pennsylvania, which pays for those services under a special education formula but doesn't break out spending for gifted students compared with other special needs pupils.

The number of children identified as gifted also swings wildly from state to state: In Pennsylvania, 4.3 percent of all students get gifted services, although that figure doesn't include many high-school students who aren't labeled because their needs are being met through advanced placement and honors courses; in Maryland, it's about 22 percent; and in Nevada, it's less than 1 percent.

Among individual school districts, the disparities in gifted spending can often be linked to money. In wealthier districts, from Boca Raton, Fla., to Squirrel Hill, parents fight for such programs.

An attempt to eliminate the pullout program in Pittsburgh and substitute gifted education in individual schools in 1992, for example, prompted huge protests, recalls Joyce Clark, who helps coordinate Pittsburgh's current program.

Still, for every group of parents pushing for gifted services, there are equally strong advocates against them, fighting to get rid of honor rolls and class valedictorians and even grades, because, some contend, they promote a culture of success and competition at the expense of actual learning.

The arguments over whether to separate gifted children from other students will probably continue indefinitely, because no one has yet done a study that tracked gifted children from both mixed-ability and separate classrooms over a long period of time, to see if they really turned out differently.

In the meantime, the one thing advocates for gifted students can agree on is this: schools cannot just label children as gifted and then forget about them.

"I'll say to these children, 'You're gifted.' It's like being given a million dollars. Now what are you going to do with it?" says Cyd Stackhouse, a gifted education teacher at North Allegheny.

TOMORROW: Mt. Lebanon and North Allegheny

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