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Gifted children often don’t get the challenge they need

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on October 11, 2012)

When thinking about inequities in the educational system, I like to say that every child deserves the opportunity to learn something new every day. Children mature and develop at different rates, and they have different potentialities, strengths and weaknesses. Our goal should be to maximize the growth of every child.

Peabody College professor Rich Milner emphasizes both rigor and relevance to meet the needs of all children. “Curriculum rigor is one of the strongest in-school predictors of academic success for students in public schools,” Rich says. “But the curriculum needs to be relevant and responsive to all students as well, including socially and emotionally, or they may disengage and become unmotivated.”

Gifted children are one group for whom it is difficult to provide a challenging and supportive education. In many schools and classrooms, we ask gifted students to adjust to the curriculum rather than adjusting the curriculum to them. This is unfortunate because today’s gifted students are tomorrow’s innovators. We all benefit when gifted children succeed. Research on gifted education has shown beneficial effects as measured by degrees attained, career achievements, publications or patents earned as far out as 30 or 40 years later.

So how do we provide the education gifted students need? Tamra Stambaugh is executive director of Vanderbilt’s Programs for Talented Youth. She notes that gifted students learn at a faster pace than their peers and are able to connect major ideas within and across disciplines more quickly. But they also need outside guidance, support and access to experts to achieve maximum learning and growth.

An accelerated curriculum that gives students access to in-depth and complex ideas at an earlier age can propel gifted student success. Students also benefit from being with peers who have similar abilities. As Tamra says, “When you couple acceleration, access to peers, and opportunities for enhancement beyond the school day, you have a strong combination for success.”

Failure to challenge gifted students creates a risk that they will just tune out. Some become the proverbial class clown. Others develop disciplinary problems. Steve Jobs was a notorious practical joker until his parents moved him to a better school.

Of deep concern is that many gifted students are never identified. My colleague, professor Donna Ford, studies underrepresentation of minorities in gifted programs. Donna reports that in Tennessee, black students constitute about 24 percent of total enrollment, but only 9.6 percent of enrollment in gifted programs. Hispanic students exceed 4 percent of total enrollment but less than 2 percent of gifted enrollment.

Successful public education should not just be about raising the achievement floor. It should also be about raising the ceiling. As Robert Browning said, “A man’s (and woman’s) reach should exceed his (or her) grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.