Jeanne Harris Purcell
The University of Connecticut
Disagreement currently exists among experts, researchers, and journalists regarding the extent of concern and commitment related to the education of students with high abilities. Some believe the field is at the threshold of renewed interest; others believe that the field is facing a crisis in which programs for students with high abilities are being eliminated in states across the nation. Not only do experts, journalists, and educators disagree about the status of programs for these students, but they also disagree with respect to the nature of the reason(s) to attribute to current program status. Reasons mentioned include: economic factors, the effects of the reform movement, the existence or nonexistence of state mandates, and misconceptions regarding the needs of high ability students. Accordingly, the purpose of The Program Status Study, conducted in two phases from May, 1992 to January, 1993, was twofold: to determine from local personnel (i.e., district personnel responsible for coordinating and/or providing services to high ability students) the status of programs for these students and the reasons they attribute to the status of their district’s program, and to triangulate these findings from local personnel with research findings from key personnel (i.e., state directors of education for high ability students, heads of state parent advocacy groups for high ability children, school superintendents, chairpersons of boards of education).
Twenty states, geographically representative and divided into four groups, participated in the research and included states in good economic health with a mandate to provide services to high ability students (Group 1), states in good economic health without a mandate (Group 2), states in poor economic health with a mandate (Group 3), and states in poor economic health without a mandate (Group 4). The following findings from The Program Status Study are of particular interest to teachers, parents of exceptional students, as well as those who are responsible for policy decisions related to these students.
FINDING 1—Programs for high ability students in states from Group 1 (good economic health with a mandate) were, for the most part, stable and expanding; only 2 programs in 10 were reduced or threatened with reduction or elimination in the 1991-1992 academic year. Programs in all other groups of states were jeopardized in higher numbers. One in four programs in states from Group 2 and Group 3 (good economic health without a mandate and poor economic health with a mandate, respectively) were threatened, reduced and/or eliminated. One in three programs in states from Group 4 (poor economic health without a mandate) experienced jeopardy.
The data indicate that program services for high ability students at the local level are not at the threshold of renewed interest. Instead they are experiencing setbacks of significant proportions in states in Group 2, Group 3, and Group 4. This finding was triangulated by three-quarters of key personnel (i.e., state directors of gifted education, heads of state parent advocacy groups, school superintendents, chairpersons of boards of education) who reported that the future of programs for high ability students was uncertain, that program delivery components would change (e.g., no more pull-out), or that programs would be reduced. Therefore, parents, teachers, and policy makers in all twenty states need to increase vigilance of programs for high ability students and increase advocacy on behalf of the students they serve. Advocacy is necessary at a number of levels, including at the classroom level between the teacher and parents of exceptional children; at the building level between parents and building administrators; at the district level among parents, teachers, central office staff, and board of education members; and at the state level among parents, teachers, and elected officials.
FINDING 2—The reason most frequently associated with program stability and expansion in states with a mandate (Group 1 and Group 3) was the existence of the mandate; many local personnel indicated that without the mandate more programs would have been jeopardized. The reason most frequently associated with program stability in states without mandates was advocacy. Local personnel, as well as participants in Phase II of the research, indicated that the most powerful advocates for programs were parents of high ability students, characterized by participants as “articulate,” “persuasive,” and “powerful, especially during elections.” Ironically, many participants in the study did not believe parents were aware of their power to influence policy, nor did they believe parents used their power to maximize educational services for their children.
Thus, factors most associated with program stability were mandates and advocacy efforts. The data suggest that advocacy efforts need to be directed toward different groups of policy makers, depending upon the existence or nonexistence of a state mandate. Advocates for high ability children who want state mandates maintained need to direct a large proportion of their efforts toward policy makers in the legislative and executive branches of their state government. Advocates in states without mandates need to direct their efforts toward policy makers at the four levels mentioned earlier: the classroom level with teachers, the building level with administrators, the local or district level with board of education members, and the state level with policy makers in the legislative and executive branches of government. Regardless of the group targeted for lobbying efforts, the following strategies, carefully planned and orchestrated by interested parents, teachers and/or students, have proven effective: personal letters, group-sponsored letters, personalized information packets, newsletters, newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, news articles, petitions, personal phone conversations, personal visits or meetings, small group meetings, radio or TV talk shows, and press breakfasts and/or luncheons.
FINDING 3—The factor most frequently associated with program jeopardy across all groups of states and participants in both phases of the research was related to reduced local and state funds. The current research simply does not substantiate prior claims that programs are being eliminated coast to coast due to the reform movement, specifically the grouping issue, or due to racial bias. It is reasonable to conclude from the data that the strength of advocacy efforts will determine, in large part, the services for high ability students that are reinstated during better economic times.
FINDING 4—Services for high ability students are not comprehensive, Pre-K to 12. Students most likely to receive services are enrolled in the upper elementary and early middle school years; approximately 80% of students in grades 3-6 receive program services in Group 1, Group 2, and Group 3. Much smaller numbers of students receive services at either end of their public school experience in these groups of states. Only 40% of students in grades 1-2 receive services in these groups of states, and services for Pre-K students are almost nonexistent. Only half of the secondary students from these groups of states receive program services.
The picture of program services for students in states from Group 4 is more dismal. Sixty percent of students in grades 4-6 receive services, approximately 35% receive comparable services in grades K-3, and no services are available to students Pre-K. Finally, less than half the students in grades 7-8 are provided services, and only 30% of secondary students receive similar services.
To conclude, the current data present a bleak picture with respect to the comprehensiveness of services to high ability students in this sample of twenty states. This bleak picture exists despite research which indicates that high ability students can be identified at an early age and in spite of researchers who argue for more challenging educational opportunities and counseling services beyond those provided in the traditional high school. Clearly, teachers, parents, and policy makers from these states must advocate for educational services to serve children in important, formative years, as well as in secondary years where sufficient challenge is currently not being offered to them.