Marcia A. B. Delcourt
The Learning Outcomes Study at The University of Virginia was a two-year investigation of academic and affective outcomes of 1,010 elementary school children in four types of programs for high ability learners (Within-class, Pull-out, Separate Class, Special School). The Learning Outcomes Study was extended by adding a qualitative dimension focusing on an exemplary model from each of the four program types. An exemplary model was one for which the program description was complete and internally consistent with the purposes of the program, the program goals and objectives matched the curriculum, and there was satisfaction with the program on the part of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Characteristics of each program were examined through classroom observations as well as teacher, student, and parent interviews.
What characterizes a program identified as an “exemplary” model of a given type (Pull-out, Within-class, Separate Class, Special School)?
An examination of the five themes (leadership, atmosphere and environment, communication, curriculum and instruction, and attention to student needs), revealed that there are consistencies across all programs leading to recommendations for program development and implementation.
In an exemplary model, there is a strong administrative voice to represent and implement the program for gifted learners. This individual oversees the development of long-term goals and objectives and communicates this information to everyone in the school community. These leaders ensure that staff and community members understand and support the program.
An accepting atmosphere throughout the school promotes a positive attitude toward the program for the gifted and talented for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. In these programs, students are comfortable with their educational and social environments. Staff members are given the time, materials, and training to address the needs of gifted learners.
Clear and frequent communication is maintained between parents, teachers, students, and administrators regarding the program. This is accomplished through both general strategies (i.e., newsletters) and individual contacts (i.e., phone calls). These communications include commendations as well as recommendations about program activities and student performance.
Teachers are flexible in matching both curriculum and instruction to student needs. They employ a variety of instructional techniques to complement student characteristics, and students feel that they are appropriately challenged. For example, a match is sought between the pacing of the curriculum and the student’s ability in a given subject.
Academic staff and administrators are committed to serving students from traditionally underrepresented populations. They take assertive roles in selecting these students for their programs and inform their staff to be sensitive to the needs of these students once they enter the programs.
What are the influences of such exemplary programs on student achievement and motivation?
Parents, teachers, and students agree that two influences on student achievement and motivation involve providing challenges and choices. Challenges are presented through high-level content and pacing of the curriculum. Techniques such as curriculum compacting are used to present topics at an appropriate, more advanced level. One teacher said, “The grouping itself is a motivator since students can progress at a fast pace and they can work with each other to succeed.” Corroborating this remark, a parent noted that her daughter “… likes the fact that she is in a class with other students who are on the same level.”
Becoming self-motivated to achieve is easier for some students than for others. To assist with this goal, teachers also provide many opportunities for students to make their own choices and to obtain control over their learning environment.
What distinguishes the exemplary representative model in terms of its ability to serve diverse populations of students?
These “exemplary” models in gifted education address the needs of diverse populations of students in three main ways. First, all selected programs focused on the identification of underrepresented populations of students in their written policies. Specific populations included those from diverse cultural groups, the physically challenged, those with limited English proficiency (LEP), underachievers, and the economically disadvantaged. Second, by focusing on the individual needs of all students, teachers took into consideration specific characteristics related to these diverse populations of students. These characteristics included the use of nonstandard English and limited educational experience. Third, parental and community involvement were seen as vital to the success of the program and to each child’s education. To establish these patterns of involvement, district coordinators invite parents to school events, distribute questionnaires about potential family interactions with the school, and keep parents informed about their child’s educational program.
This section provides parents and educators with a series of questions they should ask about any program for the gifted and talented if they are to gather information on program practices. Following each set of questions, comments are provided to guide decision-makers in creating or improving their own programs for gifted learners.
What Should Parents and Educators Ask About Their Elementary School Gifted Programs?
Leadership. Who among the school district’s administration is an advocate for this program within the school system and the community? Successful programs are characterized by at least one strong voice for the program. Supportive teachers and parents are crucial, but often not as influential as a school administrator in representing the program to other administrators, school personnel, and community members. This individual may be a specially trained coordinator for the gifted and talented, a superintendent or associate superintendent of the school district, a principal or assistant principal or another type of administrator.
How supportive of gifted education is this administrator? He or she should be a strong advocate of gifted education, and able to effectively represent the needs and characteristics of gifted and talented students to the community at large and to key groups of decision makers within the school district.
How long has the program been in existence? What type or types of programs are being implemented in the district (Special School, Separate Classroom, Pull-out program, Within-class program, other)? How long have these programs been operational? If the program type has changed over time, why did this occur? An indicator of an effective program is not necessarily the number of years it has been in existence, but the effort the administration employs to make the program the most appropriate model for meeting the needs of the students. A program that has changed its focus by changing the format and activities offered to students may either be indicative of a staff that wants change for the sake of change or one that is attentive to the needs of its clients. Ask why the change occurred, how the need for change was determined, and how the changes are being monitored. The most effective programs have a comprehensive evaluation design in place. Ask for a copy of the program description including the evaluation plan.
What are the decision-making processes for implementing and revising the program? A program administrator should be able to explain how the decisions are made regarding the program. This includes teacher selection, program development, student identification, curriculum implementation, and program evaluation. Parents and teachers should be involved in planning in order to promote program ownership among staff and community members.
What types of teacher training or staff development are provided in your district? Is this optional or required? Staff development regarding the needs of gifted and talented students should be a requirement for all faculty members. Additional support should be provided to staff working directly with the targeted students.
How are staff members selected to teach in this program? Are there state or local guidelines, certification? Guidelines for teacher preparation at the state or local levels make it easier for districts to select qualified personnel. Teachers should be selected according to their knowledge of the curriculum, their experience in addressing the needs of high ability learners, and their interest in working with exceptional students. The extent of the training considered acceptable to produce qualified personnel varies from completion of a few core courses in the education of gifted and talented learners to completing a master’s degree in the educational psychology of the gifted and talented. It is recommended that some form of theoretical and practical experience be obtained prior to working with gifted and talented students. Exemplary teachers report that they are involved in on-going educational training through their school staff development programs and through their initiatives.
Atmosphere and environment. What kind of classroom atmosphere do you like to develop? Atmosphere includes the entire school environment. An inviting atmosphere promotes a positive attitude toward the school and the program for parents, teachers, students, and administrators. This is not accidental. Staff members need to be given the time, materials, and instruction to create an integrated school atmosphere. For example, to promote learning as an on-going activity, role models from the community could share their interests and talents with students.
What impressions and concerns do parents, teachers, students, and administrators have about the program? A random selection of these individuals should reveal positive attitudes toward the program. All staff members, students, and parents should be informed about the program and should also feel that they can obtain additional information whenever necessary. The program should not be viewed as a luxury, only receiving support when there is extra money in the budget. This means that teachers of the gifted and talented should have appropriate materials and facilities to implement their curriculum.
Communication. What involvement do staff members have with the program (principal, librarian, school psychologist, fine arts teacher, etc.)? All staff members should be informed about the program and receive training in the characteristics and needs of gifted and talented students. This information should be deemed as important as that concerning the needs of any exceptional child. School personnel should also be involved in program planning whenever their expertise is required. They can serve on student identification committees and contribute to curriculum planning. For example, the librarian can provide valuable information by training the students in advanced reference skills, a lesson on map making can be coordinated with the fine arts teacher, and an advanced science class about the effects of exercise on the body can be taught in conjunction with the school nurse or a local physician.
How do teachers communicate with each other about the program? What type of communication do parents have with the school? Clear and frequent communication between all members of the program must be maintained (parents, teachers, students, administrators). General communication systems (newsletters, progress reports, large group meetings) and individual contacts (phone calls, conferences) should be employed. Communication with parents should include commendations as well as recommendations. This is especially important to parents who often obtain information from the school only when a child has done something wrong.
Curriculum and instruction. What do you see as the needs of the high ability students in your classroom? How do you address these needs? How is that process different from addressing the needs of other students in the class or school? Which particular strategies are used? Gifted and talented students have specific characteristics and needs which require the implementation of educational strategies that are different from those concerning their same-age peers. Teachers working with these students recognize these characteristics and are experienced in providing differentiated curricular activities. For example, an ability to process information more quickly indicates that a child needs less time and fewer repetitions to understand concepts. Indeed, a student so identified may have mastered content prior to its being formally introduced in the classroom. Teachers of the gifted and talented find it necessary to make changes in the content and pacing of the curriculum in order to appropriately challenge students and to make the most effective use of everyone’s time.
Which educational model is implemented in your school and classroom? How is this achieved in your school? In your class? How does this model influence your teaching? What do you do differently compared to a classroom that does not use this model? Many programs for the gifted and talented are based on educational systems and models that incorporate content, strategies, and administrative designs developed specifically for high ability learners. These models should provide programs that are different from the regular curriculum. The differences should not be seen as special privileges for the gifted and talented, but as appropriate educational decisions.
What influence does this program have on student achievement, motivation, self-concept, and creativity? Programs should focus on both cognitive and affective outcomes for students. Achievement, motivation, self-concept, and creativity are some of the key areas included in goals, objectives, and the evaluation plan.
What type of evaluation procedures are used in the program? All programs should have explicit procedures for evaluating student progress and the effects of the program. The evaluation design should be directly related to the goals and objectives of the program.
What do you think it takes to be an effective teacher in this program? Teachers say that the most important teaching quality is flexibility. This means that they are aware of the many ways their students think and approach challenges in the classroom. Flexibility also means that teachers need to plan curricular activities that fully challenge the abilities of their students and are integrated in the short-term and long-range educational plans of the school district. For instance, specific learning outcomes determined by the state and local school boards may be achieved at a faster pace, thereby creating the need for alternative curricular approaches such as acceleration and enrichment. Highly creative students require a variety of outlets for their talents (e.g., art, music, dance, humor) and time for thinking.
Attention to student needs. How do you address the needs of students from culturally diverse and economically disadvantaged backgrounds? These particular groups have been noticeably absent from many programs for the gifted and talented. In order to remedy this situation, identification procedures and program activities must focus on the unique characteristics of individuals from diverse cultural groups. Whether a school district has one dominant racial/ethnic group such as African-American or Hispanic students or a number of subgroups represented in its population, the program for the gifted and talented should have a plan to actively recruit these students and to provide activities to address their needs.
How are individual expression and creativity viewed? How do students express their interests? What is the focus of the program with respect to a student’s affective needs? How are students challenged within the program? How is this ascertained? What is the philosophy concerning student learning styles? Teachers should incorporate student interests into each subject. Students should be encouraged to express their ideas and to expand their thinking. Since students reported that they were most comfortable when their educational and social environments were positive, they should be given opportunities to feel challenged by academic rigor and to develop friendships with peers who share similar interests.
By referring to these themes and related questions, one will gather a significant amount of information about any program for the gifted and talented.