Special Populations in GATE: Teacher Perspectives

In my final semester of my masters program, I’m taking the class I’ve been waiting for: Special Populations in Gifted Education.

The first reading, Teacher Perspectives Regarding Gifted Diverse Students (2013) by Szymanski and Shaff, asked us to consider several topics. Find my thoughts below.

“One area found to be lacking in pre-service teacher prep programs is the identification and understanding of gifted learners.”

Please make a connection between your experience with alleged ‘lack’ and what was stated within the article.

I never went through a teacher prep program. I took an alternate route to licensure. That said, I’ve seen the lack of training and understanding surrounding gifted learners in both study and practice. I was only required to take five classes during the alternate route, none of which had anything to do with identifying gifted learners, or students with disabilities, for that matter. Once in the schools, no training has been given and teachers are expected to identify gifted students based on their own judgments. No support has been offered from gifted coordinators. I’ve been told it isn’t a teachers’ jobs to identify.

It wasn’t until I entered this program, in my 7th year of teaching, that I had any exposure to gifted identification. Now that I’ve a better understanding, I am able to closely examine the conversations I have with my colleagues and hear the same fallacies and myths about GAT children perpetuated. I’ve heard it said time and again that students with IEPs can not possibly be gifted. I’ve heard teachers complain that a student is failing their class so they must be mislabeled gifted. Or if a student is overly excitable, overly energetic, they may be labeled ADHD, but this immediately disqualifies them as being understood as gifted. This lack of understanding about gifted characteristics also leads to gifted programs being implemented only for those privileged children “for whom educational failure will not be tolerated” (Sapon-Shevin, 2003, p. 129). A narrow definition of what giftedness is often ignores the context of a child’s situation and excluded their gifts and talents from being recognized. Without a deeper understanding of gifted characteristics paired with training on cultural literacy, this trend of underrepresentation will continue for another 100 years.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (2003). Equity, excellence, and school reform: Why is finding common ground so hard? In J.H. Borden (Ed.), Rethinking Gifted Education (pp. 127-142). New  York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Then, someone spoke up his experience in a neighboring county and stated

our county uses one assessment to identify gifted students.

This is an interesting perspective because it is my understanding from the director of Gifted (identifying information omitted) that a matrix is used which examines student strengths in six areas and that they can be identified if they meet four of the six. I just had her class last night, where she discussed this in-depth, so it shocks me (a little) to hear there is a disconnect between best practice (theory) and practitioner reality. Is this a school based issue, in your opinion or do you think that this a division issue? Or are you saying that out of the six means of identification, only one is a test/assessment. The others are portfolio or…?

During my time in this graduate program, I’ve spent a lot of my research time specifically studying the under-representation of certain groups, specifically minorities and children in poverty. Additionally, a big focus for me has been on changing “gate-keeper” assumptions about who gifted kids are. Until we effectively challenge the underlying prejudices and stereotypes, training on gifted characteristics is likely to do little if teachers can’t see past skin color or socio-economic status.

Then, my professor followed up on my comments about the gap between theory and practice, to which I responded.

What I find most interesting about the gap between theory and practice, is that teachers don’t often know how to access the research and theoretical findings. These things aren’t easily accessible to teachers, for the most part. I realize that organizations like the ASCD attempt to bring them to a larger audience, but even ASCD membership can be cost prohibitive. My time in this masters program has opened my eyes to the availability of research out there and like you, I’ve found myself using it far more. To be honest, it wasn’t until I entered this program that it even crossed my mind that people were out there doing research on education. I had simply never thought about it. But what happens when I am no longer in the program in December and do not have access to the resources provided by the UR library? I become like every other teacher again, unable to access the breadth of knowledge out there supposedly intended for teachers, but nearly inaccessible without paying a large sum of money.

When asked to reflect on the study’s research questions:

“The research questions explored in this study of one school district with a majority of Hispanic residents and a majority of White teachers are:

1. What are teachers’ perceptions of their training in working with Hispanic gifted learners?

2. How do teachers identify students to participate in a gifted and talented program?

3. How do teachers modify classroom instruction to meet the needs of gifted and talented students?

4. What barriers do teachers perceive to have an effect on Hispanic gifted students’ participation in a gifted and talented program?”

I responded…

The second question in the set is most interesting to me. In my Reflective Practice class, I presented an issue brief that looked at the available research on teacher perceptions of giftedness and the under-representation of minorities in gifted education. A study looking at stereotypes of giftedness showed that 85% of pre-service participants held stereotypical beliefs about gifted students, imagining a gifted person as Caucasian. The rates were lower with in-service teachers, but still showed an alarming number of teachers holding stereotypical beliefs about who could be gifted, suggesting that this under-representation could be related to teacher referrals based on these biases (Carman, 2011). These gatekeeper assumptions about who can be gifted are far harder to change than other barriers to inclusion that can be overcome with policy changes at the federal, state or local levels. The most difficult work to be done in any school is persuading teachers to challenge their assumptions about students from diverse racial and ethnic groups. It requires reflection and analysis of ingrained and biased belief systems. This question begins the work of identifying biases. In my opinion, the next step is exposure to classes that challenge teachers to examine their beliefs and stereotypes about different ethnicities and races. This will provide a space to change erroneous belief systems, broaden perspectives, and increase meaningful exposure to groups of children from various backgrounds. (Elhoweris, Mutua, Alsheikh & Holloway, 2005; Elhoweris 2008).

Carman, C.A. (2011). Stereotypes of giftedness in current and future educators. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 34(4), 790-812.

Elhoweris, H. (2008) Teacher judgment in identifying gifted/talented students. Multicultural Education, 15(3), 35-38.

Elhoweris, H. Mutua, K., Alsheikh N. and Holloway, P. (2005) Effect of children’s ethnicity on teachers’ referral and recommendation decisions in gifted and talented programs. Remedial and Special Education, 26(1), 25-31.

We were asked to respond to the challenges of differentiation. I didn’t offer my opinion, initially, but did respond to others in the group. Specifically, this post: 

I think that the current trends in accountability are crippling a teacher’s ability to differentiate.

My response…

I hear this argument a lot and I absolutely understand the frustration when a county or school tries to mandate…well, anything. When I started teaching in RPS, they were all about the Hunter model, except, no one actually understood it and they taught as a linear model that was to be implemented every single day. In theory, Hunter never intended for the model to be linear and this bastardization of the model has led many schools and districts to abandon it. The school I was in was in the bottom 2 schools in the entire system. Our math pass rate my last year there was a miserable 9%.

I know that when times get tough, the pressure trickles down. And I totally get that it is scary when they start throwing around policies and mandates. I would love to see more teachers stand their ground. During my time in the RPS system, I bucked every mandate handed down to me. When they said you must, I didn’t. You want Hunter plans – sure, I’ll make something up that says nothing so you can check your box that I turned them in, then I’m going to plan substantially for my students and do what I know is right. And in the end, my pass scores were over 85% (in a school with nothing even close to that from other teachers who were drilling). And I was not fireable even when I said no. They weren’t going to fire the teacher that was bringing up their scores. Then I started reaching out, helping other teachers implement these practices. And our scores went up. This was one department, one grade. I had started infiltrating the science department when I ended up getting a job and moving school.

What I a saying is, I don’t buy the reasoning that the mandates are strangling us. We all have choices to make. If we know what we are doing isn’t working, that it isn’t supported by research, then it is with in our rights and responsibilities to fight back. I also don’t believe it is impossible to differentiate even within the mandates. I think the real problem we encounter is that people (myself included a few years back) actually had no idea how easy the process could be because the word differentiation is such a buzz word in education. But when you really start asking people to show you it in action, no one can. Then, we either start to believe that differentiation is this magical, unachievable unicorn or that it is some stupid buzz word that everyone says they are doing, but aren’t.

I get passionate on this topic, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of low-SES or minority students who are typically receiving the worst kinds of low level education, because someone, somewhere got so afraid of the tests, that they allowed themselves to start believing that drill and kill works and then this practice somehow, became unofficial policy. The end game isn’t the test. It is the kids. And until we have more teachers who stand up and start implementing the best kinds of practices, the kinds typically reserved for privileged kids or gifted kids, then there won’t be equity in education. Because those at the top only see dollar signs and worry about the funding tied to testing (do not even get me started), and because they aren’t in the classroom anymore, it is up to teachers to stand up for these kids and stop adhering to the mandates that do our kids a huge disservice.

Then, someone noted:

What you are describing is our long, tough, uphill battle. You forgot to add the threats that the state will take over (please, let them come and show me how it’s done!) and the guilt trips where we’re told that we just need to work “harder.”

My response…

A favorite threat! One that was held over the head of my school all four years I was there. We had a state representative the last two years I was there come to the weekly leadership meetings, which I sat on because I was the department chair. She kept slapping us with the “if the state takes over…” talk and we watched it happen at places like Armstrong. I think “the state” has finally figured out that they handed out the standard framework to teachers ten plus years ago but forgot to ensure that districts, schools and teachers knew that it wasn’t a curriculum in and of itself. Teachers had to develop the curriculum. So, for the past ten plus years, the framework has been used incorrectly as a curriculum. And they wonder why schools started failing?

Then a new teacher thanked me for the heads up! So I responded…

t is true that the way the standards and frameworks were presented to districts and teachers felt a little like a prescribed curriculum. Then districts took it one step further and codified it into pacing guides, which I think need be destroyed. The standards in and of themselves are not a bad thing.

Teachers need to have the freedom to look at the standards and group them in such ways as to make the learning experiences valuable and authentic for their students. For instance, in my English class, I start with a short story I would be interested in teaching. I look at what knowledge and skills I could teach from that story. Is it character driven or plot driven? What grammatical skills are evident in the story and how can I use the story to reinforce their use? Then I look at the theme and figure out what events in the world I can pair with it. This changes yearly to keep it relevant. Last year, with the story The Use of Force, I paired the forced quaratines in Africa due to Ebola. This year, I’m pairing with police force in black communities. Then I choose texts which reinforce the theme and make students consider both sides of the argument. Then I look at what other skills I can teach with these texts. If I were following rigid pacing guides (Which I don’t. I ignore them and I’ve told my principal as much. He appreciated my honesty and supports me because he sees what I’m doing and knows it is best practice) but if I were following the pacing guides, I would never be able to plan like this. I encourage you, when you feel comfortable, to buck the system and do the right thing. It can be scary but your results will speak for themselves and your principal won’t be able to touch you. 😉

But then, a teacher noted: 

I was once in a meeting where I heard administrators say that “lesson plans are absolutely the way to assess a teacher’s performance and a student’s success,” I wanted to scream!

When can a good teacher just get a chance to teach and not be forced to waste time on trivial things? Page after page of lessons written do not make a teacher better able to differentiate their instruction. In fact, it makes teachers resent the system and their policies and then some teachers give up.

But I disagreed…

I have to respectfully disagree. Evidence of effective planning is a must. I don’t agree with your administration that it is “the way” to asses teachers. Just like in gifted ed, a matrix should be used. But I don’t think written plans are a waste of time either. Taking the time to map out your plans, starting with the skills and goals of a unit, to the assessments and then to the actual lesson plans is the only way to ensure that teachers’ plans are actually aligned with their goals. Poorly rolled out systems of lesson planning create resentment, but the actual planning process, with evidence of unpacking the blooms’ levels as well as thinking about the skills and knowledge they will need, how this transfers to the world outside of a classroom and authentic assessment and reflective practice are all important for every teacher to be participating in. Teachers who don’t engage in this process often end up teaching the same thing, the same way for their entire career. They fail to reflect on their practices. They fail to make connections between the lessons and end up teaching skills and knowledge in isolation. This failure of planning is what has gotten us to this place where students are no longer understanding what they are learning and are incapable of using information in new and novel ways. They have just enough to pass a test (and some times not even then…) but rarely can use it in “the real world” or see how it even applies.

Lastly, when asked to reflect on the actions of TAG coordinator that was interviewed in the study:

The article stated that “she learned to use local norms to identify diverse, gifted students” and this was done by evaluating students against their sub-group peers. This type of contextual identification is extremely important for identifying groups of students who are under-represented in gifted programs, especially in poor and minority populations. We talked about this in the last class I had with Dr. Edinger as well. We have to consider the child in the context of their situation. To compare a student from the inner city who struggles with poverty, racism and lack of privilege to a student of the same age from a wealthy, privileged community is unfair. We have to examine students contextually. By comparing students to the peers that are in the same situation, who may lack cultural experiences, face barriers to success, etc. we are able to identify students who rise above despite the barriers in their way. This means, we may identify a student from this situation who scores in the 75th %tile, but this may be an indicator of giftedness when all of their local peers are scoring in the 50th. To compare a child from one context to another (where giftedness may mean they score in the top 10th %tile) doesn’t account  for the unique experience of students.

Another classmate responded:

I wonder, after reflecting on the article and thinking about friends in who teach in high schools in the public school system, when those sub-group norms are set, and students are correctly identified as gifted and talented, how can a school system help prepare high schoolers to perform at the level of their GAT peers at more affluent schools?  Having heard anecdotal evidence that past high school, GAT students who attend competitive universities struggle to acclimate to new norms.

How does the gifted sub-group merge with the next larger GAT group upstream?  How can teachers prepare GAT students from diverse socio-economic and ELL backgrounds for that jump?

To which I responded:

I think you bring up a valid point at the end. When I was in RPS, I saw this all the time. We had a group of students identified as gifted. Some even went on to Maggie Walker for high school. The first year or two was a struggle as they acclimated to the level of rigor. I also have friends who teach in higher ed who have complained about the inability of incoming students to keep up with the rigors of college to the point that colleges and universities are now offering remedial courses to help students acclimate. There was a great article in the New York Times Magazine recently about Xavier in New Orleans and the means they use to consistently produces more black students who apply to and then graduate from medical school than any other institution in the country.” And they aren’t just getting elite middle and upper class black students. Over 50% of their students come from low income homes and most are first generation college attendees. If we use what we know about race and poverty in education, we look at the statistics surrounding pass rates from low income communities, and make assumptions about the types of education received in “failing schools,” we can conclude that these students are probably coming to college behind their peers from more affluent and privileged communities. In the article, they discuss the reason the number of black doctors was declining, stating “It was a reflection of the shoddy schooling so many of them received before they ever arrived at the college gate.” It is a great article if you want to read more about one method being used to help students (and it isn’t just gifted students, but still relevant in my opinion) as to the ways in which we can help level the playing field for those not from privilege.

Full Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/magazine/a-prescription-for-more-black-doctors.html


2 thoughts on “Special Populations in GATE: Teacher Perspectives

  1. As one of the authors of the article that you studied I just wanted to say “thank you”. It is always my hope that my words go beyond my computer and help people to think about and understand the needs of gifted students and you totally “got it”.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s