Many precocious children in Arlington County are not learning as much as they could because of some principals' resistance to gifted education and because of a shortage of and misuse of trained teachers, according to a University of Virginia report requested by Arlington school officials.
The university evaluators gave high marks to the teachers they saw working with high-achieving students in Arlington elementary schools, but they said many changes had to be made before the gifted-student program did what it was supposed to do.
The evaluators, Carolyn M. Callahan and Karen M. Lelli, said the problem is particularly acute in schools with low test scores and many low-income children. Those schools focus on low achieving students and making sure everyone reaches minimum standards, one educator even telling the evaluators "we don't really have any gifted in this school."
Callahan is a U-Va. education professor and director of the National Resource Center on the Gifted and Talented. Lelli is education director of U-Va.'s Summer Enrichment Program.
Many educators and parents disagree about what should be done for bright children in public schools. In the Washington area, Fairfax and Montgomery counties have all-day classes reserved for students with high test scores and teacher recommendations, but Arlington follows the more common practice of trying to give faster learners advanced instruction while they remain in regular classrooms.
Linda Henderson, president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs, said she supports different lessons for different students--what educators call "differentiated instruction"--and hopes the U-Va. report will encourage the School Board to support that approach. The report noted, however, that some teachers think they should give preference to students with disabilities.
The $14,000 elementary school study recommended that Arlington stop transferring gifted services teachers to different schools every two years and put precocious students together in large enough groups--at least five to a classroom--that they get the attention they need. These gifted student "clusters," the report said, "can also serve students with less than superior test scores who exhibit high degrees of motivation for learning, creativity or problem solving."
Arlington County School Board member Elaine S. Furlow said, "The report is extremely troubling and confirms what those of us who have been working on gifted issues have heard for years." She suggested reviving a Wednesday afternoon program for high-achieving students and seeking prospective principals' and teachers' views about gifted education before hiring them.
School Board Chair Libby Garvey said she plans to organize one or more work sessions for board members to discuss the report and how best to meet gifted students' needs. "There are real implications for how we deliver the curriculum and how we teach different kinds of children," she said.
The evaluators' report said they found "a strong bias" against students and parents who wanted to skip grades or accelerate learning in other unusual ways. "The gifted program supervisor has been able to advocate for several children," the report said, "but decisions to accelerate come at extraordinary cost of time, effort and energy."
The county hires trained gifted-student resource teachers to work with students and teachers, but it has only four resource-teacher positions for 20 elementary schools. The teachers did fine work when they were allowed to, Callahan and Lelli said, but "in many schools the passive response of the principals seriously inhibited the resource teacher's access to classrooms."
The evaluators said "parents expressed anger and frustration" about gifted services and felt they were often poorly informed. Students designated gifted also had complaints.
"When asked how much time was spent learning about new things that they didn't already know, five of six [fifth-graders in a focus group] reported that 'most' of the time, they review things they have already learned," the report said. Some take-home projects were challenging, the report said, but "they were not instructed in how to go about the projects, but [told to] 'figure it out' on their own or ask their parents."