As far as I can tell, this is unprecedented. Because of the weaknesses of gifted education in general, I don’t think Charlottesville will get the significant increases in learning it wants. But it is a courageous move that may reveal much about what happens when a gifted program looks not for brilliance but for potential.
“We made this change after decades of trying many different approaches in our efforts to find more equitable ways to identify and serve gifted students,” Beth Cheuk, a spokeswoman for the 4,300-student Charlottesville City Schools, told me. “We have tried universal screening, talent-development programs, multiyear screening, changing the screening processes, eliminating applications, etc. . . . Despite these many changes, our old program was still failing to identify and nurture the gifts of many of our students, including Black and Brown students and English learners.”
The student ethnic breakdown in Charlottesville for the 2019-2020 school year was 41.7 percent White, 30.8 percent Black, 12.6 percent Hispanic/Latino, 6.2 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 8.8 percent multiracial or other. Forty-four percent of students were economically disadvantaged. Just 24.5 percent were designated as gifted.
The district’s official explanation of its new program says: “We begin with the conviction that giftedness is distributed equally among all groups. . . .We believe that all students are talented and we cultivate their potential through collaborative, high-quality, differentiated instruction.”
This spring, the district evaluated all students in grade three and above using what it called “multiple criteria . . . through a holistic approach with a focus on talent development.” Essentially, if you showed any chance of benefiting from deeper lessons in English and math, you were labeled gifted. Of those so designated, 46 percent were White, 33 percent were Black and 14 percent were Hispanic/Latino. Under the old approach, White students made up 73 percent of those designated as gifted.
Cheuk said once it was made clear that everyone already in the gifted program could stay, “there was not a lot of pushback” from parents. I suspect that will come with time.
The experts I have checked with don’t completely dismiss the Charlottesville experiment. But knowing the many disappointments of the gifted-education movement, they are not optimistic.
Charlottesville’s plan is similar to, but not as specific as, what is called the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. Gifted-education experts Joseph S. Renzulli and Sally M. Reis, of the University of Connecticut, said that approach, which they developed, allows “each school to develop its own unique programs based on local resources, student demographics, and school dynamics as well as faculty strengths and creativity.” It is designed to create a “rising tide that lifts all ships,” they said.
Susan G. Assouline, professor of gifted education and director of the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa, said that “if educators — and districts — implemented the Schoolwide Enrichment Model as it was intended, this could solve a lot of issues. However, there are so many ways in which the implementation has gone completely awry.”
She said gifted-student selection systems and gifted-teaching plans are rarely aligned. Students often don’t get the instruction they need. Changes are often made for political rather than pedagogical reasons. Differentiation — having a learning plan for each child — is difficult to do. The research I have seen indicates it rarely produces significant positive results.
Cheuk said Charlottesville’s differentiation plan does not create plans for individual students. The district defines differentiation as “designing instruction to meet individual needs.”
Even in the best of circumstances, giving gifted services to nearly every child would require extra time and money that few districts have. Charlottesville officials acknowledge they do not have all the resources they need at the moment because of the pandemic. They have doubled their gifted-education staff.
“Gifted teachers are sometimes acting as subs, or they are finding it a challenge to plan with classroom teachers who are covering as subs,” Cheuk said. “We are eager to see the program at full strength.”
Many Charlottesville residents would probably endorse the view of veteran Virginia journalist Jim Bacon. The school district’s new gifted policy, he argued on his Bacon’s Rebellion blog, is “a leveling strategy designed to reduce the outward signs of racial disparities without doing the hard work of addressing the system’s underlying failures.”
Lack of demonstrated improvement is a problem with nearly all gifted programs. I recently reported on a study of 18,170 elementary students that showed little evidence of higher achievement for those designated as gifted. Some experts think this is partly because gifted programs usually do not include acceleration, such as letting students take algebra in earlier grades.
But the Charlottesville schools have long embraced acceleration. They let high school students choose nearly any college-level Advanced Placement courses they want. The district would do even better if it required that AP students take the three-hour AP exams, as some Northern Virginia districts do. The exams are key to keeping teaching standards high.
Renzulli and Reis, the University of Connecticut scholars who created the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, said in a joint statement that Charlottesville “has taken an important step.” They said they hope the model “will be implemented with fidelity by hiring teachers who are trained in our approach.”
Cheuk said, “Students love our gifted resource teachers, just as the small number of previously identified gifted students used to love our gifted teachers.”
That affection for deeper instruction is lovely, but it has not in the past been a guarantee of deeper learning. Charlottesville now has a chance to see whether it can succeed where so many others have failed.