Smartest children get shortchanged Study finds schools deficient

November 05, 1993|By New York Times News Service Staff Writer David Michael Ettlin, Gary Gately and Mary Maushard contributed to this article.

The nation is failing its smartest students, who sit bored and unchallenged in classrooms and ultimately learn less than their counterparts around the world, according to the most comprehensive federal study in two decades on the status of education for the gifted and talented.

The report, by the U.S. Department of Education, recommends a more challenging curriculum for these children and a better system for identifying them, rather than relying simply on IQ tests and achievement scores.

Many of the country's most talented schoolchildren, particularly poor and minority students, are enveloped in a "quiet crisis" in which they are not encouraged to work hard or master rigorous and complex material, according to the report, presented yesterday in Atlanta to educators at the annual conference of the National Association for Gifted Children.

"American education is now at a turning point -- one that requires us to reach beyond current programs and practices," Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said in the 33-page report, "National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent."

While no money is attached to the report's recommendations, education secretaries, since Terrel H. Bell released the influential report "A Nation At Risk" in 1983, have used their job as a bully pulpit to exhort states and local governments to improve schools.

By issuing the report, the Education Department means to highlight deficiencies in the education of the smartest students even as minimal competency standards are being set, thereby providing national leadership, said the report's primary author, Pat O'Connell Ross.

About two-thirds of public schools offer programs for the gifted and talented, but many entail little more than two or three hours a week, the report said. The students -- roughly 3 percent to 5 percent of all students -- spend most of their time in classes that do not require much effort.

Addressing the needs of gifted and talented children -- and deciding who they are -- has been an emotional issue for Maryland school systems. The state Department of Education assembled a task force two months ago to take up the issues involving the gifted and talented.

Approaches by local systems vary.

Baltimore County has expanded some "gifted" programs, making them more inclusive. Anne Arundel schools are integrating students of varying ability in classrooms, with plans to have special teachers working with individuals to develop their special gifts and abilities.

Walter G. Amprey, Baltimore City superintendent, cautioned against overemphasizing a small minority of "gifted-and-talented" students at the expense of helping other students reach their potential.

"I think the whole thrust of gifted and talented is a reflection of our mind-set of categorizing youngsters," he said. "We have kind of an obsession with identifying some kids as better than others. We need to recognize that many, many more of them can perform at very high levels. We have to have more of them reaching the target."

Dr. Amprey said he has no plans to reduce the $3.6 million spent annually on Baltimore gifted-and-talented programs but wants to raise expectations for all students. Eventually, he said, almost every city student should complete advanced science and math, including calculus, speak a second language and write a literate 25-page essay on any subject before graduating from high school.

The Education Department report found that many textbooks have decreased in difficulty by two grade levels in the last 20 years, and few if any publishers produce textbooks aimed at above-average students.

It said a survey of high-achieving high school students reported that they spent less than an hour a day doing homework. And in elementary school, even before they begin the school year, gifted and talented students have mastered 35 percent to 50 percent of the basic curriculum, yet are required to attend classes.

The result, according to the report, is a dearth of high-achieving graduates, particularly in mathematics and science. "The U.S. shortage of graduate students in mathematics and science forces many large companies -- such as Texas Instruments, Bell Laboratories and IBM -- to fill jobs, particularly in research, with people educated outside the United States," the report said.

FINDINGS

Some of the Department of Education findings about America's brightest kids:

* Gifted and talented elementary school children have mastered 35 percent to 50 percent of the grade curriculum in five basic subject areas before starting the school year.

* Most classroom teachers make few provisions for these children.

* The curriculum offered to top students in the United States is less rigorous than that in other countries. U.S. students do less homework, read fewer demanding books and aren't as well prepared to enter the job force.

* Talented poor and minority students suffer most.

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