Payson doesn’t give its gifted students much extra attention, with a relative handful of advanced placement tests, few breakout programs for students identified as gifted and little attempt to provide extra or accelerated classes. Heck, this year the high school doesn’t even offer calculus.
Many educators reason that these super bright and creative students will thrive in any program and don’t need any extra help — especially in a district with an unusually high percentage of special needs students and other students needing extra help to catch up.
In fact, a recent survey by the Arizona Board of Regents found that only 15 percent of Payson High School students finish at a four-year university within six years of graduation and fully half of the PHS students admitted to Arizona State University have deficiencies in the basic academic requirements.
So, let those bright kids thrive on their own — we’ve got to help the weak swimmers. Right?
Alas, that attitude applies not just in Payson — but throughout the nation’s schools, according to some fascinating studies.
30-year study of gifted students
For instance, most schools largely ignore the needs of gifted students, who will likely end up earning doctoral degrees, heading up Fortune 500 companies, inventing new software and becoming leaders, lawyers and doctors.
That’s the disturbing conclusion that has emerged from a 30-year study of some 320 gifted students, conducted by researchers from Vanderbilt University.
The study focused on 320 students who at age 13 scored in the top 1 percent for reasoning ability on standardized tests — then followed them through school and out into the world for the next 30 years.
The researchers found those bright youngsters succeeded brilliantly. Two-thirds went on to earn master’s degrees. An impressive 44 percent earned doctoral degrees — compared to just 2 percent of the general population. The great majority had noteworthy careers, including senior leaders at major corporations, software engineers, lawyers, doctors and even a Presidential advisor.
In short, we depend heavily on these kids to lead us in almost every field.
So, makes sense to identify them as early as we can and make sure they achieve their full potential. Right?
Not really — leastwise judging by the policies of most schools.
The study found that most schools throw up roadblocks for these students rather than opening doors. The researchers found that most teachers don’t offer any extra lessons, adapted curriculums or breakout sessions for the brightest kids. In fact, once those top kids have demonstrated mastery of the basic curriculum, most teachers focus on the students still struggling.
The state and federal government both require schools to identify students with learning disorders and emotional disabilities and then provide them with whatever extra help they need. For students with difficulties like severe autism, state and federal law can provide as much as $18,000 in added annual funding.
Not so the gifted kids, since no federal mandates require schools to meet their specialized needs. So most schools make little accommodation for gifted students.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions.
For instance, researchers from the University of Connecticut undertook a national study of third- and fourth-grade teachers to determine whether they did anything extra or different for the gifted students in their classrooms.
They discovered that the great majority of teachers make only minor changes in the curriculum for the gifted students. That held true in both rich, suburban schools and struggling inner city schools. The minority of teachers who tried to offer something extra mostly just assigned advanced reading, offered independent projects and asked the students to write extra reports. For the most part, the gifted students sat through the same lesson plans and lectures — even if they had long ago mastered the material presented.
Alas, Payson seems to share in the lamentable indifference to the needs of the brightest and most creative students.
For a time, Payson Association for Advanced Learners (PAAL) advocated energetically to develop programs for gifted students locally. The group raised money for the innovative project-based engineering class at the high school and even donated the money to buy a 3-D printer for projects. The group also lobbied for systematic screening, to identify gifted students early.
But the group has consistently had to push against indifference or even resistance from the administration — both at the district and the school site level. The group seems to have lost steam in the past year, as the district first turned its attention to adapting to state reforms that require a myopic focus on standardized test scores and the progress of the weakest students. The chaos that descended as the school board and Superintendent Ron Hitchcock drifted and then came apart hasn’t helped.
But the latest research and the district’s alarming college completion rate numbers suggest that the pendulum has swung too far.
We’d best pay attention to the brightest and most creative students, if we want to keep inventing software, turning out doctors, winning Nobel prizes and thriving in a fiercely competitive world economy.