Losing Ohio’s seed corn: Lift the ceiling for gifted kids

High-quality gifted education for the state’s ablest students should be an imperative for Ohio. These kids are most likely to turn into tomorrow’s inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers and job creators. In generations to come, the state’s economic vitality—and America’s international competitiveness—will depend in no small part on whether we maximize our human capital at the high end even as we strive to raise the skill-and-knowledge level for all.

Today, however, the vast majority of Ohio’s high-potential youngsters aren’t receiving the education they need to reach their full potential. As the Columbus Dispatch recently reported, even high-flying districts are failing to make gains with gifted students.

It’s not a new problem. Two decades of federal education initiatives have pushed states to set minimum standards, raise the floor, and close achievement gaps. All are worthy goals—and millions of U.S. educators have been struggling to help their pupils attain them—but along the way our K-12 education system has sorely neglected those children who are already “proficient”, many of them actually achieving at high levels.

Ohio has long required its districts to identify which children are “gifted”—there are several different ways one can qualify—but does not require anybody actually to provide these kids with additional classroom challenges or with teachers prepared to instruct fast learners. Hence districts have no incentive or accountability for improving gifted education. So most of them don’t do it—or don’t do nearly enough of it. The result: Two hundred Ohio districts offer no special services whatsoever for their gifted students. Statewide, just 18 percent of all pupils identified as “gifted” by their teachers and principals actually received gifted education services in school in 2011.

Imagine the outcry if 82 percent of Ohio’s disabled youngsters received no “special” education!

What to do?

There are any number of ways that state law could and should be amended to ease this problem on behalf of today’s kids and tomorrow’s economy, beginning with an obligation for schools and districts actually to serve all their gifted students with suitable curricula and instruction. But Ohioans need not wait for the General Assembly. Local superintendents (and charter school developers) already have several readily applicable options:

Ability grouping: Not so long ago, students were regularly grouped by academic ability. This practice was faulted on myriad grounds and has almost entirely vanished from present public-education practice. Yet recent evidence shows that, if done well, matching students up with others on their same academic level in particular subjects has a positive benefit on everybody’s achievement. In Ohio, districts like Reynoldsburg, outside Columbus, are grouping kids again and seeing a real benefit from it.

Advanced courses for all: Opportunities for high school students to take advanced courses such as AP classes and International Baccalaureate programs vary widely from district to district, even school to school. Ohio has encouraged schools to offer more such courses, but individual high schools are required to offer just one such course. Rather than insisting that all offer more classes, districts could utilize distance learning and online classes, open enrollment, and post-secondary options to provide more upper-level education options to more high schoolers—officially “gifted” or not—who are keen to benefit from such opportunities.

Specialized schools: State law explicitly allows for gifted-specific charter schools, yet only one such school operates in Ohio—Menlo Park Academy, near Cleveland, which draws students from 40 districts in northeast Ohio. (To put this in perspective: Ohio has 273,000 gifted students and one gifted school; the state has 259,000 students with disabilities and 35 charter schools dedicated to serving them.) And Ohio districts—all 610 of them—offer only four competitive-admission public high schools for high-ability youngsters: Walnut Hills in Cincinnati, and three small “John Hay” schools in Cleveland. Other states have more—and some also boast statewide boarding schools for gifted high schoolers, such as the renowned Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.

With most districts struggling to serve gifted students while balancing their budgets, there’s no need for individual school systems to open gifted-only schools. This could, however, easily and efficiently be done on a regional basis, much as Menlo Park Academy has done on its own. Franklin County alone enrolls nearly 34,000 gifted students in its public schools. Surely a gifted-only school for the county, and beyond, could thrive.

At the state level, Governor Kasich’s proposed biennial budget contained a modest funding boost for gifted education (the House removed this provision and replaced it with the former “units-based” funding method). For the first time, gifted students’ progress will be reported on school and district report cards just as has long been done for pupils with disabilities, those who are economically disadvantaged, and those who are still learning English. Districts will now be held accountable for their gifted students’ progress. These are promising advances for gifted education in the Buckeye State but will need considerable prodding and monitoring to really make a difference. This is a perfect opportunity for new State Superintendent Dick Ross.

Too many education policies and practices actively overlook our brightest youngsters. These students will play a key role in Ohio’s future economic prosperity and success. They, and the state, deserve better.

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