Washington Some scholars are joining parent advocates in questioning whether the education law No Child Left Behind, with its goal of universal academic proficiency, has had the unintended consequence of diverting resources and attention from the gifted.
Proponents of gifted education have forever complained of institutional neglect. Public schools, they say, pitch lessons to the broad middle group of students at the expense of those working beyond their assigned grade. Now, under the federal mandate, schools are trained on an even narrower group: students on the "bubble" between success and failure on statewide tests.
Teachers struggling to meet the law's annual proficiency goals have little incentive, critics say, to teach students who will meet those goals however they are taught.
"Because it's all about bringing people up to that minimum level of performance, we've ignored those high-ability learners," said Nancy Green, executive director of the D.C.-based National Association for Gifted Children. "We don't even have a test that measures their abilities."
A study published last month by two University of Chicago economists, analyzing fifth-grade test scores in the Chicago public schools before and after enactment of the law in 2002, found that performance rose consistently for all but the most and least advanced students.
"We don't find any evidence that the gifted kids are harmed," said Chicago economist Derek A. Neal. "But they are certainly right, the gifted advocates, if they claim there is no evidence that No Child Left Behind is helping the gifted."
Giftedness is a catchall term for children with abilities beyond their years.
Much debate about gifted education centers on the concept of "differentiation," an education buzzword that describes how teachers, particularly in the elementary grades, are supposed to serve students of mixed abilities in a single classroom.
In recent years, school systems have gradually embraced the notion that all students, including the gifted, should study in regular classrooms. Alternatives, such as putting gifted children in separate classrooms or schools, or pulling them from regular classes for bursts of enrichment, are widely rejected as undemocratic.
"Gifted education is not something that should be done by another teacher down the hall; it should be done by every teacher in every classroom," said Marty Creel, who oversees gifted education - and works with a particularly vocal community of parent advocates - in Montgomery County, Md.
Education leaders say that differentiation is effective when done correctly and that any capable teacher can do it. Research supports the practice, although studies show gifted children can also thrive in programs that group them by ability in separate classrooms.
Robert Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University researcher, found that achievement can rise for all students when teachers "regroup" students by ability within a classroom or in separate classrooms. Grouping students across grade levels - with children sorted by ability, regardless of age - is particularly effective. The challenge to educators, Slavin said, is to avoid "the negative aspects of ability grouping": low expectations for students in low-ability groups.
Some gifted education scholars are leery of the trend toward serving gifted children in mixed-ability classrooms. They consider the mixed-ability classroom a particularly difficult way to teach gifted children because students might span a wide range of abilities and because gifted students learn differently than other students.
"You have now made every teacher a teacher of the gifted, whether or not they're trained to do it, whether or not they have the ability," said Joyce VanTassel-Baska, executive director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "I would be remiss as an educator to not suggest it's a very challenging kind of model to deliver on."