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/ Home / Library / Articles on Education / Special Education / Blending Gifted Education and School Reform
Blending Gifted Education and School Reform
Author: Gail E. Hanninen
School reform initiatives have resulted in many changes
in American education during the past decade. The
complexity of the process has presented numerous
challenges for every educator. Juxtaposed against the
reform climate are several other changes that have
affected American classrooms: changing demographics,
increasing diversity of student populations, and
limited fiscal resources. It is within this broad
context that the needs of our most capable youth must be
challenged. This digest provides a process for assuring
that the unique needs of students who are gifted are
addressed within the context of systemic reform.
Several key elements guide the process: creating belief
statements, clarifying the issues, and designing
strategies for implementation.
Creating Belief Statements
Belief statements define systemic parameters as
reflected in a district's vision statement and expected
outcomes. For example, what is believed about students
who are gifted is based on what is believed about all
learners. Creating belief statements about all
learners is guided by the following questions:
- What do we believe (about all learners)?
- What do we know?
- What do we want?
- What do we do?
Processing these questions generates a set of district
or school level belief statements, vision statements,
and expected outcomes that will affect the entire
community. Discussion should include educators and
parents of students who are gifted and talented as well as other representatives from
various special interests
groups. By working individually, in small groups or as a whole, each person generates
belief statements. The
general discussion provides an opportunity to examine
beliefs individuals hold about students who are gifted
and talented. Through a process of narrowing down the
statements, each small group lists five most strongly
held statements. Later, when groups combine their
statements, a list of 10 to 15 strongly held belief
statements provides an organizational profile. A
second list of belief statements may also be generated
around the question, "What do you believe about programs
for students who are gifted/talented?"
Clarifying the Issues
To understand elements of systemic change, each
educator needs to clarify the issues. Again, a key
question guides the process: "As you reflect upon what
you know about education reform, the best practices in
education, and your experience with students who are
gifted/talented, what are the critical issues that come
to your mind?" Identifying the five most important
critical issues helps narrow the topics of concern and
Developing a successful relationship between education reform efforts and gifted
education is linked to five key strategies:
- Analyze the language.
- List key decision makers, stakeholders, and risk takers.
Infuse gifted/talented into several school policies.
Visualize the desired direction.
- Enact equitable access to resources.
The acronym "ALIVE" means that each strategy incorporates valuable information
gleaned in one of the other strategies and does not function in isolation.
the language" refers to interpreting what is
really being said. For example, the concept of
inclusionary programs sounds very altruistic, but
might mean "inclusion of special education students
only" in the regular school setting. In this example,
students such as those being served by Chapter 1
programs, gifted programs, or English as a Second
Language (ESL) programs may continue to be excluded from
inclusive schools because the terminology has multiple
Language in vision statements, district policies, and
expected outcomes can also be used to benefit students
who are gifted. The following statement of purpose uses
several helpful words and phrases: "The purpose of the
British Columbia school system is to enable learners to
develop their individual potential and to acquire the
knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to contribute
to a healthy society and a prosperous and sustainable
economy" (Ministry of Education, 1991). Words like
"individual," "each," and "potential" are inviting.
Collective words such as "all," "they" and "everyone"
can be misleading. Finding terms that are links to
systemic parameters is crucial to embedding special
services in policy, linking a school system with the
community, and developing a shared vision.
- "List key decision makers, stakeholders, and risk
takers" means identifying individuals and groups who
are strategic influencers. The people most affected by
school system changes need to be included in discussions
from the beginning. The number of persons needs to be
manageable. The group should represent a broad range of
constituencies, including students, parents,
teachers, administrators, and members of the
community. When choosing community members, keep in
mind that key individuals who have credibility with and
the respect of their colleagues will influence support
- "Infuse gifted/talented into several school policies"
implies that well-written local district policies
provide a basis for developing quality program services
for all students, including those who are gifted.
Although services for students who are gifted need to be
defined in a specific program policy, they should also be interspersed throughout
broader policy statements on
curriculum, instruction, counseling, special
populations, parent involvement, and staff
The following excerpt from a local district policy
statement reflects that community's beliefs and
priority for programming: "Challenge their multiple
intelligences and engage students with diverse
linguistic and cultural backgrounds." This example
depicts a connectedness to the whole district and
supports the district's need to address "multiple
intelligences" and "diverse linguistic and cultural
backgrounds" of all students. Thus, infusing services
that meet the needs of students who are gifted/talented
into local policy statements can work two ways.
- "Visualize the desired direction" means that within the
context of the total school system, design a clearly
stated and concise framework for delivering services to
students who are gifted. Such a design should challenge
the future and illustrate not only a relationship of such services to the total system, but
accountability for a continuum of services from
kindergarten through 12th grade.
- "Enact equitable access to resources" means using the
first four strategies to build equitable access to
resources in a defensible manner. The notion that the
"squeaky wheel gets the grease" is often true because
special interest groups have gained an audience and
power. Comprehensive quality services to students are
not developed by squeaky wheels, but instead are the
result of well planned efforts reflecting the beliefs
and commitments of several constituencies. Equitable
access to resources also implies that resources are
based on the needs of students and not solely on the needs of teachers or
By using these five key strategies, a healthy
relationship with the different education reform
efforts becomes possible. Each education reform
strategy can be accepted by educators of the gifted as an opportunity rather than a
A Gifted Leadership Conference in the state of
Washington demonstrated one way that using this process
can generate strategies for blending gifted education
and school reform. Participants identified eight
education reform efforts affecting services to highly
capable students. The resulting product, created by the
41 participants, was entitled: "The Reform Movement:
Where Do Gifted Students Fit?" (Fascilla, Hanninen, &
Spritzer,, 1991). The following reform strategies,
excerpted from the original publication, illustrate
how bridges in thinking can be built between education
reform and gifted education.
Grouping: Strategies for Success with Gifted Students
guidelines to use when considering grouping options (Rogers, 1991):
Students who are academically or intellectually gifted and talented should spend
the majority of their school day with others of similar abilities and interests.
Cluster grouping of students within an otherwise heterogeneously grouped
classroom can be considered when schools cannot support a full-time gifted
- In the absence of full-time gifted program enrollment, students might be
offered specific group instruction across grade levels, according to their individual
knowledge acquisition in school subjects.
- Gifted students should be given experiences involving a variety of
appropriate acceleration-based options, which may be offered to gifted students
as a group or on an individual basis.
- Students should be given experiences which involve various forms of
enrichment that extend the regular school curriculum, leading to the more
complete development of concepts, principles, and generalizations.
Mixed-ability cooperative learning groups should be used sparingly, perhaps only
for social skills development programs.
Outcomes-Based Education: Strategies for Success with Gifted
- Maintain programs for gifted until acceptable options are available, that is,
acceleration, self-contained classes, or advanced classes.
- Educate all staff so
that they are able to identify and provide appropriate curriculum for gifted
- Pretest before initial instruction, and provide gifted students credit for prior
- Provide an enriched curriculum for all students and acceleration and/or
in-depth study for gifted students.
- Ensure opportunities for flexibility in scheduling so that students can be
appropriately grouped and regrouped.
- Provide gifted students the opportunity to work with their academic or
- Match new learning experiences that capitalize on the students' strengths
and interests to the expected student outcomes, and provide appropriate
- Match the curriculum to the student's learning rate.
- Eliminate the ceiling
on learning (i.e., if a student is ready to learn algebra in 5th grade, the system
must not only permit it, it should support it).
- Extend the depth and breadth of the lessons.
Within each education reform strategy, ideas were
presented that respect the integrity of the research and
assure appropriate learning opportunities for
students who are gifted.
All students in our schools, including those who are
gifted, deserve the best education we are capable of
providing. On the one hand, education reform efforts
reflect those approaches deemed necessary to
accomplish that goal. On the other hand, gifted
education has frequently been perceived as being the
best in education provided only for "the best." If the aim of education reform is that all
experience "gifted teaching," then the expertise and
support of educators of the gifted should be a part of
those efforts. Concurrently, all educators need to
acknowledge that "gifted teaching" does not
necessarily mean effectively "teaching the gifted."
Knowing the difference depends upon understanding the
nature of a student's gifts and talents. It also means
placing greater value on each student's strengths.
The keys to successful education reform for students who
are gifted results in educators and parents who can
- Evaluate the effectiveness of the education reform strategies used in their
- Review the quality and clarify the relationship of educational services for
students who are gifted.
- Understand the complexity of the "big picture" as different education
reform strategies are institutionalized in schools and beliefs about services for
students who are gifted are incorporated.
Education reform is an opportunity for professionals in
gifted education to recognize what works, what does not
work, where "hitchhiking" on the ideas of others is wise, and to understand the changes
that are needed to assure
excellence in learning and character development. An
inevitable outcome will be better schools for all
Fascilla, P., Hanninen, G. E., & Spritzer, D. (Eds.). (1991). The reform movement:
Where do gifted students fit? Olympia, WA: Gifted Leadership Conference, c/o OSPI.
Ministry of Education (1991). Supporting learning: Understanding and assessing the
progress of children in the primary program. Province of British Columbia.
K. (1991). The relationship of grouping practices to the education of the gifted and
talented learner: An executive summary. Storrs, CT: The National Research Center
on the Gifted and Talented.