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Gifted Education in Texas: Reflections and Aspirations

December 19, 2007

December is a time to reflect upon where we have been and maybe more importantly where we are going as we turn the corner on a new year. Perhaps it is also a good time to have similar reflective moments about the practice of gifted education. The history of gifted education is a story of rising and declining interest typically playing the role of victim or benefactor of larger educational trends.

Each November I attend the annual conferences of the National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC) and the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented (TAGT). I suspect that the workings of those two events can tell us at least a little about the current ebb and flow of gifted education. The NAGC event was a banner year with the largest number of participants (3500) in its 54 year history. There were more than 350 professional development sessions and outstanding keynote speakers. Leading scholars and researchers in the field attended and contributed to the training and development of the teachers, administrators, and parents who were present. Four CISD teachers, a principal, and two parents from the CGA attended the conference with me.

The storyline at the Texas event was much different than what NAGC experienced in Minnesota. The TAGT conference was held in Houston this year and had an attendance of approximately 2300 people. Looking back to my earlier experiences with TAGT, that seemed much lower than normal. In fact, back in the mid- 1990s, TAGT was seeing attendance of more than 4000 at its annual professional development event. A source tells me that one year, the attendance topped 6000. As Texas educators we were always proud to boast that the Texas conference drew more people than the national conference. Those were the days. However, for the last ten or more years, we have seen steady declines in annual attendance at the Texas conference for gifted education.

So now I ask, what am I to make of this storyline? First consider the national conference. Minnesota is regarded as one of the most supportive states in the nation for gifted education. In truth, more than 1000 of the attendees at the conference were from the state of Minnesota. It’s certainly possible that the location was a contributing factor to the banner year. Honestly given the fact that federal funding for gifted education has been cut in the President’s budget each year of his Washington tenure, I’m hesitant to say that the field is flourishing on a national level. In fact, I would say that the side-effects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation have indeed damaged the foundations of gifted education more than helped it in the last five to eight years. Several states have cut funding for gifted education in part or all together in efforts to spend more money on remedial and compensatory educational programs that are required under NCLB accountability laws.

What about Texas? How is gifted education fairing closer to home?  During a discussion in Houston, one of my mentors in this field made the comment that as goes gifted education in Texas, so goes TAGT.  I’ve been thinking about that for three weeks now, and like many times before, I think she’s right on target. The steady ten year decline in attendance at the TAGT conference may stand as a tangible and quantifiable measure of the emphasis or lack of it placed on the education of our gifted students around the state. I point to two significant events in state education policy and politics that indicate a decreasing interest in gifted education in Texas.

First, the elimination of the accountability system for gifted education in 2002 essentially left implementation and follow-through completely up to local district decisions. When the state maintained the District Effectiveness and Compliance (DEC) monitoring program, districts were held accountable to design and implement gifted education programs according to the rules and guidelines of the Texas State Plan for the Education of Gifted/Talented Students. With the elimination of the DEC program, gifted education in Texas was left with a set of state program standards that have now withered to a set of distant suggestions. Without the pressure of the accountability for program implementation, gifted education has consistently lost sway to more pressing needs of compensatory education which carries a big accountability stick. The DEC process was not perfect, and I’m not suggesting we bring it back; however, the observation is that without state accountability gifted education becomes a luxury item to which schools give emphasis when all other details have been adequately addressed. In many cases that is never.

Second, in 2004 the State Board of Educator Certification (SBEC) decided not to require GT teacher certification for those responsible for teaching gifted students. This decision came after the state spent five years and hundreds of thousand dollars developing a set of teacher standards and developing and field-testing a GT certification test (TExES). The decision of SBEC was essentially that  requiring teachers of gifted students to become certified would place an undue burden on school districts, and as a result the GT certification was made optional. The largest organized opposition to requiring GT certification came from the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Association of School Boards. Who would have thought that efforts to elevate gifted education would be undermined by those very people responsible for providing leadership in schools and districts across the state? I was a first hand witness to the process because at the time I was a member of the Texas Association of School Administrators. The executive director of the organization sent out emails to the membership with a form letter that could be copied and forwarded to the SBEC members explaining why the GT certification was unnecessary and would pose unreasonable challenges to districts. I did respond to the email, and shortly thereafter ceased my membership in that organization. As it stands today, educators must be certified in virtually every specialty area except gifted education. It is the only teaching field for which the state has teacher standards but doesn’t require the teachers to actually demonstrate competence. Instead, in Texas we require teachers of gifted students to complete 30 clock hours of professional development in gifted education. How does that compare to other states? Louisiana requires teachers of the gifted to have a master’s degree with a specialization in gifted education. The state of Georgia requires 400 clock hours of professional development in gifted education. In fact, a presentation given at the TAGT conference pointed out that Texas has the lowest standards in the nation for teachers of gifted students.

These two events stand out in my mind as characteristic of the state of gifted education in Texas. I think they contribute in part to why attendance at the annual gifted and talented professional development conference has steadily  declined for the last ten to twelve years. Perhaps that’s enough reflection on where we’ve been. Where do we go from here?

We live in the age of educational  accountability, yet accountability is noticeably absent from gifted education. I do not see increased accountability for gifted education on the horizon of state politics. It is not a part of the climate or even the discussion. Rather, I think accountability should come from the primary stakeholders in gifted education. The parents of the gifted students who are being left out and left alone can demand of their schools that gifted services be provided. Those services should be provided in accordance with the state standards and with the documented best practices of gifted education. It is time to frame good questions about the goals of the gifted program and how progress toward those goals is measured and improved upon. It is time to expect well-qualified and trained professionals to educate the gifted students across the school districts of our state. Why should the gifted students in Texas continue to be taught by teachers who are less prepared than those teachers in our neighboring states?

The consistent talk in contemporary education reform circles focuses on developing systems of education that reflect 21st Century Learning. There is no doubt in my mind that those conversations  are appropriate and perhaps even a few years overdue. A good question for advocates in gifted education to carry into the new year is this: How should 21st Century Learning address the educational demands of our gifted students? That question is rarely mentioned in the literature of the day. It is understandably omitted because the climate of education in Texas and perhaps beyond has relegated gifted education to the periphery, a luxury item to be added when the rest of the house is in order. Gifted education in the 21st Century will remain on the periphery unless its advocates bring it to the table as part of the conversation.

TAGT is an organization of educators and parents who come together for a  common cause to improve the quality of education provided to gifted students in our state. At times the organization is filled with educators whose districts have encouraged their continual professional development. When those times drift away into memory, the organization needs to be strengthened with the parents who continue to stand up for gifted education when the politics and policies keep pushing it aside. It is my hope that we can enter 2008 with a renewed commitment to advocacy for quality gifted education not only in Coppell, but for students across our state. Gifted education and the students it serves have the potential to nurture and support the leaders and innovators that emerge from the systems of 21st Century Learning. The history lesson remains. Gifted education will typically become the victim or the benefactor of larger educational trends. It was the victim of accountability and No Child Left Behind. Now what role can the parents and educators of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented and the Coppell Gifted Association play to ensure that gifted education becomes a benefactor rather than a victim of 21st Century Learning?

Todd Kettler is Director of Advanced Academics for Coppell ISD.

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