Editor’s note: This is an edition of “Advance,” a newsletter from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute written by Brandon Wright, our Editorial Director, and published every other week. Its purpose is to monitor the progress of gifted education in America, including legal and legislative developments, policy and leadership changes, emerging research, grassroots efforts, and more. You can subscribe on the Fordham Institute website and the newsletter’s Substack.
Rural schools, which educate one out of every five children in America, have long been an afterthought in education policy, and gifted education is no different. Popular initiatives like separate classrooms or schools for advanced learners, expanded Advanced Placement offerings, or the use of local (school-level) norms when identifying children for these services don’t work as well—or at all—in less populated districts. The issue is further confounded when all rural schools are lumped into one category despite vast differences in size and how remote they are. This means that these students are less likely to get the education they deserve, which has social and economic consequences that reverberate through their communities, their states, and ultimately the country.
To learn more about this problem, its costs, and ways we can help fix it, I spoke with Paula McGuire, who works as a Gifted Education Regional Consultant in Northeast Colorado, serving multiple districts in the area, all of them rural. Paula is also an adjunct professor for the University of Northern Colorado in the Master of Arts program for gifted education. She grew up as an advanced learner in rural schools, experiencing first-hand the challenges these children and their families face, as well as some effective solutions.
What drew you to work in gifted education, and particularly gifted education in rural areas?
I grew up in a rural area in Colorado and was fortunate enough to be in a school system that recognized my own need for something different, as I was working beyond my peers. At the time, there were no laws in Colorado defining or mandating gifted education. My school simply addressed the need they saw through pull-out and resource-room programming, allowing me to work above grade level in reading and pursuing areas of interest to me.
After I finished my undergraduate degree in education, I married a Navy man and lived in different places for a few years before returning to Colorado. My husband and I had both grown up in rural schools and wanted to raise our children in a similar environment. As our older children progressed in their elementary education, I realized that gifted education had changed significantly, assumptions were different, and opportunities that I had as a student were not readily offered. This prompted me to return for a master’s degree in gifted education and pursue a job as a regional gifted education consultant in Colorado, where I can serve multiple rural school districts.
Over the last several years, I have worked with some incredible gifted students, and I have attempted to creatively find ways to provide relevant opportunities in our rural settings. I have also seen the dramatic resource and opportunity differences that come with proximity to urban areas. Many are not based on affluence or income, but the number of miles an outreach program is willing to travel. I want more for these students, and yet I want them to have the chance to give back to their communities, as well. There is a strong need for professionals of all kinds in our rural communities, from judges to doctors, economic development managers to robotics in agriculture. If I can, my desire is to connect these bright young people to future careers that allow them to live in an area they love.
You’ve said that one of the challenges of rural education is what it means for a community to be rural. Can you expound on that?
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) actually defines twelve different locale codes for schools and districts in the United States. These codes help to break down some differences in what “rural” can actually mean, as there are three different codes for rural: one for fringe, one for distant, and one for remote rural locations. All three of these are usually collapsed into one bucket of “rural,” yet a fringe rural school is defined as less than or equal to five miles from an urbanized area, while a remote rural school is more than twenty-five miles from an urbanized area. Most education research groups all rural locales together, but opportunities and access are vastly different. A simple way for most adults to process this is to ask themselves: Is the closest Wal-Mart or Target a fifteen-minute or less drive from you? Or is it at least forty-five minutes away? The existence of department stores like these indicates other types of businesses, including museums, community foundations, coffee shops, recreation centers, and larger libraries.
It can become difficult to have conversations about what “rural education” means if we do not first take the time to define what is meant by “rural.” There is a great research article by Michael Their, Paul Beach, Charles R. Martinez, Jr., and Keith Hollenbeck that discusses how disaggregating data for rural and remote can change the answer to research questions.
Most readers know or can imagine how gifted education is handled in suburban and urban school districts, with these students often grouped in special classrooms for at least some of their instruction, and even special schools. But the smaller population size of rural communities can obviously throw a wrench into much of that. How then is gifted education usually done in these school systems?
It’s difficult to answer a “usually done” for this question without referring back to the last question on how very differently rural schools may operate depending on proximity and access to resources. However, I can answer for the schools I have served for several years to give a picture of what “remote rural” (by NCES classification) have been doing to provide for gifted students.
Frequently, a student who is identified as gifted may be one of only two to five students in their grade level with this identification. That means other high-ability students, when available, are grouped with these students when possible for programming to make opportunities most cost-effective. This practice makes for good talent-pool programming when it happens
In elementary and middle school, enrichment opportunities tend to be one-day programs once or twice per semester. We offer regional programming in this manner, which gives gifted students from several rural schools a chance to come together for a day of learning at a central location. Not only does this help meet academic interests, but these students come to know each other and gain from their affective needs being met by simply learning alongside like-minded peers. Otherwise, any gifted programming a younger student receives is reliant on the classroom teacher for differentiation of content, process, or product. This type of reliance means true programming is inconsistent and there is little accountability.
In junior high and high school, there is somewhat more flexibility and access between online course options and dual-enrollment opportunities for our gifted students to have something different daily. In addition, our regional student programming is still offered as a few one-day events throughout the year to help these students look at careers in rural areas. We also add in a three-day event for these students at the end of each school year with a specific focus and capitalize on different locations in our beautiful state for lodging and programming.
From the outside, it would seem that acceleration, especially single-subject acceleration, would be an ideal solution in these small schools. The costs are low and teachers across grade levels are often housed in the same building. In some cases, students may be allowed to move forward into the next grade level classroom for a specific subject.
However, it’s also possible that the next year, the move-ahead option won’t be available because the schedule is so restricted and there is only one time for each subject to be addressed per grade level. For example, one teacher at the secondary level in remote rural schools will frequently cover all math from seventh through twelfth grade. But that means one class period per grade level. So if a seventh grader needs eighth grade math, and it is offered when other seventh graders have their science class (which is also only offered once a day), the scheduling can become very difficult. In a fringe rural school district, there may be more than one science teacher and perhaps more than one offering of eighth grade math, making this problem not as bad in terms of logistics.
You’ve pointed out to me, rightly, that rural gifted education is infrequently acknowledged in national conversations, research, and debates in the field. But these communities make up about a fifth of all U.S. K–12 students. Why do you think there’s this neglect?
To begin with, we don’t know who we’re missing because we are not including rural as a category within reporting for gifted students. Unfortunately, reliable statistics for identification of rural gifted students either don’t exist or aren’t reported. I work with a collaborative group of individuals who all serve gifted students within rural and small rural school districts in Colorado. Our own counts and reporting show that rural Colorado is identifying giftedness at approximately 4.1 percent, but the state as a whole is closer to 7.2 percent. That’s an underrepresentation of over 56 percent, which should concern us all. So part of the neglect comes from lack of attention to reporting.
The complexity and nuance of rural communities is fascinating. I serve thirteen different school districts, spread across about 7,000 square miles, and each one is unique in character, economic activity, resources, and even agricultural market. If you consider these few districts as a sample of the whole of rural America, then part of the neglect is due to lack of similarity between communities. One solution may work for some but probably not for others.
Another part of the problem also stems from the fact that universities, who perform much of the research in social science, including education, are usually located in urban and suburban areas. When designing research studies, the ability to find, recruit, and follow a sample is important. If there isn’t easy access to rural schools and the gifted students within them for important research that highlights specific needs, we’ll see less research and, thus, less conversation. This isn’t to say that we haven’t had some great advocates at the university level for rural gifted education, including Dr. Tamra Stambaugh from Vanderbilt University, Carolyn Callahan from the University of Virginia, and Todd Kettler from Baylor University.
A final complicating factor is simply lack of a combined voice for advocacy from within the field of rural gifted educators. Maybe these educators are too busy trying to serve the students they do have, or maybe they live too far from an urbanized area where there are more opportunities to attend legislative luncheons, Saturday events, or summer professional development programs where they can speak up for their rural gifted students. It’s hard to say. It is simply easier to drive thirty minutes to attend an event voluntarily where advocacy needs to happen than it is to drive four hours. Geography and wide-open spaces, among the biggest pulls for individuals to live in a rural area, create some of the most difficult obstacles to overcome.
What are the biggest consequences of the neglect?
The idea of “rural brain drain” is real and concerning. When rural America’s brightest students think they must leave their home to find a job or pursue a career that fits their interests, intellect, and passions, then we’ve promoted an exit-only strategy. And we haven’t spent the time or invested the energy to show how much our rural communities need professionals of every type.
Perhaps even more concerning is that we aren’t identifying gifted rural students at nearly the rate we identify their urban counterparts. If we don’t identify these students to begin with, we cannot even begin the effort of programming differently for them. And as James Gallagher, one of the giants of gifted education, said so eloquently, “How can we measure the sonata unwritten, the curative drug undiscovered, the absence of political insight? They are the difference between what we are and what we could be as a society.”
Rural communities are vital to our national economy, character, and growth. The biggest consequence of the neglect of rural gifted students is to limit or deny these communities one of their most needed resources—the children who will contribute to “better.”
So what are the solutions? What changes would you like to see happen in gifted education so that bright students in these communities are better identified and served?
Let’s start by adding rural gifted students to the national conversation. Every state in our nation has these students, and every state has the capability to count and track them in terms of representation. If we are to have conversations about equity, then rural students should be represented.
Additionally, we need programs and business incentives that push partnership with gifted education in rural areas, specifically distant and remote rural areas. Research from Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell shows us, for example, that students who choose a STEM career have higher “doses” of STEM education and experiences in public schooling. How can we get these programs out to rural areas? Incentivizing businesses and outreach programs with state or federal tax incentives or media publicity in both the rural area served and urban community of the business is a start. Partnering grants and outreach programs with local libraries in remote communities is another option to move important resources and education to these rural gifted students.
Finally, we need to prioritize local, state, and federal legislation that hires, trains, and retains a gifted education specialist in every school district in America. Even the smallest rural schools have special education teachers, full-time, but it is rare to find a rural school district (whether fringe, distant, or remote in classification) with even a 0.25 full-time equivalency gifted education specialist. Instead, this work relies on full-time teachers, counselors, and principals to provide identification and programming services on a stipend basis.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“High-achieving students suffer from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and delinquent behavior at a rate that is two to three times higher than the national average.”
—“Emotional well-being and the high achiever,” Psychology Today, Karyn Hall, Ph.D., September 9, 2022
THREE RECENT STUDIES TO STUDY
“Consequences of Implementing Curricular-Aligned Strategies for Identifying Rural Gifted Students,” by Carolyn M. Callahan, Amy Azano, Sunhee Park, Annalissa V. Brodersen, Melanie Caughey, and Svetlana Dmitrieva, Gifted Child Quarterly, Volume 66, Issue 4, 2022
“Analysis of assessment data from an initial pool of second-grade students (n = 4549) in low-income rural communities and a subgroup of students identified from that pool for gifted services (n = 524) provided evidence for the validity of a curricular-aligned process including universal screening and local norms for identifying rural students in high-poverty schools as gifted... [The analysis] confirmed the hypothesis that talent in rural students from low-income areas may manifest in ways that are not captured by more generic identification processes... [and that] students identified through the project’s alternative approach scored higher on a measure of verbal aptitude and scored as well on postintervention assessments as students identified using the district-identification process.”
“Teacher Perceptions as an Entry Point for Talent Spotting and Development,” by Julie D. Swanson, Laura Brock, Meta Van Sickle, C. Anne Gutshall, and Timothy W. Curby, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, Volume 45, Issue 3, September 2022
“Researchers investigated the impact of a professional learning intervention focused on teaching teachers to increase rigor, challenge, and engagement to reveal talent in low-income learners... Results indicated that teacher beliefs were positively impacted after one year and that those impacts leveled off over time. Specifically, teachers’ perceptions of student potential and the importance of talent development improved. Engagement in professional learning predicted positive change in classroom support, organization, and instruction. Finally, the professional learning intervention positively impacted teacher efficacy related to engaging, instructing, and managing learners.”
“A Systematic Review of the Research on Gifted Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorder,” by Nicholas W. Gelbar, Alexandra A. Cascio, Joseph W. Madaus, and Sally M. Reis, Gifted Child Quarterly, Volume 66, Issue 4, 2022
“A total of 32 articles were included using the study’s inclusion criteria, and of these 32 articles, 62.5% presented data, whereas the remaining 37.5% were review or conceptual articles. This review of articles published between 1996 and 2019 suggests little research is being conducted on this population. Some of the research conducted recently involve case studies, others are correlational in nature, and most are descriptive, focusing on participants’ characteristics and how they were identified. A wide range of definitions were utilized in the literature, and to date, no empirical research has been published about this population. Implications from the current research base and suggestions for future research are included.”
WRITING WORTH READING
“Mayor and chancellor, please keep merit-based admissions,” New York Daily News, Yiatin Chu, September 10, 2022
“What’s in a name? Rethinking “gifted” to promote equity and excellence,” Gifted Children International, Melanie S. Meyer and Jonathan A. Plucker, Volume 38, Issue 3, September 2022
“Emotional well-being and the high achiever,” Psychology Today, Karyn Hall, Ph.D., September 9, 2022
“National Working Group on Advanced Education: Summary of second meeting,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, September 6, 2022
“The First A.P. African American Studies Class Is Coming This Fall,” New York Times, Anemona Hartocollis, August 31, 2022
“Low scorers were declining and higher scorers improving, even before the pandemic, federal test data show,” Education Next, Ebony Walton and Laura LoGerfo, August 31, 2022
“Illinois schools launched initiatives to close Advanced Placement class racial gaps. Did they work?” Illinois Newsroom, Peter Medlin, August 24, 2022