We should all know by now that the “differentiation in the regular classroom” model doesn’t work in practice. The Baltimore County Schools’ move (back) to this approach may be well-intentioned, but as Fordham’s Brandon Wright has written, “the real victims are gifted, disadvantaged youngsters…who depend most heavily on the public education system to do right by them.”
While Fordham and others have helped define the problem, I want to offer a practitioner’s solution that has worked in Baltimore classrooms and will work in your school system as well. It’s called the Catalyst Gifted and Talented Education Resource Teacher program, and it places highly trained and motivated gifted specialists in Title I elementary schools with the specific mission of discovering and developing talent. I’ve witnessed its impact in identifying talented low-income and minority students, including them in advanced curricula, educating Title I school teachers and parents about giftedness, and even raising school test scores.
When I became the county’s gifted and talented education program coordinator, the superintendent asked me to produce a research-based elementary program and curriculum that could be offered in every school in the county. We developed a handbook of prescribed but inclusive identification procedures, as well as accelerated and enriched curriculum units in four core areas.
But I ran into a persistent problem. Some of our Title I elementary schools still reported zero students identified for gifted education. More than once, I heard educators say, “We just don’t have any gifted and talented kids in this school.” That’s how I learned a critical lesson: In populations where children have had fewer opportunities to showcase their abilities, talent spotting requires a unique approach. It needs a catalyst.
The Catalyst Gifted and Talented Education Resource Teacher program began as a partnership between the gifted and talented education office and the Title I office. We placed a specially trained half-time gifted teacher in each Title I school (some principals “bought” full-time teachers using local funds). The Catalyst teachers were tasked with building gifted programs in their schools using the same high standards and expectations we take for granted when working with more affluent kids. At the same time, they provided the expertise and support needed to spark student success, ensuring both equity and excellence.
As is often the case with successful initiatives, Catalyst’s fidelity of implementation eventually waned with changes in leadership and priorities. With site-based control came the dilution of the Catalyst teacher’s role to focus on intervention rather than enrichment. The program ran its course and was dissolved. Yet there are former “Catalysts” still working in Baltimore County who can tell stories of transformation that will bring you to your feet in applause.
To local boards of education: Don’t dismantle the gifted and talented education program. Revitalize it. Your program can achieve its dual goals of excellence and equity. And now is the time to reach for them! The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes new specifications for Title I funding that affirm its use for gifted and talented children. Don’t write this population out of policy. Instead, implement models—like the Catalyst Gifted and Talented Education Resource Teacher program—that have proven track records.
Jeanne Paynter is the former Baltimore County coordinator for gifted and talented education and Maryland state specialist for gifted and talented education. She is now the executive director of Talent Program Solutions and a professor of curriculum and instruction at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. She can be reached at [email protected] and www.talentprogramsolutions.org