By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
Teachers in gifted education programs should be certified to show they understand how to work with high-achieving students, a report commissioned by the state House of Representatives suggests.
Pennsylvania is one of 22 states where teachers are allowed to lead gifted education classes without being specifically trained in working with students whom federal standards describe as having “high-achievement capability” and who “need services and activities not normally provided” by the school. Gifted-education teachers are not even required to be certified in a core educational subject — English, math or science — notes the report by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.
Rose Jacobs, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Gifted Education, said gifted students are different from most other students and in some cases could be labeled as troublemakers.
She pointed to characters in the popular television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” to illustrate how students who could benefit from gifted education may be socially-awkward and idiosyncratic. The show’s characters are university researchers who are also obsessed with Star Trek and comic books.
“They learn differently,” said Jacobs, who joined the association when her now-adult son was in school.
The certification issue looms over gifted education large because in Pennsylvania the state provides “general supervision” but leaves the actual program design to local school districts. The state requires special education teachers, by comparison, to have a certificate in their specialty as well as certification in an instructional content area.
The state Department of Education has just one employee designated for gifted education who works with consultants across the state to help with training and monitoring, according to a department spokesman. With little oversight in this area, the House committee found systemic problems.
The state’s gifted education inspector visits 10 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts each year. During the last five years, the inspector has found only one district in full compliance with state regulations regarding gifted education, the House committee’s researcher found.
The most frequently identified problem involved failures by schools to notify parents when a student’s education plan was being changed, or when a requested change had been refused.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, the House report showed dissatisfaction among parents of gifted education students. Barely half of those surveyed said they are satisfied with the efforts of public schools to provide the type of demanding education their children require.
Advocates like Jacobs say that gifted students are not prioritized because of court rulings, including a 1988 opinion by the state Supreme Court. While the justices ruled that gifted students are “entitled to special programs as a group,” they are not entitled to individual accommodations beyond a school’s normal curriculum and its special education offerings. That opinion has contributed to wide variations in the types of gifted education programs offered by school districts across the commonwealth, the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report noted.
Pennsylvania spends about $110 million a year on gifted education for 62,508 students — about $1,600 per student, the committee’s report found. For comparison, the state spends $3.3 billion for 265,000 students identified as needing special education accommodations, or about $11,320 per student.
Statewide about 4.3 percent of students are considered gifted. About 16 percent of the student population receives special education services, according to a recent analysis by a Special Education Funding Commission, created by the state Legislature.
Even though funding levels and state requirements differ, the state’s approach to gifted education in some ways takes its cues from other special education programming.
Pennsylvania is one of just 11 states that use the same aggressive approach to identify and track gifted students as is used for students with other special education needs. Students are generally considered eligible for gifted programs, according to state guidelines, if they are tested as having IQs greater than 130.
Pennsylvania also requires that gifted students get individualized education plans, the legislative committee researcher found. Sample individual education plans provided by the Department of Education note how students may be provided access to textbooks used by students who are years older. The documents show how schools should calculate the grade level at which a gifted student is capable of working, then explain how a school should adjust.
“Giving a second-grader a fourth-grade math book doesn’t add much cost,” Jacobs said.
Problems have occurred when education plans are too vague to be useful, Jacobs said. In some cases, schools use “cookie-cutter” plans that repeat the same goals regardless of a students’ actual needs.
While the state does not require specific credentials to teach gifted students, there are efforts to help teachers adjust.
One such effort is a gifted education liaison network. Gifted education teachers gather four times a year for professional development and to network. Sessions are not mandatory but “they are relatively well-attended,” said Linda Lorei, assistant director of the Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit, based in Edinboro. The intermediate unit is among those across the state working with the Department of Education to train educators on best practices in gifted education.
Lorei said creating a gifted education certification would help ensure that school districts put qualified teachers in charge of their programs.
“Most districts are ardently trying to get the right person the right position, but you may not always have the best person available,” Lorei said. A certification requirement, she said, “would help put the right people in the right positions.”
Percentage of Crawford County high school students identified as gifted
Cambridge Springs: 9.02
Percentage of Crawford County high school students identified as needing special education services
Cambridge Springs: 18
Source: Department of Education (paschoolperformance.org)
John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @cnhipa.