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November 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 3

Special Topic / For Gifted Students, Full Inclusion Is a Partial Solution

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In this age of inclusion, an appropriate educational environment for high-achieving students requires flexibility, acceleration, and variety.

Imagine that you are a good tennis player. In fact, you're so good that you have difficulty finding a partner who can consistently return your volleys.
Now imagine this: Every time you play tennis, your opponent is a beginner whose skills are far below your own. Challenge is rare, and, even if you do get to refine a few good moves, the net result is a game that doesn't let you break a sweat. Pretty soon, you wonder whether playing tennis is worthwhile at all.
School is not a tennis match, but if it were, many intellectually gifted students would find themselves returning lob after lob with little challenge to hold their attention. Inclusionary practices for gifted students and schoolwide plans to upgrade curriculum for all students (Renzulli & Reis, 1985; Winebrenner, 1992) may make the idea of gifted education more palatable to its many critics, but they have actually caused a decline in the rigor of academic options for a school's most able learners. Further, with many gifted students now being served in general education settings rather than in pull-out programs or ability-grouped classes, they have fewer opportunities to challenge one another intellectually. Just as important, today's inclusionary classrooms allow virtually no time for gifted students and their teachers to discuss growing up gifted in a world that often values brawn over brains (Delisle, 1998).
Gifted-child educators and classroom teachers have the job of planning school-based experiences that address the intellectual, emotional, and social lives of gifted students while offering teaching methods and strategies that benefit a broad array of students. We can achieve this balance—providing excellence in an atmosphere of equity—only if we include the possibility of academic options that are more segregated than integrated and more focused on the needs of some than on the needs of all. Indeed, it may entail a return to some of those program options—pull-out programs or ability-grouped classes—that we have eliminated or curtailed in the rush to appear nonelitist. This notion may not be as politically correct or popular as today's emphasis toward full inclusion, but it is based in the reality of students' lives; like it or not, some children and adolescents are more able than others. Just listen to 15-year-old Vamir: I was classified as gifted in 2nd grade. This was really driven home when I skipped two grades, going from 5th grade to 7th over winter break. I am interested in science (especially physics), mathematics (algebra), philosophy (logic), and finance (futures trading). I like to read about these topics and some science fiction and espionage, as well as the classics that I started reading in my humanities and social science classes. . . .Here are some of my concerns as a "gifted student." I hate it when adults are condescending to me simply because of my age. . . . I hate it when I have so many thoughts that I lose one (which has happened at least a dozen times while writing this). I also hate it when I cannot think of anything, and when I have a really neat thought that I can't investigate more deeply because I just don't have the educational background.I worry too much. I worry about losing my talents. I worry about becoming average. . . . I worry I will burn out or overspecialize. I worry about how successful I will be in my career and whether my colleagues will accept me (and whether they do now). (Galbraith & Delisle, 1996, pp. 20–21)
Vamir is experiencing the self-doubt that is as natural a part of adolescence as acne, but he has the ability to express his fears and hopes at a level far in advance of his agemates. In inclusionary high school classes where futures trading and logic are not everyday topics, students like Vamir can find themselves absorbed by boredom, wondering when it will be their chance to shine.
Only a rare teacher would be able to personalize Vamir's learning needs in a heterogeneous classroom. Especially with today's heavy emphasis on high-stakes assessments that stress lower-level content that students can spew back on state-ordained tests, students with Vamir's insights and abilities often find themselves languishing intellectually. Their personal reach surpasses the grasp of a curriculum built for competency instead of for accomplishment. The net result? Failure to help the gifted child reach his potential is a societal tragedy, the extent of which is difficult to measure but which is surely great. 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. (Gallagher, 1975, p. 9)
The field of gifted education can offer much to all students—creative and critical thinking, problem-solving opportunities, self-selected project work, and so on—but this does not diminish the accuracy of another truth: Gifted students can also benefit from time spent alongside their intellectual peers in settings that allow them to express their individuality with others much like themselves in ability and intensity. We must reconcile today's inclusionary practices and yesterday's emphasis on more homogeneous groupings of students if we are to meet the diverse needs of gifted students in a school setting.

A Key to the Solution

  • Our school places identified gifted students in grades 4–6 in two-teacher teams; at least one teacher is licensed as a gifted-education specialist. Within these teams, students participate in homogeneous groups for language arts, mathematics, or both, which allows both content acceleration and enrichment opportunities. Because the identified students can be gifted in math or language, specific strength areas are recognized and programmed accordingly; in other words, students can be gifted in one subject but not in another.
  • Identified gifted students in grades 7 and 8 attend a series of 16 daylong, off-campus seminars on such topics as architecture, psychology, college planning, chemistry, and the judicial system. During each seminar, the students meet with professionals from these fields. An additional component of these seminars addresses some of the emotional issues that gifted students often raise: "How do you decide a career choice when you are good in so many areas?" "What do teachers, parents, and classmates expect from you when you have been identified as gifted?" An added benefit of this daylong seminar structure is that students are not pulled from their regular classes on a weekly basis, but only for two days each quarter. Make-up work—the bane of pull-out programs, from students' perspectives—is kept to a minimum.
  • Our school invites identified gifted students, and others, to participate in community service projects involving local agencies or individuals who need, as the kids say, "help or a thank you." Often, these events tie in with curriculum. For example, 6th graders participated in "The Academy Awards of Literature and Science," for which they read dozens of books and then nominated titles, authors, book characters, and scientists for awards. The "Oscars" were presented at a fund-raising event for a local homeless shelter. Another project involved language arts classes in a letter-writing campaign to survivors of the Columbine High School shootings.
  • A licensed gifted-education teacher in a regular classroom teaches lessons on creative and critical thinking that tie in with core-subject learning objectives. Thus, the gifted teacher, along with classroom colleagues, can help design and implement lessons that require higher-level thinking and can assist in informally assessing students' interests and abilities. Several students not previously identified as gifted have been selected for testing after their classroom teachers observed their interactions with this high-level content.
  • Students whose IQ scores are in the superior range but whose classroom work is mediocre meet weekly with the gifted education specialist to determine reasons behind the low achievement and to design strategies for reversing this pattern. Although specific comments by students are kept confidential, the gifted-education specialist communicates frequently with the student's parents and teachers about any changes in behavior or classroom performance.
  • Students exceptionally able in core-subject areas, especially mathematics, participate in out-of-grade-level experiences in different schools within the district. Thus, a 3rd grade student whose mathematical abilities are exceptional attends a 7th grade math class one period a day, before returning to her elementary school.
These curricular experiences, in addition to enrichment opportunities offered to all students—field trips, guest speakers, and such academic competitions as Power of the Pen—provide the "cascade of services" envisioned in 1985 by Cox, Daniel, and Boston (1985). In their study of more than 1,100 school districts throughout the United States, these researchers discovered that of the 16 programs found to benefit gifted students (fig. 1), only four school districts offered at least 10 of these options. Indeed, nearly 45 percent of these districts offered only one or two of these alternatives, with the most popular being a pull-out resource room in the elementary grades. Calling this a "part-time solution to a full-time problem" (p. 43), Cox, Daniel, and Boston contend that gifted students need school services that address their needs every hour of the school week, not just once or twice a week. "Gifted on Tuesdays" is not adequate.

Figure 1. Programming Options for Gifted Children

  1. Enrichment in the regular classroom

  2. Part-time special class

  3. Full-time special class

  4. Independent study

  5. Itinerant teacher

  6. Mentorships

  7. Resource rooms

  8. Special schools

  9. Early entrance

  10. Continuous progress

  11. Nongraded school

  12. Moderate acceleration

  13. Radical acceleration

  14. Advanced placement

  15. Fast-paced courses

  16. Concurrent or dual enrollment

From: Cox, J., Daniel., N., & Boston, B. (1985). Educating able learners, p. 30.

Still, a resource room can be one viable option for school districts that are not willing to make the philosophical commitment to group gifted students in self-contained or ability-grouped classes. The resource room often serves as an intellectual and emotional haven for gifted students, allowing them to review issues that are not common to other classmates. For example, an activity on the positive and negative aspects of growing up gifted would be difficult to accomplish in a heterogeneous classroom; yet, in a resource room where gifted students feel comfortable enough to express their feelings toward their abilities, such an activity can lead to intense discussion about the social pangs of growing up gifted.
But a resource room is just one small piece of the puzzle. Even the popular Schoolwide Enrichment Model (Renzulli & Reis, 1985), although serving the needs of some students, is not a panacea for meeting the needs of gifted students. Unless we allow for the reality that gifted students' needs are more than academic and school-related, we often overlook an important component of their development. Yet we need only read the comments of Vamir to understand the intensities that occupy his world.

A Blueprint for the Future

In an inclusionary era that assumes that each teacher is responsible for the learning of every student, some students will still be "outliers"—kids on the edges, whose academic or emotional needs are such that full-time placement within a heterogeneous classroom does more of a disservice to them than offers a benefit. Gifted students are often these outliers when they exhibit thoughts, behaviors, and educational challenges that require more concentrated services than one teacher can deliver in one classroom.
As individual educators, we must not apologize if we cannot meet a student's needs in a heterogeneous classroom. Instead, we must realize that within the constraints of a single day, or a single career, we will face intellectual or emotional issues that would be better addressed by someone whose skills, training, and personality differ from our own. We must realize that "one size fits all," be it in shoes or in academic options, pinches everyone where it hurts and impedes the forward progress of those whose pace is different in speed or style.
If we are truly committed to personalizing learning, we must appreciate that today's panacea—full inclusion for all students with special needs—is tomorrow's bad practice. Without the willingness and the ability to admit that each student's individuality demands something unique, our schools will continue to address only partially the needs of selected students. Gifted students are no exception to this rule.

Cox, J., Daniel, N., & Boston, B. (1985). Educating able learners. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Delisle, J. (1998). Zen and the art of gifted child education. Gifted Child Today, 21(6), 38–39.

Galbraith, J., & Delisle, J. (1996). The gifted kids' survival guide: A teen handbook. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Gallagher, J. J. (1975). Teaching the gifted child. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (1985). The schoolwide enrichment model. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Winebrenner, S. (1992). Teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Dr. James R. Delisle has taught gifted children and those who work on their behalf for more than 39 years. Delisle retired from Kent State University in 2008 after 25 years of service there as a distinguished professor of special education. Throughout his career, Delisle has taken time away from college teaching to return to his "classroom roots," volunteering as a 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 8th grade teacher in 1991, 1997, and 2006. Delisle has also taught gifted middle school students one day a week between 1998–2008 in the Twinsburg, Ohio, public schools. For the past six years, Delisle has worked part time with highly gifted 9th and 10th graders at the Scholars' Academy in Conway, South Carolina.

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