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 who 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 required to be certified in a core educational subject, 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 sit-com “The Big Bang Theory” to illustrate how students who could benefit from gifted education may be socially-awkward and idiosyncratic.
“They learn differently,” said Jacobs.
The certification issue looms large over gifted education because Pennsylvania 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 past 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, 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 such as 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. By 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. Students are generally considered eligible for gifted programs, according to state guidelines, if they are tested as having IQs greater than 130.
Pennsylvania 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.
How they rank
Percentage of high school students identified as gifted:
Blacklick Valley 1.36
Cambria Heights 4.15
Central Cambria 7.25
Conemaugh Valley 0.24
Forest Hills 3.36
Greater Johnstown 3.06
Northern Cambria 1.06
Penn Cambria 2.85
Westmont Hilltop 2.9
Berlin Brothersvalley 2.61
Conemaugh Township 2.72
North Star 2.75
Salisbury-Elk Lick 2.24
Turkeyfoot Valley 6.28
(Source: Department of Education school performance reports available at: paschoolperformance.org)