Point of view

Help for the best students

June 4, 2011 

As the traditional-calendar school year wraps up in North Carolina, education policy is heating up in Washington.

Nearly 10 years after Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind law, legislators are set to begin the long-overdue process of writing the next version of this statute. North Carolina is unusual in that both of its U.S. senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan, sit on the committee that will be leading this work, meaning they will have outsized influence in determining how this most important legislation will be shaped.

While most of the attention will be aimed at the contentious accountability and student progress components of No Child Left Behind, lawmakers must also focus on countless other provisions that, when enacted, will affect children for the next decade.

One critical yet often overlooked area in urgent need of attention is the neglect of our high-ability students, particularly those living in high-poverty areas and whose gifts too often go unidentified and unsupported to the point where they dull beyond recognition.

As a nation, the United States has long neglected its high-ability students, a neglect that is increasingly more evident in a host of areas. For example, while students from China topped the charts on the most recent international math, science and reading tests, U.S. students landed in the middle to bottom tiers.

The neglect manifests itself beyond test scores, particularly in the declining number of students pursuing studies and careers in math and science-oriented fields with an increasing number of technological breakthroughs occurring beyond our borders. In short, despite rhetoric from President Barack Obama, the U.S. is quickly being out-innovated by others.

No Child Left Behind did not create this climate of neglect, but it has helped perpetuate it by focusing federal resources nearly exclusively on proficiency. Helping struggling students improve to the level of proficiency must be a priority, but stopping at proficiency is an absurdity.

High-ability students in North Carolina are fortunate to live in one of only a few states that strongly support gifted students, prioritize excellence through law and policies and provide resources to help school districts serve this special population. But despite this legacy, room for improvement remains.

North Carolina continues to be challenged with recognizing and cultivating high-ability students from backgrounds that are historically overlooked in gifted education and who often live in high-poverty areas. Specifically, we need to enact legislation to ensure all high-ability students have access to advanced educational opportunities regardless of where they live so potential is realized.

The state needs to continue to look at programming, identification practices and teacher training needs. These three pillars of excellence are required to provide effective gifted education, and it is critical that all three function optimally.

The time has come to reverse this neglect both here at home and throughout the nation. Some in Congress have introduced bipartisan legislation that would expand the focus on No Child Left Behind to include advanced students and those with high potential. Known as the TALENT Act, the legislation will require that states report on the learning progress made by high-ability students, just as they now report on progress made by students at the lower end of the performance spectrum.

TALENT will require states and school districts to explain how they will address high-ability students within their annual plans for federal education funds, sending a clear message that this population can no longer be ignored. The legislation also recognizes student success is impossible without well-trained educators. It enhances an existing federal research initiative to sharpen its focus on strategies and resources for identifying and serving high-ability students and prioritizes timely dissemination of these strategies to get them into the hands of educators.

As the Senate moves forward in rewriting the nation's education laws, we strongly urge Burr and Hagan to support the TALENT provisions within this legislation. We all know that talent is truly blind to one's race, ZIP code and socioeconomic status. It's time for education policy to reflect the truth.

Wesley Guthrie is executive director of the N.C. Association for the Gifted and Talented. Nancy Green is executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children.

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