four pencils with red gift bows on them

There’s a less visible and more insidious kind of brain drain facing the state. Are we failing to nurture our brightest kids?

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

Morgantown elementary-level gifted teacher Patricia Wells remembers taking classes with the kid who was named valedictorian of her high school class. He never had to study. “But when he went to college, he didn’t even make it through the first quarter—he failed,” Wells recalls. “People far less intelligent than he was graduated. I realized he had never been challenged, had never learned how to study, how to learn.”

Stretched to develop their talents, our brightest students truly do become the nation’s top scientists, entrepreneurs, writers, and professors, according to a decades-long study of the life and career progress of people identified in childhood as exceptionally bright. “They’re a national resource,” Vanderbilt University psychologist and study co-director David Lubinski told The Boston Globe recently. “These are the people who are going to figure out all the riddles. Schizophrenia, cancer—they’re going to fight terrorism, they’re going to create patents and the scientific innovations that drive our economy.”

Unchallenged, those same students can become a drain on society. “If you look at the literature, what happens is they may become bored and have increased behavioral issues,” says Stephanie Oberly, coordinator of psychological services at Monongalia County Schools.

How well are we nurturing our brightest kids in West Virginia? Given a lack of data, it’s hard to tell, but some of the numbers seem to say we could do better. Wells—whose experience with the valedictorian was in another state, not West Virginia, and who now serves as president of the West Virginia Association for the Gifted and Talented (WVAGT)—believes some West Virginia students with high potential may be going unidentified. She’s not alone in that belief.

Education is always a touchy subject, so we’ll offer a positive observation up front: All of the gifted teachers and administrators we spoke with for this story are dedicated and enthusiastic, even while meeting tough demands and working with less resources than they need. And more than one student we spoke with told us they believe the gifted classes they took in West Virginia probably changed the course of their life.

A Little Background

People can be gifted in many ways: arts, language, athletics, leadership, math—the list goes on. Public schools in West Virginia offer extracurricular programs that nurture the range of various talents. And for the academically gifted, they offer gifted classes for grades 1 through 8. Testing centers on IQ, with a few other requirements and some flexibility for cultural and other differences. To oversimplify a little, the IQ threshold is 125. Students have to be referred for testing by teachers, parents, or themselves—meaning they have to be noticed.

Students who test into their counties’ gifted programs receive on the order of an hour up to a few hours a week, in elementary school, of enhanced programming: projects that integrate material from several subject areas, such as literature, science, and art or history, math, and public speaking; team-based problem solving; and participation in county- and statewide academic competitions. Students are typically encouraged to incorporate material from outside class—creative thinking is the rule. This programming is often offered in a separate room from the regular classroom but sometimes by bussing to another school. In middle school, a gifted class is often an elective class and may include field trips to distant destinations.

By the Numbers

The heyday of gifted education in West Virginia, numbers-wise, was the late 1980s, when the number of students identified statewide as gifted peaked around 11,500, based on current and past reports from the West Virginia Department of Education. That was 3.3 percent of public school enrollment, and only two counties had identified less than 1 percent of their students as gifted.

But the number fell after that. By the year 2000 it was down by half, at 5,800, and it dipped to a low of about 4,800 in 2009 before bouncing back up a little in recent years. For 2013–14 it’s climbed to over 5,300—still only 1.9 percent of pre-K–12 students today, a far lower share than in 1988. Administration of gifted programming across the state is pretty decentralized, so the state Department of Education has no information about what’s behind the decline. “Either teachers aren’t referring students or the students aren’t succeeding at the tests,” Vickie Mohnacky, coordinator of gifted programs in the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Special Education, said in 2009.

Of more concern, perhaps, is that the numbers vary widely among counties. Only six counties today have identified more than 3 percent of their students as gifted: Harrison, Marshall, Mineral, Monongalia, Pendleton, and Wood, with Monongalia the highest at 6.5 percent and Pendleton second at 5.3. In 21 counties, less than 1 percent of students are identified as gifted. The highest counties are trending up; in most counties the levels are stagnant.

What affects those numbers? Rather than so much geographic variation in student ability, professionals think much of the difference is likelier due to lack of awareness on the part of classroom teachers—that is, students not being noticed and referred for testing. “There’s definitely underidentification,” says Jill Olthouse, assistant professor in West Virginia University’s Department of Special Education. “Since West Virginia relies on nominations for gifted programming, in areas where the gifted program isn’t looked on favorably or there’s not a history with the program, there aren’t a lot of nominations.” When gifted programming is promoted, the numbers tend to grow, Wells says. “And the less it’s offered the less people realize it’s an option—the parents or the teachers. It’s just not really on people’s radar when it’s not part of the everyday fabric of the school.”

Giftedness can be hard to recognize, too, Wells says—it’s not always the kids who get their work done quickly; they might also have learning disabilities or hearing impairments. “I know my understanding continues to evolve year after year,” she says. “It can look like a behavior problem or this, that, or the other thing—giftedness can be the last thing people look at. So many times parents and teachers are like, ‘I just never even saw giftedness in that child.’ It takes training and raising of awareness for teachers and parents and administrators to understand.”

Attitudes toward gifted education can influence the numbers. Some teachers may make choices about referrals based on their view of the gifted program as a reward for working hard in the regular classroom. “Many teachers think that,” Wells says. “We still dispel these myths.” Some students may avoid it if they expect it to mean extra class work or if they feel there’s a stigma attached to being singled out.

And the location where services are offered can make a big difference in participation, too. “A few years ago I taught at Easton Elementary (since merged into Eastwood Elementary, in Monongalia County) on Fridays,” Wells says. “Gifted students there had previously been bussed to Cheat Lake Elementary, and some kids didn’t handle that transition to a larger school well so not many kids participated. After I was going to Easton for just a couple months, students who had been identified but didn’t want to go to Cheat Lake asked to be written back into the program, and more referrals came in. We probably went from seven to
15 students, just from my being on-site.”

Program Evaluation

County-by-county numbers of students are the best data we have on gifted programs. Mohnacky also knows there are about 150 people teaching gifted students across the state.

But there’s a lot one might like to know about gifted education that isn’t compiled and doesn’t appear in any report. How many of those 150 teachers are certified in gifted education? What are the budgets of the gifted programs? How much do county supervisor or administrator inclinations influence the fortunes of county gifted education programs? Do students in the programs feel challenged? How many students opt out, and why? What do gifted students go on to do when the program ends in 8th grade—in high school and beyond? And maybe most importantly and most unknowably, how many students should be but are not identified as gifted and go unchallenged—deprived of the opportunity to meet their potential, or eventually taken out of state by parents who have the means and are frustrated?

While we have a standardized test for evaluating the effectiveness of regular classroom programming—the WESTEST 2, which measures student mastery of grade-level material and is used by all schools across the state—evaluating the effectiveness of gifted programming is widely recognized to be more complex and expensive. “What measure would we use?” Mohnacky asks. “I don’t know of any teachers who would feel that their program is meant to only improve scores on the WESTEST.” Olthouse agrees with Mohnacky that student performance on grade-level tests is not a good way to evaluate the effectiveness of gifted education. “There are actually a whole bunch of things we could look at,” she says. “Not just academics but whether social and emotional needs are met,” she says, along with the numbers of students who are identified, whether other teachers and professionals in the system have training in the needs of gifted students, and other indicators. “There are people who specialize in gifted program evaluation because there’s not a single test. Right now we’re having so much trouble just making sure there are programs and funding them—but I think program evaluation would be a great goal for the state.”

As one measure of the success of gifted programming, Mohnacky is promoting a “Learning Skills / Behavior Rubric” that teachers would use to evaluate each gifted student at the beginning and end of each school year. The instrument evaluates a student’s level in each of 20 elements. Evaluation of “applying past knowledge to new situations,” for example, ranges from “considers each event to be separate with no connections to what came before or comes afterward” to “abstracts meaning from an experience, applies it to a new situation and explains how it relates to previous experiences.” “Taking responsible risks” ranges from “misses opportunities to learn” to “views setbacks not as failure but as challenges with opportunities to grow.” The levels demonstrate progress toward a mature intellect. “This would measure growth in thinking skills, which is really what we want gifted education to focus on,” she says. She does not know how many teachers are using the rubric.

Given the difficulty of evaluating the gifted programs, just getting more students referred for testing may be the single simplest way to come closer to meeting our brightest kids’ needs. The WVAGT may take up the topic of raising the profile of gifted programs in lagging counties at its summer conference in June 2014, Wells says. She’d like to see more students offered the opportunity of gifted programming. “This can break that cycle of poverty. This can be that first child in the family to go to college.”

Written by Pam Kasey

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Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.