The Differentiated Curriculum Conundrum

What is differentiated curriculum for gifted learners? Why is it necessary? How much challenge is enough for these students? This case explores these important fundamental issues surrounding developing differentiated curriculum for the gifted from parent and school perspectives.

The new superintendent arrives to Bay Crossing School District amid parents’ concerns about a lack of academic rigor in school curricula for gifted learners.

The Bay Crossing Schools just lost their superintendent. He retired after 36 years of service in the district as a coach, teacher, and administrator. A national search for a replacement led to the hiring of a new superintendent with an impressive record for school improvement and student success. For most of his career, Dr. Peter Townsend has led urban school districts in large cities. His particular strengths have been in improving low-income and struggling learners’ school performance and, thus, improving the overall school districts’ test scores.

Although Bay Crossing is located near a large metropolitan area, its unique seashore setting typically attracts families in upper income brackets. A large university is one of the primary employers in the community. The parents there are actively involved with their children’s educations and concerned about the school system’s capacity for providing the best possible education for each child.

See a description of the Bay Crossing School District below:

One of the most vocal groups within the community is the Gifted Parent Advisory Council for the Bay Crossing School District. Dr. Townsend first met a representative of the council during his on-site interview, as the chair of the council served on the search committee. During a subsequent interview with the community, 19 of the 21 council members met Dr. Townsend.

Upon his hiring, Dr. Townsend received an invitation to attend the first council meeting of the school year. Realizing the importance of this group, Dr. Townsend began to research gifted education and the advisory council role in the school system. He learned important information about the existing gifted education services. There is neither mandate nor monetary support for differentiated services for gifted students in the state’s K-12 schools. Although some local monies are spent for gifted education in Bay Crossing, funding is limited. For example, although there is a full-time program administrator, the elementary schools are served by only 9 staff members. This means 9 gifted education resource teachers serve students in 77 elementary schools.

Dr. Townsend also investigated the work of the advisory council. The group hosts an approved school district website. In the nearly four years of their existence, the group members had collaborated with the school district to raise funds for student programs, advocate for program resources, and support the gifted education staff. In his conversations with council members there seemed to be agreement that gifted education in Bay Crossing elementary schools translated into enrichment activities. Secondary gifted learners are provided advanced courses, however, all high ability students are provided the same courses with virtually no differentiation for the gifted students. Council members and many other parents of gifted learners believe that the curriculum provided both through the regular school program and the ancillary enrichment activities are not adequate for the continuous progress of the students at advanced levels.

See the description of the advisory council below:

After only two days in his new office, Dr. Townsend attends a meeting of the Gifted Education Parent Advisory Council.

The co-founder of the advisory council, Mrs. Harriet Klepper, presents a brief history of the council and speaks first on behalf of the gifted learners her group represents. Parents and students make several other informal presentations. Questions are taken from the floor.

Although Dr. Townsend does not speak other than making a few cordial remarks and introductions, he takes notes regarding their issues and promises to dedicate time and effort to addressing their concerns in the near future.

Parents are optimistic but not convinced of his sincerity. To ensure that the importance of their concerns is conveyed, a local newspaper reporter had been asked to attend the meeting. A brief article regarding the nature of the meeting is published in the newspaper the next day.

See a brief article published in the local newspaper regarding the meeting below:

If he is certain of nothing more, Dr. Townsend is left knowing that the advisory council is both determined and well organized. He knows he must take the concerns of the council seriously. The fact that he has gained a reputation in building schools that helped ALL students succeed is obviously overshadowed by his recent notoriety in turning-around low-performing students. The parents of gifted learners fear that the needs of high-ability children have received “token” services under the last school administrator’s guidance; their hope for change is fleeting.

The advocacy group asks the superintendent to reconsider the current services and curricular provisions for gifted learners in the Bay Crossing School District.

The parents are concerned that students spend most of their school day in regular classrooms working with age appropriate curricula that are not commensurate with their advanced abilities. During the next meeting of the council, parents draft a letter to Dr. Townsend in order to outline their concerns. Harriet Klepper agrees to take notes as parents begin to restate their issues.

Mr. Cohen’s daughter is not challenged by school.

Mr. Cohen, a parent of two gifted learners notes that his oldest daughter is often bored with work in the regular classroom. “In fact,” he says, “she is often told to assist other students with their work after she completes assignments. Of course she doesn’t like it, but it is better than sitting alone or reading again.”

“I can relate to that,” said Clara Evans. “My fourth-grade son is beginning to become lazy, even careless, in his class work and homework. I know it’s due to a lack of consistent challenge in his schoolwork. Most of the time he finishes earlier than other students. He takes making good grades for granted, and he exerts less effort with each new assignment. This is not a trend I want to see continue.”

Another parent steers the discussion in a slightly different direction. “The inadequacy of the regular curriculum is somewhat expected,” she starts. “I’m more concerned with the lack of challenge that exists in the gifted education curriculum. My daughter spent a couple of hours a week last year involved in competitions. Certainly the activities are enriching and different from the regular classroom, but these activities are extracurricular. As boring as the regular classroom might be for our kids, I’m not sure that invention contests are reasonable replacements for the regular curricula.”

See the description of sample gifted program activity.

“I agree,” added another parent. The kinds of experiences that our children get in the gifted resource room are better suited for afterschool and Saturday programs. I’m interested in my child having greater complexity and depth of learning in core academic areas such as science, math, and reading. My child spent months this past year participating in a math game. The problem is that he missed reading and social studies to compete…which amounted to an extraordinary amount of homework…He had to make-up all the class work that he missed while in the gifted resource room.”

See the description of a sample elementary gifted program activity below:

One of the parents points out that most of the gifted education activities dealing with academic studies are insufficient in that their focus is on skill development rather than on skills integrated in significantly advanced content.

See an example of an outline of current gifted education curricula below: 

Mrs. Klepper sums-up the collective concerns of the group and volunteers to draft a letter to the superintendent on behalf of the advisory council.

The superintendent hires a consultant to assist Bay Crossing Schools in adopting a new direction for gifted education and differentiated curricula.

A nationally known consultant comes to the school district and meets with a small number of school administrators regarding the concerns of parents of gifted learners. Dr. Monica Nelson, the consultant, is a gifted education professor who works extensively with public school gifted education programs.

During the course of the all day meeting with the consultant, the school administrators learn a lot about the differentiated curriculum for gifted learners. One of their most important realizations is that there should be a match between the school’s definition of giftedness and subsequent curricular interventions.

“The school must examine whether or not the notion of giftedness and the choice of curricular interventions for these students are consistent,” shares Dr. Nelson. “For example, if students are highly creative then activities that promote creativity are important. However, other types of giftedness require different types of curricular experiences. Highly intellectual students need cognitively challenging and academically rigorous learning experiences at rates and levels commensurate with their intellectual age, rather than their chronological age.”

See a copy of the district’s definition of giftedness below:

“What is differentiated curriculum of the gifted?” asks one principal.

Dr. Nelson replies, “Differentiation refers to the adaptation and modification of age-appropriate learning experiences in order to make them challenging enough to meet the unique learning needs of gifted learners. It requires changes in the content, process, and product of the curricular experience.”

She proceeds to distribute a brief article on the topic of differentiation for the gifted published by the National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented.

See differentiation article below:

Ms. Brown helps teachers work with gifted students.

The local gifted coordinator, Lois Brown, then distributes a copy of the “differentiation quiz” which she uses to guide teachers’ understanding of curriculum for the gifted. Joe Renzulli, an expert in the field of gifted education, authored this work.

See a copy of the differentiated quiz below:

Dr. Townsend shares the parent advocacy council’s letter with the administrative group. Lois Brown, who was appointed to her position just weeks prior to the new superintendent’s arrival, is visibly disturbed by every word. Mrs. Brown has been a gifted education resource teacher in Bay Crossing for 14 years. She is very protective of the existing curricular experiences that she and other teachers have implemented with students.

“Dr. Townsend, Mrs. Brown interjects, “The parents don’t really understand the time and energy put into these competitions. Students are engaged in higher-level thinking, creative thinking, and commitment. Not to mention that they must use their existing math skills in order to compete in the 24 Game. I just don’t think parents understand the amount of work that goes into these activities. And as for students being punished with make-up work…that’s the classroom teacher’s doing, not the fault of the gifted education program.”

Carefully and slowly, Dr. Townsend replies to Mrs. Brown. He agrees with parents, however, he knows he can’t move forward without her support. He wants to rely on the consultant to push forward her thinking. “Mrs. Brown, I want to thank you for your response. I don’t think the parents are condemning the resource room, but rather, expressing their opinions about differentiation of curriculum for the gifted learners. In fact, I haven’t heard anything to suggest that they don’t want to continue gifted education services in our district. There’s no doubt that the gifted education program staff works diligently and to the point of exhaustion. I hope we can all keep an open-mind about the best way to work effectively and efficiently.”

Mrs. Brown is leary. She has heard that the superintendent believes in the needs of children first and foremost when educational programming is being discussed. Of course she agrees with him. However, she doesn’t believe that anyone really understands what her staff does with gifted students.

Dr. Townsend inquires, “Dr. Nelson, what do you recommend for directing our evolution of appropriately differentiated curricula for gifted learners?”

“The best start is establishing a formal position on the nature and value of differentiated curricula. This statement will guide practice, policy, and accountability,” replies Dr. Nelson.

Dr. Nelson discusses the components of an effective position statement and provides a sample.

See guidelines for writing an educational position statement below:

See sample gifted education position statement below:

Following the one-day meeting with the consultant, the school administrators meet to consider the adoption of a district position statement regarding the differentiated curriculum for gifted learners. What will the district develop as their position statement? How can it dictate change given existing ideas about curricula for gifted learners? The position statement should adequately address the concerns of parents as well as dictate best practice in the education of gifted learners. How can all concerns be reconciled?