What to Do with the Gifted Few?

A group of fourth-grade teachers follow their principal's edict to group students by ability for math and language arts instruction. The teachers divide their students according to existing test scores only to find out that they have left an identified gifted child out of the advanced math class.

The fourth grade team meets after the first day of school to create math groups for the year.

Jeanne smiled and sank into a chair. The first day of school was always exciting but left her exhausted! A veteran at Holfield Elementary, Jeanne Sampson was well known in the West Lake community, and several parents had requested that their children be placed in her class. Although she hesitated to make snap judgments based on the first day, Jeanne was pleased with her new students. West Lake was a friendly, affluent community with parents who were generally well educated and involved in the school. As a result, most Holfield students were good kids and motivated learners. This new batch of fourth graders, however, seemed exceptionally eager.

Jeanne on bus duty

As she reviewed the names and faces of her students, Jeanne’s teammates entered the room and joined her at the round worktable. All of the teachers on the fourth grade team were experienced educators, like Jeanne. Sandra Barr, Michelle Dempsey, Kenneth Forrest, and Jeanne had been teaching at Holfield for a combined 28 years. For the last three years Jeanne, Michelle, and Kenneth had worked together as members of the fourth grade team. They were all good friends and worked well together. This was Sandra’s first year teaching fourth grade. Prior to the move, she taught fifth grade at Holfield for several years.

“Boy, do I have my hands full,” laughed Kenneth. “They are nice kids, but the some of them are pretty far behind.”

“I’ve got a real range in my class, at least in terms of their standardized test scores from last year,” Michelle added as she ran through a copy of their scores. They continued to compare notes on their students for a few minutes.

Jeanne interrupted, “Well, team, let’s get down to business. It’s been a long day for all of us.” As the team leader, Jeanne often had to rein in her colleagues from their friendly chatter and focus them on the matter at hand. While she normally didn’t mind, at times she was annoyed at her colleagues’ unwillingness to get down to business. “The math grouping is the most important thing on today’s agenda.”

Jeanne and Kenneth discuss how to split up the students.

In the past, the teachers had taught heterogeneous, self-contained classrooms. But this year was different. Holfield’s principal, Dr. Karen Hadley, wanted to group the students by achievement for math and language arts instruction. Dr. Hadley had encouraged the teachers to use this homogenous grouping as an opportunity to differentiate instruction within a smaller spectrum of student differences. She had even hired a specialist to conduct in-service training on differentiating instruction. The consultant reminded the faculty that when teachers narrow the range of readiness levels in a group of students, meeting the needs of all students within the group becomes easier to achieve, and instruction becomes more efficient.

The teachers decided to divide students by readiness levels and assign them to teachers by common learning needs. “How are we going to go about splitting them up?” Sandra asked.

“We can use their achievement test scores from last year,” suggested Kenneth. “Although that seems like it might ignore any progress students made over the summer.”

“You have a point. I’m sure we can find some kind of practice test to give them as a diagnostic and reference their scores from last year as well. I remember the consultant emphasizing ongoing diagnostic evaluation through pre-testing. My only concern is that all of the gifted students will end up in the same group,” Sandra said. “I don’t mind teaching the ‘lower’ ability students, but I think they really benefit from having ‘smarter’ kids around to serve as models during classroom activities.”

“Sandra, relax! It’s only the first day of school. There’s plenty of time for other students to rise to the top and become role models in any grouping of students we create,” Kenneth said. “Besides, all of our students will be served best by addressing their current readiness levels and moving them forward. Most of our kids will pick things up quickly.”

Sandra is taken aback by Kenneth’s plans for grouping students.

Sandra looked slightly taken aback, but smiled sheepishly. “Maybe I’m just sensitive to the fact that not all students are motivated to learn. Sometimes peer pressure and strong role models can do a lot to motivate lower achieving kids.”

“I agree with Sandra’s suggestion of giving a pre-test. We can test students on Friday and begin switching classes on Monday,” Jeanne said.

“I don’t want to test my students the first week of school,” Michelle said. “They’ll be traumatized! They’re just getting to know us. Don’t you think we should give them some time to get comfortable before springing a test on them? How about waiting until next Tuesday?”

Jeanne thought about the above average students who were ready to move on right away. No one else seemed to be thinking about the advanced students.

“We’ll start switching on Wednesday then. Sounds good! I’m ready to get out of here!” Kenneth laughed. Dramatic and fun-loving, Kenneth always kept the group on their toes. Michelle shrugged and nodded, and Sandra, surveying the anxious smiles of the rest of the group, nodded as well. After chatting for a few more minutes, the group dispersed to clean up their classrooms and head home for the day.

Sandra and Kenneth go over test results.

Alone in her classroom, Jeanne thought about the meeting. Overall, it seemed successful, given that it was relatively brief and focused. However, she was concerned about the interaction between Sandra and Kenneth. They seemed to be at loggerheads over this grouping issue. Kenneth had always been opinionated, but the others knew to take some of the things he said with a grain of salt. Sandra, being new to the team and more serious in general, seemed a little ill at ease.

Although Jeanne understood the other teachers’ determination to let the students get comfortable before testing, losing a whole week before getting into the meat of her math program was disappointing to her. She didn’t like the idea of keeping the children in her mixed ability group entertained for a week. Jeanne would have to find something productive and appropriate to do with her class. Gathering up some binders of math materials she had accumulated during various conferences, Jeanne headed home for the evening with a great deal to think about.

Jeanne confers with the gifted education teacher on their collaborative model.

The next morning, Jeanne arrived early to school. She liked to give herself time to settle into her day before the children arrived. She was organizing maps when Suzanne Peters, Holfield’s gifted education teacher, knocked on her door. Suzanne was an energetic and outgoing teacher who had come to Holfield the year before. In the past, Holfield’s gifted program had used a “pull-out” system. Identified gifted students would be pulled out of class for one hour a week to spend time in the gifted resource room.

“Good morning, Jeanne,” said Suzanne. “I’m glad you’re here. I stopped by because we need to figure out how I can work with the fourth grade team this year.” This year, the district had decided to use a “push-in” model that required classroom teachers to collaborate with the gifted education resource teachers in order to better serve gifted learners. Instead of randomly pulling students out of classes, Suzanne would be coming into classrooms to work alongside regular teachers to serve the gifted students through differentiated core academic activities. Suzanne hoped that this model would enrich the experiences of the non-gifted students in the class as well.

“I’m so glad you stopped by—with all the craziness this time of year, I probably never would’ve made it over to see you, especially now with this grouping issue to worry about.” Jeanne summarized the team’s plans for grouping the students.

“Do the parents know about this grouping yet? As soon as they hear about it, every parent in Holfield is going to want to know whether or not their children are in the gifted reading and math groups. Your phone is going to be ringing off the hook by next week with parents wanting you to move their children into your class during reading and math!” Suzanne shook her head and laughed.

“Our parents are great, but sometimes they can be a pain in the neck! Why don’t they understand that we can’t make someone gifted, they just are. Besides, it isn’t any fun being different from everyone else. I wouldn’t wish it on my own child…Seriously, though,” Jeanne continued, “I imagine the gifted children will all test into the same group. Then you could come into my class a few days a week to help me differentiate lessons for all the different kids I’ll have.”

“That sounds like a plan. Let’s talk after you’re finished testing,” Suzanne said. “I’ve got to run and see second grade before school starts. We’ll be in touch.”

The team reviews the math test results.

The team reassembled in the library on Tuesday afternoon, each bearing their grade books, test records, and a stack of diagnostic tests.

“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Kenneth said. “Where do we begin?”

“Let’s put all of the pre-tests in order by score and break them into groups,” Sandra suggested.

“But I don’t want to ignore their standardized test scores from last year,” Michelle said.

“Well, let’s take it one step at a time,” suggested Kenneth. “First we’ll group them by this year’s score, and see how that breaks down. Then we’ll try last year’s. Hopefully they’ll match pretty closely.”

See scores below:

“Wow! What a mess!” Jeanne said. “I guess this isn’t going to work as well as we’d hoped.”

“What do you think? There are over ten students that could fall into two different classes. Which grouping is more valid?” Sandra said.

“Well, let’s look at grouping one. That puts group A at 24 students, 20 in group B, 23 in C, and 13 in D. Grouping two has 28 in A, 18 in B, 17 in C, and and 17 in D. Just for class size reasons, grouping two seems to make more sense,” Kenneth suggested.

The team meets to review test results.

“Twenty-eight kids! What will Jeanne do with all of those children?” Michelle asked.

“Oh!” Jeanne suddenly exclaimed. “This had totally slipped my mind! I talked to Suzanne Peters yesterday about her new collaboration model for the gifted program. She could be in my class a few days every week. With two of us in there we should be fine.”

“About half of the students in group A are gifted in math at the very least, so they should be an easy group to work with,” said Kenneth.

Jeanne knew that having gifted students along with non-gifted students would be a challenge. She disagreed with Kenneth. It was not necessarily going to be easier to teach students just because they happen to be gifted in math.

As if on cue, Suzanne Peters walked into the room. Jeanne recounted what had transpired in the meeting thus far.

Suzanne clasped her hands with excitement. “I just got my hands on this great compacted curriculum series for math. It’ll be perfect!”

“That sounds like fun,” Jeanne agreed. “I’ve always enjoyed team teaching.”

“The math curriculum provides a great introduction to algebra!” Suzanne continued.

“Sounds great, then,” Kenneth said, standing and stretching. “Is anyone else ready to get out of here?”

“I am!” Jeanne agreed. “I’ll type up the class lists and email them to you all.”

“Hey, wait! Is anyone else concerned that we’re totally overlooking the math scores on the pre-tests that we just spent valuable teaching time administering?” Sandra asked.

“Oh, don’t be difficult Sandra. This will work out fine.” Kenneth said. Gathering his materials, Kenneth headed for the door, followed shortly by the rest of his team.

Jeanne divides the math classes and finds a contradiction.

Tuesday evening, Jeanne sat in front of her computer sipping an iced tea. She thumbed through her bag and found the notes she had gathered from the team meeting that afternoon.

“Let’s see,” she said to herself. Jeanne began typing the names into her computer.

See the class lists that Jeanne created below:

She sat back and surveyed the lists, glad that this grouping had seemed to sort itself out. Then something caught her eye. “Oh no…” she sighed, clapping her hand to her forehead.

Jeanne picked up the phone and dialed Michelle’s number. “Hello, Michelle? This is Jeanne. I was just working on the fourth-grade math student assignments, and we’ve got a problem. James Dovitz is identified as gifted, but according to last year’s math achievement test scores he sits solidly in the middle of all the students.

See James Dovitz’s student profile below:

Jeanne working with James

I can’t believe I didn’t catch it before. He’s in my class.”

“How did that happen? I can’t believe we overlooked that!”

“I know. What do you think we should do?” asked Jeanne.

“Well, it seems to me like we have two options,” Michelle said. “Either we bump him up to Group A and hope he can cut it, or we leave him in Group B and hope that no one notices that he is an identified gifted student not being served.”

“Neither of those sound very attractive to me,” Jeanne replied.

Michelle agreed. “What a mess. I think we need to meet with the team again tomorrow and work this out.”

“I guess we have no choice,” Jeanne sighed.

“But there goes one more day that the kids aren’t grouped and our instruction isn’t necessarily meeting all of our students’ needs,” added Michelle.

“Well, I’ll call the rest of the team and let them know what’s going on. Let’s meet before school and see if we can’t get it worked out. I’ll see you then.”

The team meets before school to reconcile differences.

“Well now what do we do?” Sandra asked, joining the group in Jeanne’s classroom early Wednesday morning. “I knew this wouldn’t work out so easily.”

“It wouldn’t have worked even if we did use the other scores,” Jeanne said. “Both of James’s scores put him right in the middle of the second group.”

“All I’m saying is that we decided things a little too quickly,” Sandra replied coolly.

Jeanne asked the group, “Do we place him in the top group and hope he makes it, or put him in middle group and hope no one makes a stink about one gifted child not being placed in the top math group? I’ll tell you now I’m all for keeping him in B. I’ve got such a big class already, how will I handle having one kid who is constantly struggling to keep up? Isn’t that the whole point of grouping them?”

“But you’ll have Suzanne with you,” Kenneth pointed out.

“Only on Mondays and Fridays. The other three days I’ll be on my own,” Jeanne replied.

See Suzanne’s Schedule below:

Michelle raised the question, “Would we be at all concerned about our decision to place James in the middle math group if he were not labeled a gifted child?”

Suzanne entered the room. Jeanne had called her last evening and filled her in on the dilemma with James.

“Let’s think about what’s best for James. Let me review some of his information here,” Jeanne continued.

Suzanne was late since she had stopped in the school office to pull James’s confidential file which was created during his gifted education identification process. She began to thumb through the manila folder. “He was identified as gifted last year after his mother petitioned to have him tested. Jane Whitlow, his third grade teacher, didn’t see it, but I finally tested him to pacify Mrs. Dovitz. He was identified on the basis of exceptional knowledge of language arts and social studies—I think he knows more about World War II than I do. He was great in gifted class last year, especially when we did enrichments involving social studies or language arts. He’s very curious but relatively reserved.”

“How did he do in math last year?” Sandra asked.

“Let’s see. He got a B. Not bad.” Suzanne said

“But will he be able to make it in my class?” Jeanne said. “I mean, we’ve talked about doing Algebra with these kids, Suzanne.”

“Plus doesn’t it seem a little unfair that he would get to move into that class just because he’s labeled gifted? There are five other students that have better math scores than him and could probably soar in that class. I don’t think he deserves to be gifted with such average math ability,” complained Sandra.

Kenneth pointed out, “There are other students with higher scores who deserve placement in the high math group more than James.”

The first warning bell of the day interrupted the discussion.

“We’ll have to meet during planning time to straighten this out,” Jeanne said as the first of the students trickled into the classroom.

“We still have to assign students to language arts groups as well. This is taking too much of my time. I wish somebody else was placing students into our groups,” Kenneth said as he left the room.

The team meets with Suzanne to discuss gifted education mandates.

Suzanne joined the fourth grade team planning time later that day. She thought that the other teachers might be interested in a copy of the federal definition of giftedness and the state regulations that guided their policy (click here to see VA state regulations).

See federal definitely of giftedness below:

“The problem is that it’s our legal obligation to make sure he’s getting gifted education services, right Suzanne?” asked Michelle.

Suzanne replied, “Actually, that’s not exactly right. There are no federal mandates to serve gifted students. Furthermore, there’s no state mandate here. On the other hand, our state does provide regulations regarding student services in school districts that apply for state funding for such services.”

“Does this mean we don’t have to do anything for gifted children?” asked Sandra.

Suzanne continued, “Well, it’s not whether we do or don’t provide services for gifted students that matter. Rather, we must be sure to appropriately match student services to student needs. If students do not receive appropriate intervention, then needs go unmet.”