Across Montana, the carefree days of summer are being replaced by the buzz of early-morning alarm clocks, the bumpy ride on a big yellow school bus and the clang of the bell as a new school year begins.

More than anything else, a new school year is about fresh opportunities – opportunities for students to pursue new goals, improve performances and learn and master new content.

But for high-ability students here in Montana, the opportunity to excel and achieve excellence is sharply limited.

Montana has a history of neglecting our gifted and talented (G/T) learners. Since 1989 the Administrative Rules of Montana (with the force of law) have stipulated that accredited districts “shall provide educational services to G/T students that are commensurate to their needs.” Subsequent funding has been minimal, the lowest among 31 states that mandate gifted education, which doesn’t facilitate any serious effort on the part of school districts to comply. Loose enforcement of the mandate has left local districts free to do as much or, in most cases, as little as they wish.

The picture is just as bleak at the federal level. Earlier this year Congress cut the sole federal initiative program on gifted education, a modest research initiative known as the Jacob Javits Program that developed strategies and best practices for serving this population. What once amounted to two cents per every $100 of federal education funding is now zero.

The lack of funding is not surprising given that the No Child Left Behind Act injects a federal decree that all schools be evaluated and funded by their ability to teach to a minimum standard. This definition of success makes the progress of above-average students irrelevant in the quality of education.

Even more frustrating is that this disregard of high-ability students has occurred amidst a flurry of activity by government commissions, panels and task forces to study the nation’s decline in the innovation in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. Despite the reams of recommendations that have gone unheeded and the urgent pleas from the President to “out educate and out innovate the world,” the facts show we are failing to cultivate our talent.

It is imperative that gifted learners do not lose further ground amidst tumultuous funding debates, increased demand for services and calls for widespread reform in the classroom.

Recent events have shown that Montana desperately needs a predictable funding formula that cultivates achievement. Help could come in the form of performance-based funding models that encourage individual growth through research-based teaching methods and differentiated learning plans.

Also, an ongoing review of the Chapter 55 rules, the administrative rules that set accreditation standards for Montana school districts, provides an opportunity to add support for G/T education and strengthen the existing mandate.

Just as important, we need Washington to stop penalizing Montana schools for failing to meet federal objectives that don’t match our local priorities.

But these measures do not represent a complete solution. Schools in Montana need a comprehensive talent development strategy. Contrary to the belief of some, high-ability students do not materialize out of thin air, and they certainly do not retain their capabilities absent ongoing support by trained teachers. Research shows gifted students must be identified at the earliest stages possible and developed throughout their academic careers to meet their potential.

Our colorful past shows that Montanans are independent and resourceful by nature, qualities that could have a profound impact on our future. But these are the very qualities that are stifled by a minimum-standard approach to education. Any meaningful solution to the present challenges in education requires a commitment by Montana leaders and educators to realize the full potential of all students.

A new school year should be the beginning of an exciting new journey to opportunity but this year most of our high-ability learners will be on a slow journey taking a long route to somewhere they’ve already been.

Darci Herbstritt is president of Montana Association of Gifted and Talented Education, and writes from Corvallis.

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