The Children Neglected by No Child Left Behind

In his recent State of the Union address, President Bush called on Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), saying, "We must increase funds for students who struggle­ and make sure these children get the special help they need." But NCLB, as it is currently implemented, largely ignores another important group that is struggling -- gifted and talented students.

Our society typically views struggling students as those who are disadvantaged by ability or demonstrated achievement level -- those students not meeting proficiency levels for their respective grade. However, gifted and talented students struggle because they sit in our classrooms and wait. They wait for rigorous curriculum. They wait for opportunities to be challenged. They wait for engaging, relevant instruction that nurtures their potential.

And, as they wait, these students lose interest in their passions, become frustrated and unmotivated from the lack of challenge their school curricula provides them. As a result, they become our lost talent.

Under NCLB, states must demonstrate that every child is performing on grade level. Therefore, it can be expected that schools will expend the majority of their resources on bringing low-performing students up to proficiency. As a result, schools are unintentionally guided to focus on remediation rather than on acceleration and enrichment. National budget figures since 1988 reveal that less than one percent of federal education dollars have been devoted to gifted and talented education.

It was recently estimated that there are 2.4 million gifted and talented students in the United States -- 5 percent of the K-12 student population -- but that figure is conservative. A lack of uniformity across states and school systems in identification standards, especially for minority and English language learners, results in many gifted and talented students going unrecognized. The full impact of NCLB on these students is still unfolding, but early studies indicate that in response to NCLB many states have diverted funds previously designated for gifted and talented programs. For example, Illinois recently converted $19 million of gifted and talented funding into a state block grant allowing schools to tap into these funds for non-gifted services.

And the most recent "State of the States Report" compiled by the National Association for Gifted Children reveals a number of issues affecting services for the gifted: a lack of conformity and uniformity, limited service options, insufficient teacher training, inconsistent reporting and accountability measures, and a lack of state funds. Of the 29 states that mandate the identification of gifted students, only 11 provide funds to school systems to specifically support the gifted. Additionally, 14 states spend less that $500,000 per year on gifted education, with eight states expending $0.

This represents a paradox for our society. On one hand, our nation's leaders seem to favor an environment that values research, innovation and new ideas. On the other, federal monies are committed to programs that address student deficiencies.

Many will argue that addressing the needs of the gifted and talented through specialized programs is "elitist". The needs of gifted and talented should not be an argument on behalf of privilege, but one on ensuring that every child, regardless of ability, demonstrates growth.

Before our nation can create the kind of climate that values excellence for all children, current attitudes about the education of gifted and talented learners must change. A pervasive and unsubstantiated belief that our highest achievers will make it on their own without any additional resources or instructional accommodations continues to prevail. But intellectual and academic talent must be cultivated and nurtured -- not ignored.

Federal and state policymakers play an important role in making the education of gifted and high-achieving students a priority and are encouraged to consider the needs of such students when establishing new or reauthorizing existing policies and laws, such as NCLB. We need to realize what's at stake if we continue to ignore the educational needs of our brightest students.

As the language of the law suggests, NCLB focuses on the education and support of all children. However, the law has been misinterpreted by many states and school systems in a manner that has been both detrimental and exclusionary to gifted and talented students. No child, regardless of ability, should be left behind.