My View: Portland schools need better leadership, funding to make programs work

The Oregon Talented and Gifted mandate passed 26 years ago, long enough for two generations of students to go all the way through school. Its promise has never been fulfilled, harming both the students and our state.

I became a TAG advocate because I was sickened by the unintentional and unnecessary consequences to these children. And yet there is still misunderstanding about the law itself, why it is needed and the children it is supposed to support.

The mandate requires school districts to identify K-12 students who are at or above the 97th percentile in at least one of these three areas: aptitude, reading achievement and math achievement. In addition, districts must identify and serve students with the potential to perform at that level. Anyone may refer a student for identification. Then schools must assess an identified student and develop an academic instructional program to provide instruction at his or her appropriate rate and level of learning.

Instruction need not take place in the student’s homeroom and there is no rule against ability grouping. Also, no requirement says TAG services should be “inclusionary.” This is important because ability grouping — combined with tailored instruction — greatly increases the achievement of gifted students. So do advanced classes, subject and/or grade acceleration.

These interventions are especially important for minority and low-income students. On the other hand, most after-school and “enrichment” activities do not provide academic instruction at a student’s rate and level. Neither does simply assigning more work.

The most common myth we hear is that these students are already doing well and don’t need additional services. This is not true. No one expects talented young gymnasts or violinists to train themselves. Gifted students don’t teach themselves either. Doing nothing means doing harm to these children and to society at large.

Stunting students’ natural learning trajectory not only reduces their academic progress, it can trigger a range of social and emotional problems. When their needs are ignored, gifted children become frustrated, cause trouble, experiment with dangerous pastimes, experience severe depression, forget how to work hard and lose interest in learning. Many have trouble finding friends who share their interests and become lonely or suicidal. They gradually lose respect for the adult world.

Students often feel they cannot express these feelings safely at school. Many teachers are surprised to learn that even the quiet, well-behaved TAG students in their classes are furious about being forced to waste most of their class time on things they have already learned.

Usually, adults do not ask them how they feel unless they act out or fail. Additionally, when they are neglected, ridiculed or bullied they often have nowhere to turn because they are at the bottom of their school’s list of priorities.

This problem must be solved with training and information. All Oregon administrators, teachers and counselors need pre-licensure and in-service training on ways to identify, teach and guide these students. TAG specialists and coordinators need extra training. Families need to know that their children may be gifted, that they have rights, and that their children need appropriate instruction to thrive. They need to know what services are available and how to support their children.

Unfortunately, when people have no training and no information, they do not even know that it could help them.

We also need better leadership, communication, funding and implementation. Funding has historically been inadequate and continues to decrease. Yet funding alone is not sufficient. The single most important factor is leadership. Instead of making this a priority, however, our leaders have handed TAG students over to overwhelmed subordinates as problems to be handled, not assets to be valued.

Oregon pays the price for squandering the potential of our children. What is the cost to society of the vaccine uninvented, the scientist uninstructed, the engineer unconstructed, the masterpiece unwritten, or the leader undeveloped, when our most capable students are left to fend for themselves?

Our communities need doctors, teachers, statesmen, scientists and engineers. Our universities fill graduate programs with students from outside Oregon because too few of our students are adequately prepared. Our employers complain that they cannot find enough skilled workers locally. Our children are as capable as students anywhere, but they cannot achieve their potential without access to high-level instruction throughout their learning years. College comes too late. Too many lose interest long before they enter high school.

Every year for a quarter of a century we have devoted money and energy to much less important issues. And every day of every year, for a quarter of a century, children who could have grown up to change our world have simply sat and waited for someone, somewhere to teach them something new and for Oregon to keep its promise to give them an education.

Margaret DeLacy of Southeast Portland is a parent activist.

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