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Michigan Gifted Education Policies are Subpar, Advocates Say

State funding and fuzzy definitions are among challenges for academically bright kids in southeast Michigan and beyond – and helping them is crucial

There are many exceptionally intelligent kids out there. But pinpointing them, let alone the help they need, isn't easy business.

The National Association for Gifted Children, or NAGC, estimates that 3 million children across the U.S. in grades K-12 are academically gifted. That equals approximately 6 percent of the total school population.

For kids in Michigan, nearly 60,000 children were identified as being gifted for the 2010-11 school year. Yet this figure may be much higher since the state doesn't mandate for testing giftedness – nor does it fund gifted education.

Funding challenges

Instead, schools across southeast Michigan, whether public, charter or private, are left to define, identify and educate gifted children according to their own guidelines – and budgets.

Gifted education advocates point out that without mandates from the state, school support for these academically advanced students is bound to falter.

"Everything in education is tied to money. No mandate and no money means that what a gifted child receives from a public school is only what that school has decided to offer," explain Nan Janecke, communications director for the Michigan Association for Gifted Children, or MAGC, and mom of three – and Kelly Schultz, director of the Academically Talented Youth Program at Western Michigan University and mom of two.

The last year where gifted education was funded, according to the NAGC, was the 2006-07 school year – and equaled $285,000. While there's no data available for the following year, since then, no state money has been earmarked for gifted education.

Complicated landscape

Yet gifted children need extra support to succeed in schools, say advocates. Kiyo Morse, founder of Steppingstone School for Gifted Education in Farmington Hills, believes that there are several misconceptions when it comes to gifted children's abilities and personalities.

From her 31 years as Steppingstone's head of school, she's found that just because a child is gifted in one subject doesn't mean he's gifted in all areas. Add to that, gifted children aren't necessarily motivated high performers when it comes to academic studies.

While certain academic disciplines may come easier to gifted kids, that's not how giftedness is defined by those within the field. Giftedness is not a high grade on a test.

The NACG explains that there's "no universally agreed upon answer" to the question of "What is giftedness?" But its evolving definition is "gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10 percent or rarer) in one or more domains."

Those domains include structured activities with their own "symbol system," like math, music or language – or sensorimotor skills, such as painting, dance or sports.

Ground-level needs

With gifted children's unique needs and learning styles, being able to identify them and then provide the right learning environment is crucial to helping them succeed, advise those within the gifted education community.

Yet specialty training for teachers in giftedness isn't required by the state to work with gifted children – whether that's in the general education classroom or in specialized gifted programs. Without identification and support from educators, gifted children may sail through school, but without being challenged academically, they fail to reach their potential – or worse, lose interest in school entirely.

"Gifted kids drop out of high school at twice the average rate," says Jean K. Becker, Ph.D., a past president of MAGC. In her view, supporting and funding Michigan's gifted children could be a potential boon to the state in many ways. "When schools do not provide an appropriate education for their children, parents tend to want to relocate to places where their kids can get a better education.

"These are exactly the kind of parents and children who will create the jobs of the future – especially well-paid 'knowledge-based' jobs," Becker continues. "And the sorts of companies that provide those jobs want to locate to places where they can attract top-notch talent. By not having widespread gifted education in our schools, Michigan is driving away the very companies and people we want to attract and retain to turn Michigan around economically."

See how Michigan compares to other states when it comes to gifted education, according to the NAGC.

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