Serving Students with Exceptional Promise

STEM Network Working Group

The High Flyer (Blog Banner)-NAGC.pngThe NAGC Board voted to support the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) position statement on Providing Opportunities for Students with Exceptional Mathematical Promise. However, a video by Jo Boaler has caused some to question the importance of identifying gifted students. This is a response from the NAGC STEM Network Working Group.

In 1980, in their Agenda for Action the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) asserted, “The student most neglected in terms of realizing full potential, is the gifted student of mathematics. Outstanding mathematical ability is a precious societal resource, sorely needed to maintain leadership in a technological world.” This is even truer today, nearly forty years later as the world becomes increasingly technological and interdependent. In 1995, NCTM appointed a Task Force on what they termed “mathematically promising” students and charged the task force with rethinking the traditional definition of mathematically gifted students to broaden it to the more inclusive idea of mathematically promising students. The Task Force defined those students as ones who have the potential to become the leaders and problem solvers of the future. They averred that mathematical promise is a function of ability, motivation, belief and experience or opportunity, all variables that are not fixed and need to be developed so that success for these promising students can be maximized. In 2016, the NCTM Board of Directors reaffirmed the need to recognize, nurture and challenge these students when they approved a position on Providing Opportunities for Students with Exceptional Mathematical Promise to answer the question “How can teachers and schools identify and support students with exceptional mathematical promise to nurture and sustain their mathematical development and interest in mathematics?” They noted that “exceptional mathematical promise is evenly distributed across geographic, demographic, and economic boundaries, and growing and leveraging such mathematical promise is essential for our field and society to thrive.”

As acknowledged by the NCTM board, the use of term gifted may overly restrict students receiving needed services, but regardless of the label, it is necessary to provide these students with “differentiated instruction in an engaging mathematical learning environment that ignites and enhances their mathematical passions and challenges them to make continuing progress throughout their K–16 schooling and beyond.” Research has shown that this is not only important for students with mathematical promise but for all students with exceptional promise.

The following are just a few of the reasons that gifted services are critical.

  1. Underserved populations: Some of the gifted students most hurt when their needs are not met are gifted minority students, students from poverty, and twice-exceptional students. They often do not have access to the same resources as students from more privileged backgrounds, such as private schools and other enriching programs, and must get their support from public school programs.
  2. Productive Struggle: Brain research reminds us that challenge and making mistakes add to brain growth, and this is important for our highest-performing students. For many of these students, when they are languishing in regular classrooms, they are never challenged enough to make mistakes and benefit from constructive feedback and having to defend their reasoning They might consistently get A’s without ever studying because they have already mastered the material. “Productive struggle” is especially important for these students. They need to be challenged to make continuous progress and learn something new every day if we are going to foster their brain growth, persistence and resilience.
  3. Social/emotional needs: For many of these students, being in a good gifted program is the first time they feel free to be themselves, realizing that they aren’t freaks and do not need to hide their abilities. This excitement and passion for learning is critical and does not happen when students are bored with repetition of things they learned years earlier. As noted by a student in a university program for advanced middle and high school math students, “The time I spent at the mathematics program last year was beyond any experience I could have ever received at my high school. It has motivated me to move beyond expectations and discover mathematics for what it truly is.”  As noted in the NCTM position statement, students with exceptional promise “must be engaged in enriching learning opportunities during and outside the school day to allow them to pursue their interests, develop their talent, and maintain their passion.”
  4. Special Education essentials: Other countries put an emphasis on developing students’ academic abilities and passions to the greatest extent possible. We have no compunction about choosing the best to represent us in the Olympics or take the lead in a play or first violin in an orchestra, but we balk when it comes to academics. Special education programs are just as important for academically advanced students, and services and resources for students with exceptional academic promise, including professional development for teachers, should be required, just as they are for other special education programs.
  5. Long-term effects of GT programs: Gifted programming positively influences students’ futures and the future of our country. Several longitudinal studies have shown that gifted programs have a positive effect on students’ post-secondary achievements. NAGC is currently updating Research That Supports the Need for and Benefits of Gifted Education where these needs and benefits have been documented for decades.

Every child, with excellent instruction, can learn at a much higher level, and a wide variety of stimulating challenges, opportunities and resources should be available to all students. But given similar exposure and instruction, some children are capable of or have a greater passion for understanding concepts on a deeper, more complex, faster and/or more creative level. Refraining from offering suitable curricular challenges to students who are ready for them, whether called gifted, talented, exceptionally promising, advanced, or something else because other students are not ready for or do not have an interest in them is not ethically justifiable. 

The STEM Network Working Group is chaired by Linda J. Sheffield.