Archived InformationTalent and Diversity: The Emerging World of Limited English Proficient Students in Gifted Education - August 1998
What are the difficulties of identifying high-ability students for gifted programsparticularly language minority students? What does it mean to be "gifted"? In what ways does the testing industry need to change to accommodate assessing multiability students such as limited English proficient students? What abilities should educators seek to identify and nurture, and how does instruction need to shift to accommodate a broader conception of giftedness? We asked these and other questions of Robert J. Sternberg, who is IBM Professor of Psychology and Education in the Department of Psychology at Yale University.
Sternberg is most well-known for his triarchic theory of intelligence, triangular theory of love, theory of mental self-government, and investment theory of creativity (developed in collaboration with Todd Lubart). He has written over 500 articles, books, and book chapters, including Beyond IQ, The Triangle of Love, Metaphors of Mind, Defying the Crowd (with Todd Lubart), and most recently, Successful Intelligence. The recipient of numerous awards from organizations that include the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology, and the National Association for Gifted Children, he is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychology Society.
Even a cursory look at some of the main issues that face educators in gifted and talented programs, Robert Sternberg points out, reveals a thicket of contention, disagreement, and criticism-both internal and external. Gifted education, like bilingual education, has become politicized and beleaguered by critics who argue that both programs are unnecessary.
In addition, educators in gifted programs who seek a broader definition of giftedness face a lack of consensus on identification practices, let alone issues related to curricula and inclusiveness. All these factors, Sternberg explains, are clear evidence why minority populations continue to be underrepresented in gifted and talented education (GATE) programs, and why students with multifaceted abilities may not be adequately served.
Speaking first about identification of high-ability students, Sternberg reveals why the issue has become a sticking point for so many educators."One of the main issues," he begins, "is whether students should be identified on the basis of ggeneral ability or IQ-or whether one goes beyond that. Some believe that IQ is the best because the score gives them an objective measure. Others feel that they need more."
The question, Sternberg adds, then becomes: What more? "Do you only use cognitive measures, such as multiple intelligence's beyond just g, or do you move to affective measures such as personality and motivation?"
Another concern, he adds, is the degree to which assessments need to be objective. "Can you use subjective assessments of teachers, parents, and the students themselves?" he asks."The whole argument revolves around one central question: What does giftedness mean?"
Has the gifted and talented educational community reached consensus about the meaning of giftednessor is that an area of controversy as well?
Sternberg points to narrow pockets of agreement, but no prevailing consensus. "These very, very fundamental issues are still unresolved," he says. "And they become even more complex, because even among those who want to only use intellectual measures, there is disagreement as to how high one has to score to be gifted. What score means gifted on an IQ test? 130, 135, 140?"
Given that educators working in gifted and talented programs continue to struggleand not infrequently, to disagreewhen they work to include high-ability Hispanic Limited English Proficient (LEP) students in their programs, how can they proceed sensibly and equitably with their efforts? Is there a research base that supports not only new identification procedures, but instructional practices geared toward multiability students? How can nontraditional populations-such as Hispanic LEP students-be included in GATE programs in ways that avoid accusations of political correctness?
"There are so many difficulties," Sternberg replies. "If only objective testing is used, these kids are at an obvious disadvantage. This applies even if nonverbal tests are used, because nonverbal tests still assume a certain kind of socialization. Often language is used to tell the kids what to do on the test."
His own research, he reports, clearly indicates that when students are assessed on broader measures of giftedness, a much more diverse student population automatically qualifies for gifted programs. "In the OERI-supported study we did with high school students, we measured creative and practical abilities as well as analytical forms of giftedness," he says. "
"What did we find? The analytical kids tended to be more traditional in their appearance. They were mostly white, at a higher socioeconomic level, and attended better schools. But the kids who scored high in creative and practical giftedness were more diverse socioeconomically, ethnically, and in terms of previous educational background."
These findings have long-reaching implications for schooling, Sternberg maintainsand question prevailing practice that values primarily memorization and analysis. "If you have a creative kid and youre only teaching in a way that emphasizes memory and analytical ability, why would you expect the kid to do well?," he asks rhetorically.
"Our system disenfranchises creatively and practically gifted kids by creating a vicious circle in which we measure primarily analytical and memory abilities. We then teach in a way that values those abilities and we assess achievement in the same way. We value those abilities so that the people who are high in those areas look good and the people who are high in other abilities dont."
Testing plays a pernicious role as well, he says."The tests we use appear to have high validity because they are all a part of the system. But when we assess kids more broadly, kids who would not have done well begin to perform at high levels."
Even more impressively, students who are taught in ways that value all abilities--analytical, creative, and practical--achieve at higher levels than if they are taught in standard ways that emphasize solely memory or memory with critical thinking added on. "All kids stand to benefit," Sternberg enlarges, "if you teach in a way that emphasizes all of these abilities because they can encode the information in multiple ways. They can see it analytically, creatively, and practically."
Some teachers resistance to this instructional shift can be seen when they argue that they must teach to emphasize analytical abilities, Sternberg adds, so that students will score well on standardized tests, but there is little truth to that assertion. "Students taught in ways that value all abilities," he says, "even do better on objective multiple choice items."
Given these current findings, are there signs that the gifted educational community is progressing in its efforts to identify and nurture nontraditional student populations? Or do these areas of contention keep the gifted community at a stalemate? In his reply, Sternberg points to diversity and spottiness, and the danger of generalizations.
"In some communities," he says, "nothing is being done and in others a great deal is being done. There is, of course, the argument that affirmative action is not the right model, because it implies that kids who need it arent as good. In our research, we have moved away from that. It is clear that we have only tested kids for the narrowest set of abilities.
"Once you go beyond that, affirmative action isnt even needed. Im not opposed to it, but we can have the same result without giving the appearance that we have preferences. We can have very diverse representations of students simply by allowing kids to show their creative and practical abilities."
But identification alone, he insists, is not the answerno matter how broadly it is enacted. Without enlightened and broadened instruction, the most informed identification will net little. "If we then only teach in conventional ways, then, of course, we are setting students up for failure," he emphasizes.
The politicization of both gifted and bilingual education yields nothing productive, Sternberg insists, and he points out how fruitless it is to become enmeshed in political considerations when the quality of education for so many students is at issue.
"My theory is based on abilities," he says tartly, "not politics." Creative and practical abilities are important to life. In a world thats changing very quickly, we can no longer afford to do things they way they have always been done. Even the job a person has continues to change while the person has it. It can have the same name, but the individual has to learn to use computers, the Internet, to respond to new supervisors, to new technology, or to new products.
"The extent to which we have those abilities has nothing to do with politics. We need to forget about that and focus on what the abilities are that one needs to cope with the world."
Shifting instruction to accommodate multifaceted abilities places new demands on teachers, Sternberg says, but these challenges can be met. Rather than first emphasizing specific pedagogical skills, he points to the need for understanding and empathy.
"Teachers ideally need to become more aware of their students cultural backgrounds," he insists. "This is particularly important because our research shows that different groups have different conceptions about what intelligence means. What one group considers intelligent may not be considered intelligent by another. The teacher has to understand what values have been placed on intelligence in different cultures or cultural groups in order to understand what they are trying to excel in-and this may or may not match the teachers values."
Sternbergs research supports the importance of cultural congruence with the schools values. In one study, Sternberg and his colleagues looked at groups of Latinos, Asians, and Anglos in California and found very different conceptions of intelligence between the three groups. "The better the match between the parents conception of intelligence and that of the teachers," he emphasizes, "the better the kids do in school."
The politicization of gifted education has been accompanied by a barrage of fire from critics who charge it is elitist, exclusive, and ultimately, not necessary, a type of educational garnish easily discarded. These critics contend that the type of education served up to gifted students would be good for all students, but not all students can partake of it. Are their claims justified? Why are gifted programs needed? "
I believe that what is good for the gifted is good for everybody," Sternberg says, "and I think schools should try to improve education for everyone." But what does that mean, to improve education for everyone? If you have a kid who can learn mathematics quickly, what is the advantage to holding that child back? "
Kids need to be taught in a way that will maximize their opportunities to learn. If a child is able to excel in math or science, we dont want to hold that child back anymore than we want to rush a kid who is not ready to proceed rapidly. We want to teach kids in a way that is effective for all of them.
" He adds, "I dont see how giving all kids the best possible opportunities is inconsistent with gifted education."
The perception that gifted programs are elitist has become too ready an accusation, Sternberg contends, and deserves a second, in-depth look. "Gifted education has become too politicized," he points out. "Many people who are in research basically are politicians wearing the clothing of researchers, doing research with preordained results. There certainly are elitist programs, but each program needs to be judged on its own merits rather than lumped with all others in a mass name-calling."
Perhaps Sternbergs most emphatic point has to do with the multifaceted nature of giftedness--which when considered in tandem with an improved understanding of different cultures, could reform gifted education completely. "Another misconception, which can unfortunately be fostered by test scores, is that people either are gifted or they arent," he says.
But there are many ways to be gifted--not just one way, he concludes. "You can turn gifted education into an elitist enterprise if you do a bad job. But if you look at giftedness as multifaceted and help people to capitalize on their strengths, that doesnt occur."