You’ve seen the papers. Our Nation’s Report Card, a result of No Child Left Behind, shows who’s “proficient” and who’s not, and some results are grim. But there’s another whole group of kids that many experts worry about: our Gifted and Talented children, who tend to sail above these score charts, but who still may have special learning needs of their own.

If gifted and talented children are already succeeding in school, what’s the problem? Well, say advocates, gifted children think at such high levels of complexity that, while they can benefit from some aspects of a normal school day, they also require curriculum that allows them to move ahead faster and pursue their areas of interest and talent. Remove this enrichment and you may still see good test scores on state tests; but behind those numbers, say experts like Joseph Renzulli, PhD., Director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, there’s a harsh story: lessons that amount to a “search and destroy mission for the correct answer.” Classrooms like these, he warns, can devastate gifted learnings by “driving them away from school and killing the joy in their learning.”

In such a high-risk endeavor, how should we approach gifted and talented education? Building on Renzulli’s work and that of others in the field, the National Association for Gifted Children has created national “standards” of its own. In order to serve gifted kids adequately, they insist, school must provide:

  • Varied levels of curriculum within each grade, going all the way from K-12.
  • Adaptations to the regular curriculum if appropriate
  • Flexibility with timing, so that gifted kids can move faster when they’re ready (and even skip grades or levels if appropriate)
  • A continuum of options, ranging from staying in a regular class to being in a special one.

How can real kids and real schools enact such ambitious programs? In Fairfax, Virginia—the nation’s thirteenth largest school district—staff leaders have worked with researchers both across the country and within the state, through institutions like George Mason University and the College of William and Mary, to establish a “continuum” of service for kids from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Starting in kindergarten, a specially credentialed gifted and talented teacher will visit the class to deliver one of 300 “model thinking” lessons.  What does that look like? “Open-ended curriculum,” explains program coordinator Carol Horn, Ed.D., “designed to get children to think at a higher level but still tied to state standards.” The staff record how children respond, and which children particularly seem to leap at the challenge.

With a gifted and talented specialist on staff at each of the district’s 137 elementary schools, this approach continues in successive elementary grades, but regular classroom teachers will also work with specialists to “differentiate” their instruction, providing adaptations, modifications, and flexible grouping to meet kids’ needs. Throughout this time, they develop a portfolio of student work, parent observations, test scores and staff assessments. Starting in third grade, particularly exceptional students may be referred to one of 23 gifted and talented “centers” across the district—self-contained classrooms within regular schools, where kids will learn academic topics together, but will have recess, PE and other “specials” with kids across the grade.

And how has it worked? Today, 18% of Fairfax students receive gifted and talented services through school-based programs, and program curriculum has been adopted in a broad range of classrooms by popular demand. With coaching by Horn and others, for example, teachers approach state standards with lessons that convey core knowledge, while also encouraging connections to concepts, practical applications, and personal hopes and dreams. A classic unit on the Civil War, for example, might include not just core facts and dates, but discussion of abstract styles of leadership used in the Union and Confederacy, a debate among historical perspectives, perhaps with a contribution or two from a real historian, and time to reflect.

To listen to Horn is to conclude that Gifted and Talented Education is thriving in plenty of schools nowadays. It’s still, she insists, about helping every kid reach potential. “It’s our responsibility,” she says, “to take the standards and lead the students forward.” And while they’re at it, Horn adds, “We always want to make the access to that learning exciting for students. I do think it’s what’s best for kids.”