The state's rule change process is lengthy and complex, allowing for multiple points of open communications with the public, yet before the conversation could even start, the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) cancelled the first workshop suddenly, without any explanation, even to me- the state gifted education specialist. Two days prior to the widely-publicized first meeting where the first draft would be discussed, and in the middle of the public comment period where we were receiving information and edit suggestions from experts and practitioners all over the state (and even from throughout the nation,) the process came to a halt, presumably because of conflicts with other state priorities at the time (the legislative session and many other pressing issues,) but also likely because many in the gifted community were not collaborating in the efforts to discuss the potential changes.
Hundreds of copies of one letter that was written by a district gifted coordinator from one school district were sent to the FDOE, these were copies of a letter "alert" that was sent out by a representative of a gifted organization in another county, declaring the rule change would somehow create problems for funding gifted education, due to a lack of the word "program" in its text (even though the word program was directly in the title, and even though the state has moved away from calling exceptional education services "programs," because they are supposed to be individualized and not merely a program...) And also stating that the rule change was more than what was needed, and that the current "Plan B" system was sufficient, the Plan B being a rule section that allowed districts to create more flexible identification plans for students from low socio-economic status and English language learners instead of relying on a required cut score on IQ tests that were controversial in whether they were culturally biased, (even though the majority of the plans that districts filed with the state for approval were based on cut IQ scores after all, and the FDOE could not deny them, as the decision to use that criteria did not break the law... and even though the districts had not improved diversity in gifted programs across the state for most historically under-represented student subgroups under this alternative option.)
Misinformation ran rampant, but as an employee of the FDOE, I was told to wait for approval from multiple levels of supervisors before I could proceed with any response. This was the same system that kept us working quietly within the department to create the first draft of the rule change, because until we posted the rule draft as available for public comment, I was told we could not speak publicly about it. So perhaps some of the community members who instigated the misinformation campaign did not understand that this was merely a first draft so we could bring up many important issues for discussion, such as the importance of universal screening of kids across at least one grade level so districts can find more eligible students than only those who are referred, as which occurs in many districts, if anyone is even referred at all in some... Or the issue of allowing for multiple criteria instead of only using IQ test scores as a gate keeping mechanism, since so many gifted kids may not show their abilities and their needs for social-emotional support through just one kind of test... Or the need to include wording that requires districts to ensure equitable processes, such as communicating better and linguistically-equitably with their community members about the process and their service options, so all parents will be aware of the services available for their children and therefore some families are not left out due to miscommunication.
There were so many important reasons we needed to have this conversation about improving our identification process in Florida. And many of my coworkers from bureaus throughout the FDOE were working hard with me and our revision team to open the conversation up so we could make the rule the best it could possibly be. We had people specializing in psychology, language diversity, multiple subject areas and more participating in the first draft efforts. And we got the workshops, and even the draft we started with, approved by all the supervisors... all the way up...until it was put on hold. We had huge support for updating the rule. For making it possible for us to have a conversation that would help better identify giftedness than the almost two-decades-old current rule does.
The current rule was based on old research. In the last ten years alone, research has highlighted the ways gifted students' brains work differently than other children's. We have seen best practices developed that highlight the importance of the social emotional skill development of our asynchronous gifted children, and the need for more executive functioning practice. We've developed better inservice training opportunities for teachers, so we can support gifted students who are underperforming, and we've learned that it is best practice to find and nurture the unique nature of our quirkiest and even most underperforming gifted kids. We've learned that giftedness is not about high academic achievement, but it is about who a child is, fundamentally, and that gifted kids experience life very differently than other students and therefore need more support than was initially believed by educators who based their information on stereotypes and fears about elitism. And throughout the years the FDOE tried to improve it to make it less biased and improve the racial and low income and English language learner statistics that were even under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office. But the changes were minimal and then were changed again due to court cases that eliminated wording requiring racial equity in the plan.
We know that most parents want what is truly best for their children, so elitism is not necessarily the enemy here. When given training on what giftedness really is, parents often can identify their children quite accurately and will be honest about whether they are really seeking gifted social emotional services or if their child just needs access to more of a challenge. The more districts provide options for acceleration and challenge to those students who are not gifted, but who are ready for higher levels of learning, the less we see parents feeling forced to get their children incorrectly labeled as gifted to access those higher level classes. The more we move away from the incorrect belief that being gifted means always being the best at everything, the more we can support the kids who truly are gifted and need extra support the most. And the less it will be required that parents (who have the financial ability to do so...) whose children don't qualify for services in the districts, shell out their own money to try to obtain support for their children privately. If a child is gifted in Florida, they may not be identified if they don't have the skills necessary to score high on an IQ test. And often it unfortunately comes down to our system rewarding those who already have advantages with more advantages, rather than really serving all of our gifted kids.
And on that note, take a look at your local gifted program... Most districts (if they even have any gifted services,) identify kids and then put them in classes with teachers who still are required by state law to meet the general academic standards and there is no enforcement of, or even any requirement that they do the business of teaching any differently than in classrooms with general education students only. The standards are the same. The report cards are usually the same. And in most classrooms the methods of teaching and learning are very similar. There may be academic acceleration, but if there is, usually that acceleration is whole-class acceleration. This is based on the fallacy that gifted students all need the same level of acceleration in the same subject areas. If a student doesn't succeed in that class, then the district usually doesn't have many other service options. Either you are gifted and high performing, or you are not going to get gifted services.
In fact, some schools push gifted kids so hard that they enter the gifted program as merely gifted, but due to the program not fitting the student, they end up labeled with other problems, from "underperforming," to even having multiple behavior disorders, ADHD, or more. Gifted "programs" are not the answer. Gifted individualized services with multiple tiers of support are the answer. (And multi-tiered systems of support are actually required by the state for all students, including gifted kids...) But not all districts are prepared to offer multiple service options. Perhaps that is why the letter "alerting" the public not to support changes to the identification rule came from a district coordinator. There have been focused efforts by some of the same anti-rule change advocates in the past. About ten years ago a group of gifted and psychology specialists attempted to change the rule to multiple criteria rather than only IQ-based, and they were met with similar resistance. Change is hard, and it requires a lot of work to switch things sometimes. Although, one could argue that changing the rule would save time and money in the long run. And save lives.
As parents and gifted advocates in the community, we need to think hard about what it means to serve gifted kids. Do we merely want to recognize those highest performers who have parents who are in the small communications loops in their districts and who have money to push the hardest for their kids to have the tutoring, extra curricular activities and extra support that is needed for success in our current programs? Or do we want to find gifted kids who have huge potential but may not always be our highest scoring test takers, and provide them with the social emotional support and academic resources to also succeed?
By changing the identification rule to better serve all of our gifted students, all of our kids benefit. I used to hear people say they didn't want underperforming gifted kids in their kids' classes. But there are already some of them in those classes. And sometimes they are slowing down the accelerated learning for other kids. Wouldn't you prefer that districts had multiple options so that those students could get the support they need so they can succeed too? And wouldn't you like to see other options than a one-size fits all type of gifted service in your children's schools, so that if your child excels in math but not reading, your child could continue to excel and even accelerate in math, but not be kicked out of the "gifted program" due to not doing well in his or her reading? This may not be how things go at your child's school, and perhaps your child is one of the lucky ones with a truly differentiated and individualized learning experience. But I have traveled the state and can assure you that not all districts provide such service options. And many don't even recognize or serve gifted kids.
Why wouldn't they identify their gifted kids, you may ask? There are a lot of reasons, but many have to do with only having one allowable way of qualifying them- the IQ test. Individualized IQ testing is expensive. Some districts cannot afford to pay for the testing. The way the law is currently written, gifted education funds from the state are combined with other exceptional education funds and districts get to decide how they are spent. Districts who feel they need to support their other exceptional students with that money are legally allowed to do so. And some districts don't even have people in leadership roles with gifted training. They also may not know that giftedness can be present in underperforming students, and if their districts are not high performing, they may not even believe they have enough gifted students to make up enough of a class to pay for the teacher, (and they may not be aware that gifted kids don't need to be isolated in one classroom if they have a teacher who otherwise is trained and can differentiate for them in their regular classroom...) I've also seen districts who have enough funding, but their district psychologists are overwhelmed and the referral paperwork sits on desks for months and months, awaiting their turn at evaluation. (And parents don't know to complain about the timeline being too long...)
By allowing for multiple criteria, we could ease up some of these stresses and districts could use the money they are spending on IQ tests (or that they should be spending on them,) to instead provide more resources and training in the schools.
We are losing kids as we speak. One of my students I taught the year before I became the FDOE gifted specialist was one of the kids I'm talking about. He was a multi-racial child with big dreams and so many wonderful but distracting social emotional needs that made him struggle at times to fit in with other kids. He was gifted, but not formally identified. He needed so much, and I went to Tallahassee hoping to work for kids like him. I wrote about him in my blog too- you can see the story at http://oneworldgifted.weebly.com/blog/i-really-can-see-you-finding-hidden-giftedness-in-middle-school-kids-who-otherwise-could-be-lost. This amazing child lost his life a couple of months ago. He was found by his little brother, hanging in his home. He needed so much support and I feel terrible that I wasn't able to do more for him. But there's still time for us to find and help other gifted kids who need us. This child we lost was not just my student, he was my friend. And when I left to go work at the FDOE he made me a little poster to hang up- it was a copy of my face from a photo, pasted on a superhero body he cut out of construction paper. He said I was "Super Gifted Woman," and that he knew I would go fight hard for gifted kids. I hung that picture above my desk and looked at it every day. We need to do some amazing things to help those kids. It's time for us to do what others have struggled to do before- to change "how it's always been," and get through the initial hard work and change our system to really be responsive to the needs of our kids.
Georgia changed to multiple criteria 20 years ago. And Alabama changed their law to require universal screening a decade ago. Florida is behind the times and outside of best practices and updated research.
We need to insist on better for our gifted kids, and especially those who are not identified by the current system and likely have much less of a voice than those of you who are reading this article do. We have work to do. And I'm excited to continue with it. We have support in the FDOE. The people who are still in those offices, holding on to the work we already have done just need to hear our voices and know they have our support. And we need to spread this information like wildfire, so more people will write to the governor's and the education commissioner's offices and ask them to reopen the workshop to change rule 6A-6.03019, Florida Administrative Code, so we can have universal screening and multiple criteria for gifted identification.
The first draft of the rule wasn't perfect. We received some wonderful suggestions for improvement and we had a second draft ready to present next. It's time that, that second draft be publicized for comments to continue, and for the rule to finally be changed to bring Florida into the modern gifted education age.
We have a chance as a community to dream more about how we can improve not only the identification rules, but also how the rules can push the needed changes in expanding support opportunities for our kids. If the way we identify them changes to be more inline with actually finding giftedness, then the schools will also have to change and be more innovative in the ways they serve them. It's time for us to stand up together and ask for these changes, especially while we have so much support and so many people know we are losing these underserved kids who otherwise could be very successful.
Please take a moment to add a comment to this and consider asking the state to reopen our gifted education identification rule workshop so we can have the community discussions we need to have to better support our gifted kids.