In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Lynette Baldwin has served as executive director of the Kentucky Association for Gifted Education (KAGE) since 1999. Among her responsibilities are planning conferences for Kentucky educators who work with gifted and talented programs and lobbying the Kentucky legislature for change. Baldwin is retired from the Paducah Independent Schools, where she was an elementary teacher and teacher/coordinator of the district’s Gifted/Talented/ Creative Program.
Q: The Kentucky Association for Gifted Education (KAGE) held its 35th annual conference in Lexington in late February. What were educators talking about at this conference?
A. With it being the legislative season, of course the budget kept coming up, and the possible reductions in allocations for gifted and talented was an issue. The other issue that came to the surface is looking at what we call the excellence gap in gifted and talented. One of our conference speakers, Dr. Jonathan Plucker, is the author of the term “excellence gap.” The excellence gap is when you look at children from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are in the top-achieving groups and how they fare through school. It may be that they enter kindergarten doing well, but as they go through school their achievement drops off. It is not that they can’t, but they aren’t recognized or pushed beyond what is expected of them because of their economic status. They will get to proficiency, perhaps, but never beyond. There is a lot of concern about those kids. Our concern at this end, of course, is how do we find them, how do we identify them and how do we keep them in services? How do we get other people to realize these children are there and need help, and then be able to recognize them?
Q. Were strategies for identifying these children discussed at the conference?
A. Dr. Plucker always recommends that we look at whether there are policies that look at these children, and he also suggests professional development. We need to get people to understand these children’s needs and that the public schools must look for these children and be ready to serve them. We look at initiatives, new bills and regulations that are out there, and how our gifted and talented students and those from excellence gap are faring within those regulations. What’s in place for them?
Q. Does your association provide professional development at school level?
A. Not so much as an organization, other than our statewide professional development conferences, which are in February, June and September. We try to address issues dealing with identification or services to gifted and talented kids at those conferences. We have individuals within the organization who do go out and work with schools on in-service, but that is as school districts contact us or as they contact the individuals. Some districts around the state really reach out for help. It depends on district leadership and how much they understand the nature and needs of gifted kids as well as their desire to see that all children are being provided continuous progress, regardless of who they are and where they are on the spectrum.
Q. The state budget is likely to be lean; how will that affect gifted and talented education?
A. We are currently at $6.6 million in funding, and we’ve been at $6.6 million for a very long time. Our buying power has greatly decreased, even though we have maintained the $6.6 million for the last few bienniums. We have a really strong regulation (704 KAR 3:285. Programs for the gifted and talented), one of the strongest in the country and I have no direct piece of evidence that I can lay my hands on to say how much it would cost to really implement that regulation. But I would guess, I would estimate $100 million. Well, we don’t have that. We have $6.6. million.
Q. How are those funds distributed?
A. The $6.6 million is divided among all the school districts, based on total student population. If you are a very small school district, you are going to get a very small amount. It might equal $12,000. That is not enough; every district administrator will tell you so. It keeps the regulation from being fully implemented.
Q. That budget, you have said, must cover salaries for staff, teaching materials and the process for identifying gifted and talented children. Can you explain why the identification process is more complex than people might expect?
A. We identify in five areas of giftedness (general intellectual aptitude, specific academic aptitude, creative or divergent thinking, leadership, and the visual or performing arts). Two areas break out into five other areas. Specific academic aptitude breaks into reading, math, science, social studies and language arts. Visual and performing arts breaks into dance, drama, art, vocal music and instrumental music. Each area has its own kind of identification tools and assessments. You can’t give an achievement test and identify children in all of those areas, and you can’t give an IQ test, a cognitive test, and identify all of those children. So the identification process takes time, money and people who know what they are doing.
Q. Is the identification process done adequately now?
A. It is done as best as districts know how and can afford to do it. They use as much of the state assessment as they can but if there is not a state assessment in an area, they have to find an alternative way to do it and use the resources they have. If they don’t have adequate financial resources, they really have to be creative in what they do and still meet the letter of the law.
Q. How does awareness of the needs of gifted and talented programs compare now to when the movement started in Kentucky more than three decades ago?
A. There is a great deal more. I was in the early movement 36 years ago and we have come a long, long way. The fact that we have the strong regulation is a good indicator, and we have strong districts like Casey, Bullitt and other counties that have really come forward with what they do for the kids. Within the General Assembly, we may not be getting the funding, but we are not unknown. There are still pockets of people who say, “Gifted? I don’t know what you are talking about.” But for the most part, we have come a long, long way. I see hope.
Q. You gave a shout out to Casey and Bullitt counties. What are those districts doing for gifted and talented that could be implemented elsewhere?
A. The key is leadership in the district, an understanding of the issues and a philosophy to serve all children. A lot of it is changing attitudes and philosophies toward teaching. We still do not have enough pre-service training for what to do with gifted children, and that makes a difference because new teachers may or may not have any idea of what to do with a gifted child.
Q. Any examples of what some of these smaller counties have done that prove districts can be effective with limited funds?
A. Bullitt County has put in place several acceleration options. Acceleration is a strategy needed by all gifted children, but it is one of the least-used because people don’t understand it and are afraid of it. Acceleration means changing the pace of the curriculum to fit the child. Breckinridge County is making a strong push with professional development-- it sent several people to the KAGE conference.
Q. How has gifted education changed?
A. What is happening now is that you have to use more than one service option. And we are much more inclusive than when we started because we are looking for those children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Q. So in the beginning, there was not the emphasis on underserved children as there is today?
A. Not so much. We were struggling to find our way at the beginning, and we have learned over time.
Q. So there are many more services offered to gifted children now than in the beginning?
A. Yes. Within the regulation there is a list of service options that must be offered, including various acceleration options, advanced placement, honors courses, differentiated study experiences, distance learning, enrichment services, mentorships, independent study, seminars, special schools, or self-contained classes (for grades 4-12). The services must be offered during the regular school program, which was included for children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who do not have transportation after school and for kids who have jobs after school.
Q. What are the priorities for gifted education?
A. Budget is always at the top – sufficient funds to fully implement the regulation so districts don’t feel like they are scrambling, having to pull from one area to pay for another. And, professional development for teachers so they fully understand the nature and needs of gifted children and appropriate identification procedures.
Q. Attendance at the KAGE conference in February was higher than usual. You said that the educators who attended were very engaged.
A. People wanted to find information that they could take back and use to improve their programs and services for gifted children. At our conferences, I don’t see people leaving sessions. One day, we had box lunches. I saw people grabbing lunches and getting in little knots to talk. When I walked by groups, they weren’t talking shopping, they were talking about what they are doing in their schools, what they could do and what the speakers were saying.