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Subtracting a 'gifted' gap in math education

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In 1985, the federal government set up "Javits grants" to serve groups traditionally underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. Project M3 is now in its fifth and final year of a $3 million Javits grant. Overall, the federal money pales in comparison with other education programs – just about one penny per child identified as gifted, Dr. VanTassel-Baska says – but it has helped spur progress. School systems have begun to use a better variety of assessments, for instance, including nonverbal tests to find talents that might be masked if students are still mastering language skills.

One barrier is that many schools still look to teacher referrals before evaluating students for gifted programs, says Donna Ford, an education professor at Vanderbilt and codirector of that university's Achievement Gap Project. "Teacher training is critical to recognize potential," she says, but few teachers learn much about gifted education or how to work with culturally and linguistically diverse students. Project M3 took these issues to heart, using a wide range of measures to identify second-graders with "talent potential," and then building in extensive support for teachers.

"It's a little intimidating to an elementary teacher to try to teach a program like this, because it's high-level math," says Jo-Ann Lizon, who taught the M3 curriculum to two groups of fourth-graders at Charter Oak Academy of Global Studies in West Hartford, Conn. The students participate for three years, working on concepts one to two grade levels above what's typical. Every step of the way, Ms. Lizon says, "the support was unbelievable."

Nearly one-third from non-English-speaking households

For two weeks in the summer, she and fellow teachers went through the curriculum with the developers, pointing out any trouble spots. During the school year, they have four professional development days and weekly visits from a Project M3 specialist.

About 30 percent of the students at Charter Oak are from families that speak a language other than English at home. They particularly benefit from the emphasis on vocabulary, discourse, and writing in M3. "I've seen the growth – in discussions about math, working on a team, solving problems, thinking on a higher level," Principal Mary Thompson says.

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