More on the Achievement Gap

Whoa! The achievement gap continues to be a very controversial topic to many SJI posters. I was the guest of my wife, Chris, last Wednesday at San Jose’s Downtown Rotary Club. She invited me because County Superintendent Weis was the luncheon speaker presenting about SJ2020 (a City and school district initiative to close the achievement gap), currently in its embryonic stages. When Superintendent Weis participated in the Q & A immediately following his 20-minute talk, the first question from the audience was predictable.

It’s a question I have been asked for decades in school board, PTA, and faculty meetings, college seminar classes, by friends at dinner parties, canvassing door to door for my election, etc. “If we focus so much on the underachieving students what happens to those students who are gifted and high achievers?” It’s a good question. The answers often times are patronizing and do not adequately answer the sensitivity embedded in the question.

Too often gifted and talented students are at the bottom rung of the list of students with unique learning, social, and emotional needs. To say gifted students are often underserved is a huge understatement.

At the turn of the 20th century, “gifted” was associated with genius. It was not until the onset of World War II that the federal government started taking a keen interest in meeting the needs of gifted students. As usual, the drawing card was the need for the best scientists in order to maintain military superiority. In 1972, the Marland Report on Gifted and Talented Education was presented to Congress. This seminal document provided the basis for the definition federal and state governments use today for giftedness:

“Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”

Somewhere between 2-5% of all children in K-12 schools are truly gifted as measured in multiple ways, sometimes by IQ tests where full scale scores must be at 132 or above. My public school anecdotal action research tells me the numbers of gifted students is around 2% of the total population. Those students who are identified as gifted by the public school district usually learn and process information in genius like ways. These gifted children should not be confused with high achievers.

Gifted students often have a voracious appetite for inquiry and application of information to solve real or simulated problems. Therefore, it is essential to nurture their intellectual curiosity and creative, divergent ability to think.  Due to the paucity of appropriate intellectual challenges in most regular classrooms gifted students are at-risk of feeling alienated from their peers. Their vocabulary, humor, thinking, processing, and feelings about the world are different than their peers. Gifted students must be treated as special need students as much as the underachieving students.

A position paper by the California Association for the Gifted (CAG) states that fewer than 20 percent of gifted students are appropriately challenged in California’s public schools. CAG’s website ( lists the strategies teachers/schools should use in order to maximize learning opportunities for gifted students: differentiation of material/assignments, individualization of the curricular content, and provide significant interaction with intellectual peers.

I believe that city and educational leaders responsible for the SJ2020 planning must pay significant and focused attention to the needs of our gifted students K-8. High schools are organized and staffed to promote gifted students needs through honors, advanced placement classes, and a wide array of opportunities to excel in the arts.

Last week Cupertino Elementary School District Superintendent Phil Quon said due to continued reduction of state revenue they might have to cut gifted programs. I am sure this is happening or has happened all over Santa Clara County with declining dollars. I assert that meeting the needs of our gifted students is as important a civil rights issue as the work we do to bring our lower achieving students up to proficiency in reading and mathematics.

Gifted students deserve an educational system that meets their learning needs. Admittedly, meeting these needs with an overwhelmed and under-funded K-12 school system will be difficult. If we strive to do so by 2020 our valley will reap extraordinary dividends. 

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Thank you for raising the topic.

    Gifted kids need each other.  There is a huge social component to learning.  Kids learn by listening to , explaining to, and copying from each other. 

    “Interaction with intellectual peers” is not going to happen without effort.  Nor will it happen within the confines of the neighborhood school. 

    About one child in 50 is gifted.  A 20 child classroom is unlikely to have 2.  An entire 450 student school would have only nine such kids, spread across 6 grades. 

    In practice, the school will have fewer than that.  Some parents have the money for private school, and will spend it to keep their child from being bored to tears.  (Why spend hours learning the alphabet when your child can already spell?)

    If we want to keep these kids in public school, we need some countywide magnet schools.  Otherwise, you won’t get the peer conversations that gifted kids need.

  2. Is there a Rosetta Stone series for translating the bureaucratic gobbldygook you wrote above, Joe?  Just one example:“Therefore, it is essential to nurture their intellectual curiosity and creative, divergent ability to think.  Due to the paucity of appropriate intellectual challenges in most regular classrooms gifted students are at-risk of feeling alienated from their peers.” How long did it take you to learn to write like that?  What language is that, Joe?

    Let’s face it—public schools for 50 years have worked on the naval convoy model—proceed at the pace of the slowest.

    • John, have you been in a school in the last 20 years?  You might be surprised what you see.  What I see in schools every day is lots of differentiated instruction, small group times with students of different levels, self-paced learning using computer programs that allow students to progress faster or slower depending on their ability, and grouping of students in language arts by their proficiency.

      • I have been in a school in the last 20 years.  I have not seen differentiated instruction that actually works for the more advanced kids.  They still look pretty bored to me.

        Would you put an average kid in a “differentiated” special ed class?  It’s the same theory- that a teacher has the time and energy to develop engaging lesson plans for just one or two kids.

        Of course not.  It doesn’t work.

        It doesn’t work for me, either.

      • Personally, I have not.  But I hear countless stories from frustrated parents whose bright kids are left to languish while the dullards get all the time and attention.

        Yet another reason why private schools keep increasing enrollment.

        Somebody needs to send Joe back to school where he can learn to write in English again, instead of the bureaucratic gobbldygook he foists on us.