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JOHN MERROW: In this classroom, every student is treated like royalty.
TEACHER: Address me as your king!
JOHN MERROW: At Sherwood Elementary School in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb outside of Chicago, classes are designed to stimulate all students.
STUDENT: My dear Congress, I, Daniel Marlboro, say that they repeal the Stamp Act.
JOHN MERROW: In other words, no child is being left behind, including the gifted. Highland Park, which is in the top 10 percent of per-pupil spending in the state, has made it a priority to challenge gifted students. Alex, who is 6, read a 190-page biography of Nelson Mandela for his book report.
ALEX: I did a report on Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa.
JOHN MERROW: But programs for the nation’s 3 million academically gifted students like Alex are disappearing from schools throughout Illinois and the rest of the country. The National Association for Gifted Children reported that last year, 17 states had no money set aside for gifted education.
SUPERINTENDENT DON ROBERTS, Effingham, Illinois: They’re probably the most underserved students that the districts have, because we spend so much time trying to bring the lower end up, that, you know, you tend to forget about the top.
JOHN MERROW: Don Roberts is superintendent of schools in Effingham, a poor rural district in southern Illinois that serves more than 3,000 students.
TEACHER: What are the southern colonies?
JOHN MERROW: Effingham used to have a gifted program that included separate classes, a gifted coordinator, and a tailored curriculum. When the program was cut, gifted students like fifth grader Parker Johnson moved back into regular classes, repeating what he and others had been taught two years earlier.
PARKER JOHNSON, FIFTH Grader: Every time we have a spelling test, I always get a 100 on it because I already know the words. Because in third grade we were having… the words were like "pandemonium" and all kinds of words like that. It’s boring because I already know all of this stuff, and I don’t want to learn it again.
JOHN MERROW: The federal No Child Left Behind Act has put schools under pressure to help the lowest-performing students. The law requires that all students be achieving at grade level by 2014. If schools do not make annual progress toward this goal, they stand to lose funding. Is it possible that No Child Left Behind is actually causing gifted children to be left behind?
SPOKESMAN: I think that’s a very real possibility.
EUGENE HICKOK: I don’t buy the argument that No Child Left Behind leaves gifted kids behind. I buy the argument that tough choices have to be made, especially during tough economic times.
JOHN MERROW: Eugene Hickok is U.S. undersecretary of education.
EUGENE HICKOK: If gifted education is being compromised, you’re going to have to be able to make the case to me that it’s because of No Child Left Behind as a statute, as opposed to the way it’s being implemented. You have the responsibility at the state and local level, through a combination of revenues from all levels, to provide a curriculum that helps every child achieve his or her potential.
JOHN MERROW: Illinois used to have a state program to support the gifted. It wasn’t much– only $19 million a year for the whole state– but the school districts had to spend the money on gifted children. Last year, the governor and the legislature took that money and put it into one block grant, no strings attached, and told school districts to spend the money as they saw fit.
JOHN MERROW: You could have said, "Let’s keep the gifted coordinator," couldn’t you?
SPOKESMAN: And cut an English teacher or cut a guidance counselor or cut a nurse or cut… yes.
JOHN MERROW: Or cut sports?
SPOKESMAN: Or cut sports. There’s always that perception that one of those gifted kids, they’re going to make it. We don’t need to spend money there; we need to spend our money here.
PENNY CHOICE: Would you, in good conscience, ever cut programs for the mentally handicapped? No. And when "gifted" is just the other side of the same coin, how could you, in good conscience, cut that?
JOHN MERROW: Penny Choice has worked in gifted education in Lake County, Illinois, for more than 20 years.
PENNY CHOICE: Gifted services are going away very, very quickly because of the No Child Left Behind.
TEACHER: You may go to the computers. You may find pictures of Alice in Wonderland.
JOHN MERROW: But the state of Illinois says providing gifted education is up to local districts. As a result, parents in Effingham have to fight for programs they say their children deserve.
WOMAN: I know this is a bit of a dramatic statement, but I almost feel like we’ve literally cut off the heads our best and our brightest.
JOHN MERROW: Kristi Kinney and Jessica Rommel have formed a grassroots advocacy group.
WOMAN: We want to work with the schools for the betterment of all children, not just gifted children.
JOHN MERROW: They’re appealing to local administrators to reinstate the gifted program.
WOMAN: What does the administration feel is the value of gifted education?
SPOKESMAN: My philosophy is you offer the best possible programs for all your students, whether it’s special, whether it’s gifted, whether it’s kids wanting to go to vocational, but you have constraints.
JOHN MERROW: Money is the biggest constraint. Effingham’s per-pupil spending is in the bottom 15 percent for the entire state of Illinois.
TEACHER: Waves begins. We’re going to get rid of the "s," you said.
JOHN MERROW: Teachers in districts without gifted programs must accommodate an enormous range of abilities, which means high achievers often get the least amount of attention. How do gifted kids behave in school if there isn’t this academic challenge?
PENNY CHOICE: Well, if you’re a girl, you are more likely to learn how to shut up, sit down and be quiet. Boys, on the other hand, have a tendency not to put up with that. And sometimes they become real serious behavioral problems.
LANE ROMMELL, Fourth Grader: When I get done with my work, I, like, turn around and talk to the kids that are still working, and then the teacher tells me not to bother them. And then I don’t really have anything to do.
JOHN MERROW: Alexa, do you ever pretend not to be smart?
ALEX KINNEY, Fourth Grader: Mm-hmm. Because, like, sometimes it’s just so boring and dull, like I already know it. I just don’t see any reason in answering the question because it’s just so easy.
JOHN MERROW: So, what do you do?
ALEX KINNEY: I just stay quiet.
JOHN MERROW: I asked your kids, "do you ever hide the fact that you’re gifted?" And they all said "yes." Does that surprise you?
WOMAN: Yes. It does me.
KRISTI KINNEY, Parent: At this age, to think that my child feels like she has to adjust who she is to be accepted is kind of difficult.
JOHN MERROW: Did you ever have a teacher who…
STUDENT: Didn’t understand?
JOHN MERROW: Yeah. Who was — why did you finish the sentence that way?
STUDENT: My teacher this year just, like, really didn’t understand gifted kids. It’s like she is scared of, like, gifted kids.
STUDENT: Yeah, same as me. Last year. I tried to ask for more harder work, and she just ignores me, like she’s scared of me or something.
JOHN MERROW: Scared of you? I wondered why you mean… because you’re smart?
STUDENT: I think so.
SPOKESPERSON: This has been a rough time for gifted education, and we need to show support.
JOHN MERROW: At the annual conference of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, experts like penny choice appeal to the public to get involved before it’s too late.
PENNY CHOICE: Get to know your legislators. Become their best buddy. Gifted kids are leaving school districts right and left.
JOHN MERROW: Where are they going?
PENNY CHOICE: Home schooling. And if they’re rich enough, they can go to private school. But I don’t know about those high-poverty areas. They don’t have those options.
WOMAN: Giftedness has no socioeconomic boundary. So what about those children who live at, or below, the poverty levels?
WOMAN: Don’t look at it. You’ll break it, man.
JESSICA ROMMELL: Who is going to help those children? If they can’t have their needs met by the educational system at school, if gifted kids are not being challenged, sure, some of them will make it, some of that cream will rise to the top. But there’s an awful lot of kids who could have, and should have, who won’t.
JOHN MERROW: In early March, leaders from 28 states, including Illinois, met with members of Congress to urge states to protect gifted education.
TEACHER: You will be exploring this next year, in middle school and in high school.
JOHN MERROW: Meanwhile, providing programs for the gifted remains an uphill battle. In late February, attempts by Illinois state representatives to bring back laws requiring gifted education were rejected.