Knox College Faculty Win Education Research Award

Published study looks at how educators identify gifted students

June 28, 2010

Teachers, administrators, parents, report cards, test scores -- even students themselves -- can all help identify gifted grade school students, according to award-winning research by Knox College faculty Jason Helfer and Stephen Schroth.

Jason Helfer, Stephen SchrothSchroth and Helfer's research, "Identifying Gifted Students: Educators' Beliefs Regarding Various Policies, Processes and Procedures," has won a 2009-2010 Award for Excellence in Research, announced this month by Mensa International, Ltd., and the Mensa Education and Research Foundation. The award included certificates and cash prizes. Past winners of the MENSA award for Excellence in Research include Joseph S. Renzulli of the University of Connecticut, Camilla Benbow of Vanderbilt University, and James J. Gallagher of the University of North Carolina.

Faculty in the educational studies department at Knox, Schroth and Helfer surveyed more than 900 public school educators on their preferred methods for identifying gifted students -- which generally occurs in second or third grade. Their article, published in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted, describes multiple processes used to identify gifted students -- from test scores to personal opinions -- that are often not consistent with each other or with established research in the field.

"Most master's level programs spend very little time with gifted education, and teachers often have difficulty identifying students who are intellectually gifted or academically talented," Schroth says.

For example, Schroth says, teachers believe that teacher nominations are a good way to identify gifted students. But those same teachers didn't give high marks to the factors -- including observation and test scores -- that presumably form the basis for a teacher's nomination.

"Some teachers appear to rely on what we call 'teacher-pleasing behaviors' -- doing homework and behaving in class," Schroth says. "I've taught for years, and I like those things, too, but that's inconsistent with what we already know about identifying academic talent."

Schroth and Helfer found that administrators like to rely on experts, who like to rely on specific performance measures, such as standardized test scores and student portfolios.

"These can be useful, but tests often measure only traditional verbal and mathematical skills," Schroth says. "Portfolios focus on the outcomes of specific projects, rather than how students work through problems."

Schroth and Helfer found that education professionals downplay two of the most accurate methods of identifying gifted students -- parents and students.

"Prior research has shown that one of the best ways to identify gifted students is the other children in the class, Schroth says. "You can ask the students, "Who's really smart in here?' and they'll tell you."

Many educators still use traditional methods to select gifted students, Schroth says, "but we found it promising that teachers and administrators are accepting of the more progressive ways of looking at giftedness."

Once students are identified as gifted, then what? Schroth says that schools can begin with enrichment activities that will challenge the gifted student at the same time that they benefit all students. "By trying to float everybody's boat, schools can help all students do well."

Schroth and Helfer have collaborated to create enrichment materials -- "guided investigations" that use personal history and narrative to engage student interest. Their materials have been used by the American Boychoir, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the National Railroad Hall of Fame in Galesburg in conjunction with local schools.

Their project for the National Railroad Hall of Fame -- "Trunks Through Time" -- is a series of lesson plans that use stories of railroad workers to enhance teaching in several areas, from history to mathematics and music. "The same source material works from kindergarten through eighth grade, so it challenges both regular and gifted students in every grade level," Schroth says.

Helfer and Schroth are co-directors of Knox College for Kids, a summer enrichment program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Earlier this year, their students developed an enrichment program for the regular school year known as Galesburg Enrichment Mentoring, or GEM. Based on the Junior Great Books curriculum, the program will link Knox College students with George Washington Gale Scholars at Galesburg High School, who will in turn work with grade school students.

Educational enrichment in the lower grades is critical, Schroth says. "Students who drop out of high school generally make that decision -- that school isn't working for them -- in the fourth grade, so getting more stimulus to younger children is very important."

A member of the Knox faculty since 2006, Schroth is assistant professor of educational studies, He has a bachelor's degree from Macalester College, a master's degree from Teachers College at Columbia University, a law degree from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate in educational psychology and gifted education from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a classroom teacher, literacy coach and gifted coordinator in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Helfer, associate professor of educational studies, has taught at Knox since 2006. A graduate of Millikin University, he has a master of music and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Illinois-Urbana. Before coming to Knox, Helfer taught elementary school in Illinois and Texas. He and Schroth have collaborated on research into gifted education, and last year they presented a research paper at the California Association for the Gifted on the use of guided investigations to teach both art and mathematics.

The Mensa Foundation supports scholarships, awards, education and research on intelligence. The Foundation's Awards for Excellence in Research are given internationally for outstanding research on intelligence, intellectual giftedness and related fields. The Journal for the Education of the Gifted is the official journal of The Association for the Gifted, a Division of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 45 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.