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Bush leaves gifted behind

Brightest students are being neglected in US president's drive to improve basic skills. Stephen Phillips reports

Advanced classes for gifted American students are being drastically cut or axed under the Bush administration's drive to drill the 3Rs and instil basic competency in pupils.

The No Child Left Behind Act divides students into ethnic, income and ability brackets, holding schools accountable for improving reading and maths proficiency in each. But one group overlooked in the reforms is the estimated 2 to 5 per cent of American pupils - as many as three million - considered gifted.

Escalating sanctions, triggered by failing to meet annual proficiency goals, are pushing schools to plunge resources into remedial education at the expense of programmes to encourage their cleverest students.

US education secretary Rod Paige has lamented the trend: "We would encourage a system not to do that," he said.

But with most gifted education funded locally, rather than by the US government, it is also a casualty of the round of national belt-tightening.

Illinois and New York recently dropped $19million (pound;10.2m) and $14m (pound;7.5m) initiatives, respectively, while Michigan slashed annual funding from $4m (pound;2.1m) to $250,000 (pound;135,000). Last year, California cut $10m (pound;5.3m), or 18 per cent, from its gifted education budget, and almost one-quarter of Connecticut's education authorities have scrapped special lessons.

"Resources are limited and right now attention is really focused on kids who don't test well," said Becky McCabe, head of Leal elementary school in Urbana, Illinois, where requirements that education authorities pinpoint strong students and tailor programmes for them were also recently lifted.

Instead, efforts to spot infants at risk of falling behind in the state's nursery schools have been redoubled.

Bright students can become listless or disruptive unless stretched, said Ms McCabe. Her school has 400 pupils, a quarter of whom are gifted, reflecting its proximity to the University of Illinois, serving academic families. She fears a brain drain to local private schools offering accelerated learning programmes.

Hardest hit by the reduction in advanced classes are poorer high-fliers for whom transferring out of public education is not an option, say experts.

"Where they remain in regular classrooms and haven't another opportunity, it's socially and emotionally distressing and these kids sometimes act up or drop out," said Gayle Pauley, director of Washington State's gifted and talented programme.

Gifted students are usually identified from test scores, teacher reports and parental input. Provisions range from pulling a child out of regular lessons for an hour each week to academies drawing high-fliers from across an education authority.

However, while No Child Left Behind has prompted schools to shift resources from gifted learning, a countervailing result of its emphasis on test scores has been reluctance to transfer high-scoring students to full-time academies and watch average marks suffer. Allegations that students were held back have surfaced in Ohio, Missouri and Iowa. But Ms Pauley said agreements are now coming in to credit results from students at academies to schools sending them.

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