If you want smarter kids, treat them as if they're smart.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Here’s a brilliant idea: if you want smarter kids, treat them as if they’re smart.

A U.S. Department of Education evaluation of a North Carolina program shows that when at-risk students are taught as if they are gifted and talented, they are likely to perform better academically.

The pilot program, called Project Bright IDEA, operated between 2004 to 2009 in kindergarten through second-grade classrooms in 11 North Carolina school districts. Five thousand students were in the program at schools that receive federal funding because of a high percentage of low-income children.

The study found that within three years, the number of children identified by their school districts as being academically and intellectually gifted ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent, compared to just 10 percent of children in a control group. The year the project began, no third-graders from the schools in the study had been identified as gifted.

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Teachers in the study received intensive training on strategies aimed at gifted children.

Some schools have since adopted elements of the strategy, including Fuquay-Varina High School, where the achievement gap between white and black students declined by 6 percentage points in the past four years.

The project was based on the view that all kids can learn gifted behavior, said William “Sandy” Darity, professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“We disproportionately locate black and Latino kids in those environments where they get the dumbed-down instruction,” Darity said Friday. “So one of the exciting things about Project Bright IDEA is the premise that you provide this high-level curriculum and instruction to all the kids.”

That means you can eliminate what is, in effect, “internal segregation” that happens within schools when teachers group students for lessons, Darity added.

The training of teachers is key, said Margaret Gayle, co-designer of the program and director of the American Association for Gifted Children at Duke. The program was designed to give teachers new skills tailored for advanced students.

“They challenge students more; they do more with problem-based learning,” she said. “They get a lot of higher-level instructional strategies, they know better how to motivate kids.”

Educators say the methods don’t mean that teachers have to work harder, but that they do work smarter.

“A lot of times, especially with the younger kids, a lot of teachers will like to dumb down the language that they use with students,” said Danielle Dingus, a second-grade teacher at Northeast Elementary in Kinston, a school that has adopted the concept. “What we do with Project Bright IDEA is we expose the students to language they are going to need to know and use in the real world.”

Training teachers on a large scale would not be cheap. In workshops and weeklong summer programs, the teachers were taught by experts how to develop students’ behavior, including how to pose questions, take risks and invent solutions.

Teachers need new tools, said Darity, as opposed to penalties.

“Many of the educational reforms, or so-called reforms, are aimed at pushing teachers out who appear to not be successful in their classrooms,” he said. “This approach is saying we really need to give teachers an opportunity to reorder and recreate the way in which they engage with their students.”

It’s not a radical idea, added Gayle. All professions are retooling.

“We need to retrain every teacher in America, just the way we retrain our doctors and other professions, to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” she said.

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