U.Va. Researcher Aims to Improve Gifted Education for Urban, Rural Students

Carolyn Callahan headshot

U.Va. education professor Carolyn Callahan and colleagues are working to improve access to high-quality gifted and talented programming for underrepresented student groups in both urban and rural settings.

Programs for gifted and talented students have long been perceived as a programming option for suburban, upper- and middle-class students, said Carolyn Callahan, professor of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and an expert in gifted education. 

With two new grants totaling nearly $4 million, Callahan and colleagues are aggressively working to improve access to, and the quality of, gifted and talented programming for underrepresented student groups in both urban and rural settings.

“Students of color and students from low-income and rural backgrounds are significantly underrepresented in gifted and talented programs nationwide,” Callahan said.  “And that isn’t because they aren’t gifted. We must get at the heart of and solve the equity issue.”

With $2 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Callahan and colleagues from the University of Connecticut will study schools in Colorado, North Carolina and Florida.

The researchers will examine how school districts in these states identify gifted students from underrepresented populations and how they structure programming so that those students are successful. “The ultimate goal is to find programs that work and explain why it is they are working,” Callahan said.

One element Callahan expects to find in school divisions that have an increased number of gifted students from underrepresented groups is the presence of talent-development programs.

Such programs are typically seen in kindergarten through second grade – even as early as preschool – and are designed to provide extra support to children who may be entering kindergarten already behind, and also to provide unique programming designed to reveal skills and abilities in students identified as having high potential for giftedness.

“A child coming into kindergarten may have potential to be gifted,” Callahan said. “That potential can be realized if the environment is such that the characteristics of giftedness are developed. These are the children who, once exposed to an enriched environment and high-level opportunities to learn, surpass other children in learning rates, and ultimately, achievement.”

Without that environment, the potential is unlikely to be recognized or developed, she said.

A second element Callahan expects to find in successful programs is culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy.

“What I hope we will find is the curriculum in gifted programs that respects the legitimacy and importance of different cultures, incorporating cultural information into the curriculum instead of simply adding it on – not only covering the writing of Shakespeare and Robert Frost, but also Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as integral parts of our literary heritage,” Callahan said. 

Once successful programs have been identified, Callahan and her team from the Curry School will conduct in-person site visits.

With a second grant of nearly $2 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program , Callahan will join Curry School alumna Amy Azano, an assistant professor of education at Virginia Tech, in working with rural school divisions in Virginia to identify more gifted and talented students.

“We find a similar phenomenon happening in rural schools that we do in urban,” Callahan said. “Students from rural schools are significantly under-identified as gifted.”

Beginning in two school divisions in Southwestern Virginia, Callahan and Azano will test the use of the CLEAR curriculum model of gifted instruction in rural settings. The model is known to successfully integrate several approaches to gifted education and includes principles of good curriculum and instructional practice, Callahan said, but has not yet been tested in rural settings.

The researchers will modify the curriculum according to principles of place-based education, asking: Where are these students living? What is their life experience? Are those experiences reflected in the curriculum? Answering these questions will help create a culturally responsive curriculum within the larger framework of the CLEAR curriculum model, Callahan said.

“The units will be modified to integrate the unique experience of life in rural America,” she said. “These students will recognize part of their own experiences in the selection of reading materials and writing exercises given.”

After piloting the revised curriculum and researching the results in the two Southwest Virginia school divisions, the researchers plan to expand the program to 12 more rural divisions over the next two years.

“Our aim is to reach rural school divisions around the state, from Southwestern Virginia to the Eastern Shore,” Callahan said.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

School of Education and Human Development