SRU education researchers focusing on gifted programs in Allegheny County schools


Students in a classroom

Pennsylvania teachers are not required to be certified to teach gifted classes. A faculty-student research team at Slippery Rock University has started a project to examine gifted programs in Allegheny County schools.

Feb. 18, 2022

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — When Megan Kaufman was in high school, she took specially designed classes for students with higher intellectual ability compared to their peers. These students and classes are labeled "gifted" and the designation is important for helping students reach their full potential. But now, as a Slippery Rock University education major, Kaufman is questioning what that even means as she is conducting research that could help schools optimize their gifted programs.

"As I took different gifted classes in high school with different teachers, I found there was a lot of variances to them," said Kaufman, a junior middle-level education English and language arts major from Alum Bank who attended Chestnut Ridge High School. "When I came to SRU, I found out that there were no standards for what (teachers of gifted classes) have to do and really know anything about what it means to teach in a gifted program. I was really curious about why that is allowed, because there's nothing else like that in the (state) education system, and I'd really like that to change."

In Pennsylvania, teachers are required to obtain certificates that correspond to subject areas or teacher-learner situations, such as social studies or special education, but gifted is not one of them.

"Megan came to me after class one day and asked if there's a certification to be a gifted teacher, and I said, 'No, it's kind of random who teaches the gifted programs and there are no criteria,'" said Katie Leckenby, an SRU assistant professor of special education who taught in public schools in Allegheny County for 12 years. "That's when we started talking and thinking that we should look into it more to see what other schools are doing. We want to know if anybody's using a curriculum or has some sort of structure to their programming."



From there, Leckenby and Kaufman wrote a grant proposal and received funding through SRU's Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities Grants Program. This semester, they plan to survey teachers and administrators from 43 school districts in Allegheny County to collect quantitative data, as well as qualitative information, by observing classes and conducting interviews with teachers from at least five participating schools.

"We chose Allegheny County because of its size and the number of districts that have variance between them, from the size of the schools to the resources they have," Leckenby said. "Every district is different in how they identify gifted students. Some have a set IQ that a student needs to have, or some will take more subjective information from teachers, for instance, if students are showing that they need more interventions or can go further. So that's one of our questions -- How do you determine who's in your gifted program? -- and we want to learn more about their curriculum and detect other patterns."

Kaufman and Leckenby hope to use the data they are collecting to inform schools, so they can build more structure and consistency in their gifted programs, but also influence the Pennsylvania Department of Education to explore certifications for teachers of gifted programs.



"A lot of times those programs aren't a priority because it's viewed through the lens of, 'Well, those kids are gifted; they don't need help as much as a student with a disability,'" Leckenby said. "My background is special education, and that's where a lot of the emphasis and funding goes because those students need the most help. But I also think it's important to make teachers more aware of what other schools are doing and what's working for gifted programs as well. When I was in high school, (gifted classes) were like a study hall. There needs to be structure and guidance."

"Gifted programs are not always tailored to the students," Kaufman said. "The goal should be to push them to reach their potential."

Kaufman is reaching her potential as a college student through faculty-student research.

"It's been amazing to work closely with Dr. Leckenby," Kaufman said. "I would love to be a gifted teacher, so it's really important to me because I'm very passionate about it and finding out what works for students. Regardless of whether this becomes a certification, conducting this research will benefit me in my career."

Learn more about SRU's College of Education and its academic programs on the college's webpage.

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