Twice Exceptional Students and their Educational Rights
Children with disabilities have certain rights to an education, according to a provision in federal law known as Free and Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE. But those rights are often hard-fought by parents. First, parents of children with disabilities that impair their education may request an evaluation to determine whether they meet the criteria to receive services and accommodations through a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Then, they ensure the plan provides the right mix of supports to help improve the child’s capacity to obtain an education.
It takes a savvy parent, or support from professional advocates, to ensure that the child receives an appropriate evaluation and services—and when a student falls into the category of “twice exceptional” families can face an additional set of barriers with too few precedents.
What Does it Mean to be “Twice Exceptional”?
Children who are identified with a disability while also having very high intelligence are known as twice exceptional, or 2E. Criteria for twice exceptionality and giftedness alike have not been adequately defined, which hinders educators’ capacity to effectively identify the needs of these children and provide effective interventions and supportive services.
Children with an identified disability that perform above grade level and can sit quietly in a classroom without disrupting others can get lost in the education system—and while public schools around the country address these children’s needs in a variety of ways, it’s often not done well. Very few have appropriate services to address children’s disabilities while giving them a challenging level of instruction equal to a year’s worth of learning, especially in cases where they are already a year or more above grade level in many subjects. Too often, the argument for special education and accommodations for 2E students falls flat because they don’t appear to be struggling with academics.
Better Supports for 2E Students
Identifying successful advocacy strategies for children with disabilities to access necessary services and accommodations, including those identified as twice exceptional, will help them manage their school day with less stress, achieve greater academic and social success, and forge a defined path toward higher education and employment as they transition to adulthood.
In addition to 504 and IEP plans that provide services and accommodations to support learners’ unique learning needs, gifted program offerings can play a role for 2E students. Some in-school opportunities include pull-out programs (a one-hour weekly session with advanced learning options), specialized courses, magnet schools, Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate programs, dual-enrollment college courses, and distance learning. Supplemental options include after-school, weekend, or summer programs, generally offered outside of public school districts, and at a cost to families.
These opportunities are not evenly or equitably available, however. Widespread funding and programmatic disparities in gifted instruction across the country, and from district to district (even school to school) continue to threaten gifted children’s access to appropriate educational rigor and challenge, leading parents to explore alternatives including private and charter schools, and even homeschooling options. In Minnesota, families also open enroll in neighboring school districts that offer more options for advanced learning opportunities.
The Need for Investment
Investment in gifted education has never been a priority of educational policy at the federal, state, or local levels. When you combine a limited professional understanding of giftedness with a variety of disabilities that gifted children may also live with, the confluence raises even more challenges to effectively educate a sizable portion of children. Inadequate state and federal funding for gifted education adversely affects low-income children and children of color disproportionately, as they are more apt to attend schools in which resources are dedicated to children who do not meet grade-level proficiency in reading and math, while failing to devote funding for children at the opposite end of the proficiency spectrum. Merely advancing students to a higher grade-level for a subject enables them to move through the material more quickly, but often still fails to provide additional rigor or challenge.
One effort worth watching is Universal Plus, a National Center for Research on Gifted Education program through which the Minnesota Department of Education received a five-year grant in 2019. The program is designed to identify a greater number of gifted children in second and third grades, especially those whose aptitude and interest is focused on computer science. The intent is to increase rates of identification for students who are twice exceptional, children of color and indigenous children, and children who have low English proficiency. However, federal funding is nowhere near where it could be to enable Minnesota to fully implement this program statewide, much less provide resources for all states to fully incorporate gifted education concepts and projects into practice.
At the state level, while 36 states mandate gifted services, just four fully fund gifted programs. When funding is limited, identifying giftedness and providing enrichment opportunities to access more challenging material than what schools provide often falls on parents. Families with higher incomes have greater access to have their children tested, enroll in extracurricular academic programs, and cover costs for books and other educational games and materials. While research repeatedly tells us that investing in gifted students reaps generous rewards in higher overall GDP, productivity, and innovation, failure to invest in all our gifted students leaves a lot of untapped potential on the table.
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