Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2011

Civic Engagement Program

The Civic Engagement Program is part of CTD’s ever-expanding collection of programs carefully designed for gifted children.

Center for Talent Development

“I’m very proud of what we’ve become, and we’re still becoming ...”
— Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of Center for Talent Development

Gifted Education at the Head of the Class


By Jennifer Beck
Gifted Education

A typical Saturday morning is actually quite extraordinary at the Center for Talent Development’s Saturday Enrichment Program.

Dozens of classrooms across Northwestern University’s Evanston campus are brimming with students riveted to educational activities that cater to the needs of gifted children. In a chemistry laboratory, seventh to ninth graders identify the molarity of salt water from the Atlantic Ocean. In another building, second and third graders learn about light and shadow by studying Monet’s technique and then trying it themselves. Down the hall, third and fourth graders launch into robotics with Legos, learning about math, science and design.

Even more remarkable, the Saturday Enrichment Program is only one of an ever-expanding collection of programs specially designed for gifted students, operated by the Center for Talent Development (CTD) at the School of Education and Social Policy. CTD’s success stems from decades of careful research and planning in gifted education, using proven techniques to identify and instruct students as well as ongoing improvements and evaluation.

This approach has allowed CTD, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this spring, to expand its offerings significantly over the years. Directed by professor Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, a national leader in the field of gifted education, CTD offers programming for students in preschool through grade 12 and is accredited by the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement.

In addition to the Saturday Enrichment Program, available at multiple sites, CTD provides a range of program options, including online classes, summer programs and an accelerated weekend program. These offer maximum variety and flexibility to “help gifted students get what they need,” says Olszewski-Kubilius, noting that schools are not always able to provide adequate resources for the gifted.

Scholarship opportunities have also become an important piece of CTD’s offerings, like Project Excite, which works with gifted minority children from third grade on to provide supplemental course work and ensure they qualify for honors courses when they reach high school. Other vital components of CTD include parent seminars and civic education programs for service learning in communities across the country.

According to Olszewski-Kubilius, who received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Association for Gifted Children in 2009, a key to CTD’s success is that it excels at both research and programming. “Most centers do one or the other well but not both,” she says. “This is a place where we take the research on talent identification and development, and enact it.” Further, she adds that CTD conducts research on its programs and their impact to inform the research literature and to refine CTD programming and service. Overall, more than 500,000 families have participated in CTD’s programming over the years, including approximately 8,000 students in the Saturday Enrichment Program and summer programs last year.

“Kids thrive and grow when they are challenged,” states Olszewski-Kubilius, adding that there is an “optimal level” of challenge. When children begin their programs, it might be the first time that they are not the highest-achieving student in class or that they struggle academically. Therefore, in addition to challenging their intellect, CTD also provides support and encouragement so students persevere with a positive attitude. “We surround our kids with a support system,” she says. In addition to ability and knowledge, factors like mindset, work ethic, resilience and beliefs about oneself impact an individual’s ability to succeed, notes Olszewski-Kubilius. As a result, these elements are carefully integrated into the CTD experience. She also points out the importance of an appropriate peer group for gifted children, so they can spend time with others who understand what it’s like to be intellectually oriented.

Today’s reality at CTD embodies the vision of founder Joyce VanTassel-Baska, who began the project in 1981 and brought it to Northwestern in 1982. According to VanTassel-Baska, she and David Wiley, SESP dean at the time, were proponents of the talent search concept initially developed at Johns Hopkins University. VanTassel-Baska was eager to pilot a similar program in the Midwest that would provide above-grade-level testing to effectively identify gifted children, followed by specially designed programs to serve their needs. To this day, Northwestern University’s Midwest Academic Talent Search is part of CTD and continues to provide testing as well as comprehensive academic guidance. Last year alone, nearly 26,000 students were tested.

“The response was strong from the very beginning,” says VanTassel-Baska, now professor emerita and former executive director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary. By the second year, Northwestern was providing summer courses for gifted children. Further, CTD convinced other Midwestern institutions to offer similar enrichment classes. “The program had enough of an impact that it could influence universities to do more than they already were for this population,” she notes.

VanTassel-Baska admires CTD’s progress over the years. “It stands as one of the premier talent search institutions in the country,” she says. She is pleased with its enduring ability to provide purposeful testing, appropriate follow-up programs, quality teachers, credit classes and an active research agenda.

The research component, which began shortly after the program launched, has been an integral foundation. In fact, CTD was named one of the most prolific research teams in gifted education for 1998 to 2010, according to a study published in Gifted Child Quarterly earlier this year. CTD’s research has explored numerous topics related to programming, including how to create successful intervention programs for underrepresented gifted students. Olszewski-Kubilius explains that it is crucial to identify gifted children in underrepresented populations early and provide challenges that will keep them engaged in their learning. Otherwise, those children are more likely to drop out of the high-achieving category over time.

Recently, CTD completed a study examining peer relationships of gifted students. According to Olszewski-Kubilius, findings revealed the gifted are not dissatisfied with their peer relations and that their interpersonal skills are normal. Next, CTD will be looking at the emergence of talent in preschool-age children. The goal is to understand how talent manifests and how this relates to test scores. Currently, CTD is participating in an American Psychological Association study sponsored by the National Science Foundation exploring the impact of special math and science schools. CTD students attending regular high schools are the control group.

As the new president of the National Association for Gifted Children, Olszewski-Kubilius is also thinking about the focus of her term and topics that are important to her as a national leader in gifted education. She feels that gifted education, with its focus on the development of talent, has a great deal to offer other areas of education such as school reform and closing the achievement gap. “We’re not often asked to be at the table in those discussions,” she says. She is eager to change that.

She is just as eager to advance her work as director at CTD. “I’m very proud of what we’ve become, and we’re still becoming,” she says. In addition to continuing the already ambitious agenda, her team is constantly considering new ways to enhance and expand programming. For example, Gifted LearningLinks, the online learning program that served about 1,500 students last year, recently began offering lessons parents can do with their children in preschool through third grade. Older students in the program now have access to extracurricular clubs.

“It is unbelievable what kids can do,” says Olszewski- Kubilius, reflecting on her overall experiences with the CTD. “It astounds me.”