Who Is Gifted? Why Does It Matter?

Having authored a dozen or more columns on gifted education, it’s easy to predict reader response. It’s unfailing, in fact. There is a well-organized parent advocacy army associated with educating our brightest kids, always at the ready to respond to published commentary, claiming anything less than a full-bore endorsement of extra resources and programming for gifted kids is Not Enough. Because they deserve it.

Essentially, I agree with them. In fact, I got a Masters degree in Gifted Studies, back in the day (way back), because I thought I wasn’t challenging my most accomplished students and wanted new ways to deepen their musical learning. I actually thought I represented the ‘talented’ part of ‘Gifted and Talented.’

Stepping into Gifted World was revelation, however. Educators in the field were mostly interested in whether curriculum for the gifted should focus on acceleration or enrichment. (Acceleration won.) And, of course, the core disciplinary question was just who was entitled to such enhanced curriculum. I learned about the range of testing tools to identify giftedness and creativity. There were cutoffs and variables and labels. There was a fair amount of dissent, even hostility. And nobody was talking about kids with exceptional talents in the arts.

My thesis involved surveying music teachers around the state, who were very kind and willing to respond (in the days where that involved paper and the US Postal service). Most of them offered excellent ideas on strengthening and expanding musical excellence in their own classrooms, as well as special instruction, camps, honors ensembles and other challenges.

Although musical talent is overlooked in the ‘gifted’ discourse, I remain interested in gifted programming in public and private schools. I have taught any number of genuinely gifted students over 30+ years, kids whose interests and capacities, across the academic board, were extraordinary. I saw bright students who didn’t fit in formal programs for the gifted and sank like stones. I saw kids whose parents seemed to have one goal: winning non-existent academic races. I saw children whose unique and remarkable gifts seemed unrecognized—by everyone, including their own teachers.

Gifted programs have come and gone over the intervening decades (mostly gone, as funding dries up and the focus shifts to data-based accountability). But this week, I read an article from Hechinger that took me right back to grad school and the never fully-clarified question: Who is gifted?

The most troubling aspect of gifted classrooms is that they tend to be disproportionately filled with white and Asian students while bright black and Hispanic students often get overlooked. Indeed, gifted and talented programs can sometimes look like a clever tool to separate children by race or ethnicity in school. In New York City, for example, white and Asian parents who have the resources and/or inclination to prepare their four-year-olds to excel on standardized tests snag almost three quarters of the coveted seats. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students make up more than 65 percent of the public school system.

The article focuses on slicing and dicing test data, asking insulting questions about whether ‘watering down’ a talent pool by allowing kids who test in the 92nd percentile to take classes with kids in the 99th percentile is ‘fair’–a word that presumes precise, certain numerical identification of ability and potential based on one test score (the MAP test, in this case). Fair to whom?

There are lots of presumptions in the article—that only certain students deserve to be offered special instruction, that students who missed a couple more questions on a computer-delivered test are inherently less capable than students who may have had two lucky guesses, and that segregating students in racially-similar schools makes identifying gifted kids and offering them tailored instruction easier.

Troubling, indeed.

The tsunami of readily available testing data has led to articles and arguments about percentages of a human quality as slippery and ill-defined as giftedness. It makes sentences like this possible:

Education experts, like the rest of us, argue endlessly over whether it’s a good idea to accept the trade-off between achievement and diversity.

Think about that. Should any educator—let alone an expert—see ‘accepting’ diversity as an option, and then only if it doesn’t get in the way of faster delivery of the same content? Or meaningless higher scores? There are a lot of questionable value judgments embedded in this one sentence.

It’s questions like these that make people skeptical about the value of exclusive programming for gifted children. If programming for the gifted is just another data-driven contest, a prize to be won, then it’s a waste of resources. There needs to be a solid rationale for offering bright children across the spectrum—rich and poor, black, brown and white—rich and stimulating curriculum, distinctive instruction and unique programming.

It was that rationale—kids deserve opportunities that match their capacities and talents—that drove me to study education for the gifted. It’s enough. But only if we can avoid excluding and ranking children, and hoarding opportunity through the use of achievement data.

Nor can we demand allocation of more resources for the gifted on the basis of ‘national security’ or ‘the Chinese are doing it,’ as this article does. National security is an important goal for every American citizen, no matter what their achievement test scores reveal.  We’re not going to accomplish security (not to mention life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) without offering a meaningful education for every single child, no matter what they bring to the table. photo-1532168881420-27ec4ba493a6

9 Comments

  1. My issue is not so much with “gifted” whether kids or programs but the fact that so many kids are bored in school, especially bright kids regardless of race, socio-economic status, religion, etc. Teaching to either end of the spectrum or the mediocre middle misses so many individual kids especially those with “special needs” and those can be kids with learning differences and challenges or the brightest and most creative kids in the class. What we need are more individualized programs tailored to each student’s particular needs, interests, abilities while recognizing that all students have gifts of one kind or another. This begs for a longer and deeper discussion and with the advent of so much technology, there are more resources than ever before.

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    1. Thanks, Gary, for a thoughtful comment. I agree. When I see articles suggesting that kids in the 92nd percentile will be holding back kids in the 98th percentile, I understand that whoever wrote that believes data is more real than kids and their distinct individual needs.

      If school weren’t set up–via grades, tracks, college admissions and endless tests–as a giant competition, vastly more students would be willing to risk engaging with challenging ideas, and stretching themselves intellectually without fear of failure. I also agree that we do not spend nearly enough time tweaking curricula and setting kids free to explore the world, using available tools.

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  2. The attitude in our school district is that being GT doesn’t mean the kid is just smart and they need to be pushed to accomplish as much as possible. It means that the child needs special services or they may not succeed at all. At the original informational meeting the director stressed that being gifted means your child is just as likely to end up living in your basement as they are to have a brilliant career.

    My daughter would have been OK without the program but some of her friends really struggled, even with the extra help. When she says a teacher is “used to GT kids” she means that they can handle the classroom issues they cause. Unfortunately, I don’t think this approach to GT is the norm. For another district here I think GT means “kids who will bring up our test scores”.

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    1. I appreciate the distinction you draw in your opening sentences. As I said in the blog, I’ve seen students with exceptional capacity sink like a stone, simply because those gifts weren’t carefully nurtured (which is different from being pushed).

      So here is my question: Why, given that GT awareness and programs have been around for more than four decades, are we still seeing articles in responsible publications like Hechinger that compare students using test scores and suggest that it would dilute the effectiveness of a gifted program to include a child scoring in the 92nd percentile (but the top of his class)? Don’t those children deserve special instruction and consideration? Or is this just–as you suggest–a data chase, because that’s what we do now?

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  3. I was a parent that wanted my children in GT in elementary school. They were both very bright and bored in school and I thought this would be best for them. I live in a wealthy district outside of DC and our schools are funded well. What I found out was that being in GT meant different things depending on what school a child was assigned. I didn’t know at the time that it was all about the standardized test scores and wealth of the polygon of the school that made the difference. My children were still bored and I didn’t know why. My Spidey-senses became aroused.
    First of all, in my zip code, I found out that a child needed to only score a 50% on the Skat (?) test to enter the GT program, but in the” McMansion” zip code a child needed to score 85% and then in the area with the largest Asian population the score was 97%. That was certainly a discrepancy that warranted more investigation……
    FARMS population per school…AHA!!! My children attend schools where many families live in seedy motel rooms up on the highway and the other schools had very few children on FARM subsidy. But certainly poor children are smart, too……I volunteered at the school and all the children seemed bright and I didn’t know who lived where. So more questions…….
    Standardized test scores….boy, were ours low in our polygon.
    An “AHA” moment for me and one that needed a bit more investigation. My children sat bored because they were the kids that would produce better test scores for the school. The resources were plowed into test prep at our school to try and raise the scores. There were a few teachers that fed me some information. There wasn’t much learning going on anywhere at our school. Our kids had no text books but lots of worksheets. Our kids had no hands on science experiments. Science and social studies were split. 20 min recess was all they got. They had 1 hour of english and math in the morning and 45 mins. of english and math “data analysis” (what I found was that this was test prep) in the afternoon. The wealthy schools had fun learning seminars and outside programs brought in to make learning fun.
    The more I found out, the more it made me sick. The only way for me to take a stand was to deny the powers that be the test scores that my children produced. I was the only parent in our schools to REFUSE (we have no opt-out, so it’s civil disobedience) the tests….ALL of them. I pulled child #2 and put him into regular math classes at MS since the “GT program” led to the AP madness at the high school level. Child #1 remains in public school and will graduate next year….she is very “artsy” and her only problem is that she will have to take AP Calculus as a senior due to putting her into GT in ES. Child #2 now goes to private school (that we pay for) and for the first time comes home talking about how much he loves school and how much he is learning.
    Lessons learned. The kids in the wealthier polygons aren’t any smarter than the kids in my polygon. There is nothing in our water system that makes our kids any smarter than the kids in the next county over. What we have in my county are parents with too much money and an over exuberance to game the system in favor of their children (tutoring, bigger PTA funds etc). GT in our area is just a smoke and mirrors scheme designed to make wealthy parents feel good about using their children as trophies and to drive the real estate market. Not many GT kids here….but lots of money!

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    1. Thanks for the detailed report. GT kids are a real thing–and they do deserve to have instruction that fits their needs. But all kids deserve to have instruction that fits their unique skills and interests. When it becomes a data-fueled competition, everyone loses. Good comment.

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  4. I received my certification in gifted and talented ed. too. The gifted programs in the schools I worked in were spotty. Elementary had once-a-week pull out programs where children worked on projects that would have been interesting to all children. This created resentment. Gen ed. teachers often disliked the disruption the class caused. They also started a science magnet school in one school district where I lived, but it seemed a little too focused on just science.

    Middle schools sometimes offered resource advanced classes, but high schools I knew of relied on AP which has nothing to do with gifted education.

    Poor children get left out of the gifted loop because their parents might not think to have them evaluated. Or, like previously stated, their boredom might get them in trouble.

    I believe most of what is done for this population is superficial and not consistent. The students might succeed anyway, but there’s little substance to the programming. There might be some school districts that do it well.

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    1. Thanks for some great observations, Nancy. You are one of the few people I know who actually studied gifted education and clearly sees the mistakes made. I especially like your first point, which reflects my experience as well: Too much programming for the gifted is/was simply in-depth projects or problem-solving that would benefit all students, if we could take away the fear of grade-driven risk. In fact, many very bright children fear risk as well, having been awarded top grades all their lives. Kids who had experienced the occasional (or frequent) bad grade were far more willing to think out of the box and experiment, digging deep into both useful and useless solutions. You know, enriched learning.

      It’s not surprising that districts institute a raft of AP classes to satisfy parents who want acceleration. I didn’t write about this, in this blog, but I have never understood the advantages of extreme acceleration. Go deeper, yes. Faster? In many (not all) cases, even when the 8th grader (for example) can easily do 11th grade Algebra II, it leaves them at the end of curricular offerings when they’re socially immature.I know that many 14- and 15-year olds can accomplish the range of HS-level curriculum. But what is the benefit? Sending them to college at 15 or 16 has its own set of problems. Can you do a gap year when you’re too young for a work permit?

      Some of my most extraordinary musicians were average students in other classes. One percussionist (who now lives and works as a studio musician in Los Angeles) was perceived by other teachers as a C student, but wrote lyrics and discussed social issues with ideas far beyond what you see in 8th grade. He never would have been tagged as a GT kid, because his work in other classes was so perfunctory.

      The problem is, as you pointed out, schools do things like using test data to identify giftedness and believe that numbers are truth, rather than seeking out each child’s gifts.

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  5. I will also add, that one of the reasons I got certification in this area, is because while working with students who have learning disabilities, I found many who were also gifted artistically, or sometimes musically. Twice exceptional children are not a rare find. It is quite common, and schools should actively seek these students out so they and their talents don’t get lost in the crowd..

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