Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eliminate gifted education (?)

What would happen if gifted services were eliminated? Would this better serve gifted children?

A recent article recommends not just finding a less controversial term, but eliminating the concept completely. The authors contend that budget-strapped school districts waste too much of their limited funding for gifted education on identifying students, leaving next to nothing for providing an education. They also claim that many gifted programs are still not serving the needs of advanced learners, that teachers can use differentiated instruction to address this problem, and that a label of gifted is unnecessary since all children deserve an education consistent with their learning needs.
What do you think?

The authors’ emphasis on meeting the needs of all students is commendable, and their critique of the current delivery of gifted services is certainly valid. Yet, their recommendation carries certain assumptions that pose serious consequences for gifted children:

1. It assumes that high ability (gifted) learners will be easily identified by classroom teachers. We know that gifted students (particularly those who are from low-income families, from a racial minority, are underachievers, or who are twice-exceptional learners) are underidentified. Many teachers have little education or training in gifted education, hold stereotypical views toward gifted children and their families, and don’t understand the depth of their academic needs. If many gifted children are not being identified despite efforts and regulations in many states, how would elimination of the gifted label benefit these children’s academic needs?

2. It assumes classroom teachers will readily focus on gifted students’ learning needs. In spite of regulations in many states, gifted students are still underserved. Most school districts focus on the needs of struggling students, and little time is available for gifted students. Most teachers devote their energies to those who appear to be struggling the most. For example, a 2011 Fordham Institute report found that when teachers were asked where they would direct their energy if they had time available for individualized attention, 80% claimed that they would attend to their struggling students, whereas only 5% stated that their advanced learners would receive attention. 

3. It implies that diagnostic terms are unnecessary. The label or "diagnosis" of giftedness follows from an evaluation conducted by a psychologist or school psychologist. Regardless of whether the diagnosis is depression, a learning disability, or gifted intellectual abilities, the purpose of any label or diagnosis is to provide clear, understandable information that is consistent, easily communicated, and will aid teachers or therapists in their work with the child. Although the term “gifted” incites controversy, why is identifying individuals whose intellectual abilities are 5% above the norm considered unnecessary? Would these authors also recommend eliminating other diagnostic terms, such as those used to identify individuals with learning disabilities or special education needs?

In fact, while the authors claim to support NAGC, their opinions are not consistent with the organization's goals. The NAGC's 2012-2013 State of the Nation in Gifted Education report clearly supports widespread availability of gifted services: 
"NAGC urges lawmakers and education leaders to develop a comprehensive state strategy that removes barriers and expands access for more students to a full range of high quality gifted education services, including:
• training in gifted education for all teachers and school leaders
• state policy allowing a wide range of acceleration options
• following gifted and talented students as a separate population in
student achievement accountability measures"
In yet another paper, the NAGC states their position:
"The National Association for Gifted Children recommends that gifted education services, including identification, educational programming and support services, and teacher training be mandated by legislation in all states and funded at appropriate levels." 
The authors also, unfortunately, convey the misconception that giftedness cannot be defined and that it carries an aura of status that excludes others. They state: "'gifted' is an educationally nondescript concept, yet it also connotes an endowment that some students receive while others do not."  While some school districts waffle on definitions of what constitutes a gifted program, gifted intellectual functioning can be identified (with some exceptions) by an IQ of 130 or greater. And to imply that the label of giftedness is an "endowment" fuels stereotypes that instill bitterness and misinform the public about gifted students' intellectual and social/emotional traits.

The authors conclude their article with the following: "By focusing less on the child's label and more on the child's needs, we will better serve those students in our schools"  These lofty goals would be wonderful in an ideal world. But parents of gifted children, and most educators and psychologists working with gifted individuals recognize that this utopia does not exist. 

Retaining a label that identifies gifted abilities safeguards the precious few services these children currently receive and ensures their future accessibility. Eliminating identification is a shortsighted solution and creates a dangerous precedent that could set gifted education back for decades. Improving and enhancing learning for all children is critical; eliminating identification of gifted children will not aid in this process. 


  1. Completely agree! Identifying kids for gifted is so important and should not be gotten rid of.

  2. Totally agree. Being gifted is itself a special need as the population's needs are not met in school and the kids often do not thrive in a typical environment.

  3. As one of the authors, I can say that this blog post represents a complete misrepresentation of what we said in the article. Our position is that the concept of "giftedness" has not helped assure that advanced learners are challenged. Has it helped do this in some cases? Absolutely. But on the whole / across the nation, the majority of "identified" students remain underchallenged and there are also large numbers of students who need more challenge who go unidentified. Nowhere in the piece do we suggest "eliminating gifted education". Instead, we suggest that the same goals of greater student learning, growth, and engagement could be just as effectively met without the concept of gifted. Part of this statement assumes gifted programs or services have goals - an assumption that is by no means safe.

    Set gifted education back? From what? I am confident that those students who are served in gifted programs do enjoy them very much, but so would most students. Simply having fun in a program or enjoying it does not make for an appropriate outcome since it's something we should want for all students - not just the gifted.

    The numbered points from above:
    1. This is a complete straw man argument. Nothing in our piece suggests gifted students should be identified by teachers. In fact, two of the authors have done extensive research on teaching ratings and nominations.

    2. Nothing about what we are suggesting assumes teachers will do anything. All we are saying is that the concept of "giftedness" fails to assure teachers do anything as far as challenging advanced learners. Even in states where "gifted" is part of special ed, the vast majority of students (including identified students) go underchallenged - including those identified. New evaluation methods focusing on growth might be a more effective incentive than any non-descriptive label. If teachers will now be evaluated on the growth of all students, maybe the label will become less important? Wishful thinking, but maybe.

    3. This is a straw man argument as nothing in our piece states that diagnostic terms are unnecessary. The problem is that "gifted" is not diagnostic for a classroom teacher. It is so vague in what it means or can mean that it does not tell a teacher how to change his or her instructional methods or curriculum. In some states there are dozens if not hundreds of ways a student can be identified. #3 also makes a factual error in how the vast majority of students are identified (at least in schools). "Learning disabled" carried very detailed and specific criteria. The same cannot be said for gifted. Even if we agree that gifted = 130+ IQ, this is still not a helpful piece of information for a teacher since it doesn't tell him or her what specific academic content the student knows and/or still needs to learn.

    1. Anonymous, I appreciate your extremely comprehensive comments in response to my blog post. As you did not identify yourself, I have no way of knowing if you are actually one of the authors of the article; nevertheless, I will assume that you are and respond.

      1. While you did not suggest that teachers identify giftedness specifically, you implied that they should determine the needs of gifted students and meet those needs. This would involve assessment. As you state: "This new process is intensely local. Teachers should ask: 'Who is not being challenged in my math classroom today?'... Once these questions are answered, the next step is to determine the educational intervention necessary to ensure that the student learns something new." While this sounds like best practices for any teaching strategy, it certainly implies that it is up to the teacher alone to assess each students' needs. If a teacher is not adept at understanding the needs of the gifted, he or she may miss the pace and depth of learning needed.

      2. In those states where gifted services are legally required, teachers ARE expected to meet the students' needs. Eliminating a concept just because teachers are unprepared does not solve the problem. The growth model you suggest is wonderful; however, growth for typical learners is different than for those who require a more accelerated and challenging pace. This is not related to previously acquired knowledge; gifted children think differently and need to be challenged differently.

      3. While there are various definitions of giftedness, most would agree that a 130+ IQ is a baseline. The range of definitions is confusing; however, developing a more standardized definition and training teachers to understand more about the intellectual and social/emotional needs of gifted children would be a sign of progress. Specific academic content is not as relevant to gifted children as creativity, depth, and pace of learning.

      Again, I appreciate your thoughtful response. My primary disagreement with your assertion is that elimination of the term, whether ii is "gifted" or another label, will result in dismantling what few services these children currently receive. Thanks.

    2. I encourage you to read the book, Beyond Gifted Education to gain a better understanding of what the authors are proposing. In addition, focusing on current performance and needs rather than IQ numbers is in line with recent research studying intellectual abilities on either end of the spectrum.~Erin Morris Miller

    3. Erin, Thanks for the information.