Research and gifted education experts have emphasized the benefits of enriched or accelerated instruction for gifted and highly able children. Yet, many school districts balk at the possibility and refuse to provide gifted services. Citing concerns that struggling or neurotypical students (or their parents) might resent ability grouping or enrichment offered to gifted students, gifted services are curtailed or limited. Instead, differentiated instruction within the regular classroom setting is proposed as a panacea, placing unprecedented additional stress on teachers and resulting in limited benefits for gifted students.
Why is there so much resistance to gifted education?*
Services for children with other exceptionalities (such as learning disabilities) are rarely questioned or challenged. Yet, gifted education incites controversy. It would seem that the concept of gifted education itself evokes a range of complex feelings; it becomes a projection screen onto which parents, educators, and political leaders project their hopes, prejudices, bitterness, and fears. I would suggest that the drive to eliminate gifted services often stems from an emotional reaction. Often, the adults in charge - the policy-makers, administrators, and even fellow members of your community - refuse to acknowledge that some children have advanced learning needs. The concept of giftedness - the "G-word" - becomes a dirty word, linked to assumptions related to elitism and status rather than an emotionally-neutral diagnostic label used to inform learning potential.
Of greatest concern is when the "G-word" evokes contempt, envy, and disturbing assumptions about a child's inherent worth. We all want children to receive the education they deserve; yet, some people squirm when considering that children progress at different rates. Many parents, teachers, and administrators worry that supporting gifted education might imply that a child is more of a "gift" to their parents or is somehow "better" than other children. Those with students or children whose intellectual needs fall within the middle or the lower end of the bell-shaped curve (used to group IQ scores and abilities) somehow could be deemed "less than," instead of the wonderful and amazing children they are! Rather than challenging this distorted perspective about abilities, and accepting and loving each child regardless of their academic strengths, some may hope that the whole controversy would disappear if we just eliminated any reference to advanced intellectual abilities.
Of course, gifted education is far from perfect. There are rampant problems with gifted under-identification and how (and even if) gifted services are provided. For example, a twice-exceptional condition - when students are intellectually gifted but also possess a learning disability or a diagnosis such as ADHD, anxiety, or Autism Spectrum Disorder - can obscure gifted identification. Well-meaning advocates for the underserved have raised pointed, necessary questions about how students are identified and placed in gifted programs. The heightened and much-necessary awareness that marginalized groups (e.g., racial minorities, students from impoverished or rural backgrounds, English Language Learners) have been underrepresented in gifted programs has fueled these concerns.
Unfortunately, the baby and the bathwater have been tossed; platitudes about the presumed benefits of heterogeneous class grouping or watered-down attempts at differentiation burden teachers unnecessarily and merely ignore the issue. Attempts to protect and support marginalized groups and struggling students by eliminating gifted services masks the problem, penalizes those students in need of enrichment or acceleration, and perpetuates the excellence gap, where underserved gifted students are overlooked. Essentially, those hurt the most by such policies are those children who would benefit the most from enrichment.
As more adults in charge become educated about the neurodiversity of the gifted, how they learn at a different pace and with greater depth than their peers, and the detrimental effects that result when their learning needs are ignored (e.g., underachievement, increased executive functioning difficulties), the sooner a coherent discussion will arise, along with improved strategies for meeting these children's needs. Improved identification through universal screening, using local norms, and educating teachers and parents about giftedness would be a start. Truly acknowledging that gifted children exist within all racial and economic groups is essential; eliminating gifted services in schools populated by minority and low-income students perpetuates an ugly bias that they do not warrant the academic enrichment available to their wealthy counterparts.
Gifted education should never be considered a privilege; it is a basic right for children to receive the education they deserve, tailored to their individual learning needs. As parents, educators, legislators, caretakers, and those in the helping professions, we must continue to advocate for these children.
(*Please note that I am a psychologist and not an educator. The opinions in this article are based on my review of the literature, my experience with families of the gifted through my psychotherapy and coaching/consultation practice, and my involvement as a parent in advocating for gifted education.)
** For more insights about giftedness from a parenting perspective, please see my new book, The Gifted Parenting Journey. Available through the publisher and on the usual bookseller sites, this book addresses a previously neglected topic in the literature: the needs and emotional life of parents of gifted children and teens. Readers are encouraged to discover the emotions that influence their attitudes and expectations; understanding and distinguishing these emotions from what their child truly needs is key to informed parenting decisions. The latest research, theory, clinical wisdom, and results from an extensive survey of gifted parents’ attitudes are combined to provide supportive tools for parents seeking greater self-awareness, confidence, and clarity.**