Gifted education has become an increasingly controversial topic. Research shows that just as gifted education magnifies opportunity for some, it may impede opportunities for others. Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divides persist in every aspect of American education. Findings suggest that gifted education is one part of this divide.
This means that gifted education is at a crossroads. Where we go from here will have serious consequences for the best and brightest students. Indeed, for many young learners, the competition to go to an elite college begins as early as kindergarten. This is when many promising young students earn the coveted classification as “gifted” kids. The gifted designation is an inroad into specialized learning opportunities, unique enrichment activities, advanced classes, and individualized recognition. In other words, it is a pretty big deal for young learners with long-term designs on attending an elite college.
U.S. News & World Report notes that
racial disparities are widespread. For example, in the 2017-18 school year, white students were 48% of the public school population, according to NCES data, but made up roughly 58% of those in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) programs, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Education. Black students represented 15% of the overall student population but only 8% of students in gifted education.
This disparity has been at the center of both national discussion and local school board skirmishes. A high-profile administrative shakeup in the San Francisco school district qualifies as both. Writing for the Virginian-Pilot, Joann P. Digennaro, President of the Center for Excellence in Education, reported that
On Feb. 16, three San Francisco school board members were unceremoniously expelled from their seats in a landslide (more than 70%) recall election. A few issues were involved, but one major factor in the removal was their attempt to replace merit-based admissions with a lottery at the district’s extremely prestigious Lowell High School.
In other words, these school board members were ousted by the local voting public for attempting to dismantle the existing gifted education program in a Bay Area noted both for producing elite students and breeding persistent socioeconomic disparity.
At a time when people on opposite sides of the political aisle cannot seem to agree on even the most basic facts, gifted education actually enjoys widespread bipartisan support. Digennaro notes that in
a poll released by the Institute for Educational Advancement in 2019, at least 64% of Democrats, 67% of independents, and 61% of Republicans say federal funding for gifted students needs to be increased. It can be deduced that voters of all stripes generally reject the premise that gifted education must be sacrificed at the altar of equity.
The takeaway from Digenerro’s assertion is that gifted education is, in and of itself, a widely popular educational priority. Unfortunately, as the article by U.S. News & World Report notes, the impact of today’s gifted education programs simply cannot be judged in a vacuum.
Unequal access to opportunity creates unequal visibility. While students with above-average academic talents are easy to spot in affluent suburban and metropolitan schools, gifted students from low-income neighborhoods, marginalized communities, and remote or rural regions may languish without access to attention, opportunity, or the resources to engage in specialized educational experiences. In other words, while gifted education may offer considerable benefits to those with access,
the identification systems that we have do not appear to work very well.
Such is to say that the problem is not the existence of gifted education itself, but the infrastructure that determines who gets in and who doesn’t. Given how much is at stake for those deserving of a gifted designation, such determination is critical.
It is for this exact reason that the city of New York—in a pronounced counterpoint to what is currently playing out in San Francisco—is dismantling its existing gifted education program. In October of 2021, the outgoing mayor, Bill DiBlasio announced that the nation’s largest school district would be phasing out its gifted program in favor of accelerated in-class learning for select students.
The former mayor did so in the face of stark evidence that the existing gifted program contributed directly to the city’s already persistent racial and ethnic disparities. According to the New York Times,
Though about 70 percent of the roughly 1 million public school students in New York are Black and Latino, about 75 percent of the roughly 16,000 students in gifted elementary school classes are white or Asian American. For years, rising kindergarten students have gained access to the program via a high-stakes exam that some families pay tutors to help their children prepare for.
That said, the racial complexity of this issue is compounded by yet another layer. The same article in the New York Times points out that many otherwise disadvantaged Black and Latino families have leveraged charter school access and high-stakes testing to gain access to the district’s vaunted gifted programs. This, for many families, has been a lifeline in the absence of mainstream curricular opportunities and an important stepping stone out of low-income communities.
This underscores the complexity of the issue. The value of heightened opportunity for gifted students is indisputable. But the structure of many gifted programs, as well as the distribution of opportunities, may leave much to be desired. Efforts to simply homogenize educational experiences are misguided. The real objective should be to streamline the strategies used to identify gifted students across all races, demographics, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Gifted education should not be canceled. It should be expanded.
Such expansion should include greater attention and proactive outreach to demographics that have otherwise been overlooked.
A positive example comes from New York’s immediate neighbor to the south. In January of 2020, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a new set of parameters around gifted education. These parameters are intended to simultaneously strengthen gifted education opportunities and improve equal access to these programs.
Accordingly, the new policy
states that school districts must establish a process to identify students as gifted and talented using multiple measures. These students require modification to their educational program if they are to achieve in accordance with their capabilities. The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) Office of Standards refers to standards developed by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) to assist school districts in examining the quality of their programs and services for gifted learners in grades Pre-K to 12.
Among the noteworthy provisions of this new policy are initiatives aimed at providing opportunities for those with disabilities, autism, and other learning differences, as well as identifying “equity issues pertaining to gifted education.”
Whether this actually contributes to more equal access remains to be seen. But it may point in the direction of identification strategies that promote proportional representation in gifted education.
In the midst of so much political wrangling, there are countless gifted students who will be impacted by the decisions rendered in individual school districts. Through no fault of their own, many gifted students may be deprived of the opportunities for enrichment and accelerated growth that might serve them far better than a traditional educational experience.
This matters. No child is guaranteed positive developmental outcomes. That includes gifted children. In fact, a failure to truly cultivate the talents and impulses of gifted children can magnify feelings of isolation, difference, anxiety, idleness, resentment, boredom, and depression.
Family Education warns that
Being gifted academically can make a child feel different from her peers and may even lead to the child being bullied and becoming depressed. Studies have shown that the more intellectually gifted a child is, the greater the risk of social difficulties and unhappiness.
Gifted education gives young learners a chance to interact with others who share their unique degree of talent. It can also help young students develop strategies for managing their feelings, navigating challenging social situations, and channeling their abilities in positive ways. To deprive gifted students of these experiences is to deprive them of a crucial developmental opportunity.
The pursuit of equality can and should be engaged without creating this deprivation. Ultimately, the goal of gifted education should be to widen opportunity so that all deserving students get the chance to thrive. Gifted education is valuable. But it could be doing so much more. It could be opening the door wider to talented students from a diversity of backgrounds.
Children of color and children from difficult socioeconomic circumstances deserve a chance to be seen. And schools in marginalized communities deserve the resources to create elevated opportunities for their best and brightest. These young, gifted learners deserve the same clear line of sight to an elite college education as their affluent peers.
That said, at Inflection, we always like to stress the importance of viewing the entire educational landscape. Elite colleges create elite opportunities (and lead to elite student loan debt). If you think this is the best path for you, find out what you are up against with a look at 7 Facts About Ivy League Admissions.
On the other hand, depending on your educational and professional goals, your best opportunity may await you at one of the top colleges or universities in the U.S. for less than $20,000 per year. Check out our look at The Most Affordable Colleges and Universities in the U.S. to Learn More.