Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Gifted and Talented: A Step Forward, or a Step Back?

By Ackel BraidePublished January 1, 2017

Gifted and talented programs have proliferated across the United States as a solution for educating our brightest students. But does the program do them a favor, or work against them?

Every year, hundreds of eager parents line up in front of of Queens County's family welcome center seeking information on enrolling their kids in one of New York City's gifted and talented programs. In fact, 16,580 4-year olds in New York City took the gifted and talented test last September, and 2,366 of those children were given spots in their school's gifted and talented program. This program has become very popular and well known, with an estimate of three million children enrolled in gifted and talented programs across the nation. At this point in the program's lifetime, we have to ask ourselves what our children are really signing up for.
    According to the United States Department of Education, gifted students are "children, or youth, means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities." Research shows that gifted students are often underachievers because they are typically disengaged in their work and critical of their teachers, despite their intellectual ability.
In theory, an environment where one can provide students who are labeled as "gifted" with a rigorous environment where they can thrive would prevent some of the most talented students from falling into the trap of the intelligent underachiever.
    Gifted and Talented policies have their roots in studies done in the early 1900s which focused the needs of students who were considered to have advanced mental capabilities. In 1958, the National Defense Education Act passed, becoming the first national policy to encourage testing students for their gifted abilities. Since then, more legislation has been passed since in order to expand on these programs. Only fourteen states do not mandate some sort of gifted program, and out of those, five states still partially fund gifted and talented programs.     
On the surface, these programs seem great. They provide opportunities to students who need them. However, gifted and talented programs are not all glitter and gold. There are some several issues with this program that education systems still need to address before identifying them as the end-all-be-all to the issues that gifted kids face.
    For one, gifted and talented programs end up excluding a lot of gifted students. As shown in New York City, while many students qualified for the gifted and talented programs, 35% of them were excluded simply based on the volume of students the program was able to accept that year. Additionally, because the gifted and talented programs are typically based on a test score, you may be excluding students who are high achieving but may have not done well on the test. A test score is a very inefficient way of deciding whether someone is worthy of being labelled as "gifted", and we do our students a disservice by labeling them this way.
    Gifted and talented programs also are lacking in diversity. When New York times visited Public School 163 on the Upper West Side, the minority students typically were typically sorted into the "normal" classes, while the white students were typically in the gifted classes in school. Due to the parent-centric nature  of gifted and talented programs standardized testing biases towards white students, minority students are often accidentally overlooked. Additionally, some gifted and talented programs are shown to outright discriminate against minority students. In Illinois, the gifted program was found guilty in court for having gifted programs that discriminated against Latino students. When we have a system where our populations that most likely need specialized attention are the ones being deprived of it, then something needs to be changed.
    Lastly, programs are also not an efficient strategy of improving education for gifted students. Studies have been done students who were on the margin of gifted and talented. They found that test scores of margin students in gifted and talented programs had similar test scores to students who did not make it into gifted and talented. Gifted and talented isn't even sticking to its original goal of helping these students achieve at greater rates.    
    So if gifted programs are not the answer to our question, then how do we serve our gifted students? The answer may be to not distinguish them at all. Instead of separating students into categories, what if we focused on more individualized education for all students. Allow students to focus more on the subjects they want to focus on, and teach students to be hard workers, not that they were more "gifted" from birth. If we want our gifted students to succeed, then we need to stop looking at them like superior intellects and begin to look at them as four year olds and educate them as such.