Gifted Education: A Deeply Flawed Learning Framework

Students learn in their classroom | Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

By Kelsey Stichter

“Children who are gifted are defined as those who demonstrate an advanced ability or potential in one or more specific areas when compared to others of the same age, experience, or environment. These gifted individuals excel in their ability to think, reason and judge, making it necessary for them to receive special education services and support to be able to fully develop their potential and talents,” — Davidson Institute

Gifted. This term dominates the way that the American education system classifies students. Today, approximately 3.2 million students in public schools across the nation are classified as gifted (USDOE, 2012), with massive disparities in the differing economic and social statuses of these classified youth. The Gifted system is no longer a tangible solution to cater to high-level youth, and nor can it even accurately identify who these high level youth are. In some districts across the nation, the percentage of students in advanced academics, gifted, and talented programs in regular-level schools exceeds 50% of the student populace, bringing into question: Is the gifted system truly identifying advanced students or rather providing as a result of the opportunities the student was raised with?

In 1901, the first gifted school in the nation opened in the town of Worster, Massachusetts, following decades of speculation over the idea of innate cognitive superiority in certain youth. By 1920, this movement had quickly grown and spread across the majority of American cities, with participating youth in gifted programs selected via testing.

In the modern day, the Gifted and Talented (GT) framework has barely adjusted any better. Contemporary GT programs are flawed in three primary regards. The first of these major flaws lie in the effects of labeling youth as gifted (and the effective presumption of other youth as therefore ‘not gifted’). The second flaw is in its ineffectiveness in actually providing for advanced students. The third being in the resulting de facto use of the GT system as a proponent of advancement for an exclusive few on the upper side of the wealth spectrum, and the decline of BIPOC and low income communities.

The dangerous effects of a suggestive term

When students are constantly notified about their intellectual superiority, the need (or perceived need) for studying and due diligence in the early years of one’s school becomes aimless. Studies repeatedly indicate that the term ‘gifted’ has negative effects across the board, whether it be in the students classified as gifted or in the students effectively deemed “regular”. The most imminent threat to the development of a growth mindset occurs when an individual is convinced that their intellect is inherent, as argued by the iconic psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck. After a student’s first years of school may come easy, students will ultimately face challenging courses, courses that, by the student’s lack of earlier preparation, will render them void of necessary tools to study. This can cause these students to fall behind, and be lost compared to their peers who have been studying to succeed in school.

“ The most imminent threat to the development of a growth mindset occurs when an individual is convinced that their intellect is inherent.”

Being labeled as gifted brings considerable health concerns. The pressure of being expected to perform at the highest level 100% of the time is extremely damaging to children and young adults and can not only affect the student’s overall health but their ability to function in their daily lives. Anxiety, depression, perfectionism, and OCD are common issues among students who have spent their academic careers being placed on a pedestal by their teachers, parents, and peers. Academic “burnouts” can occur easily; if the mental suffering catches up to these students, they may often lose sight of the need to continue their schooling, and may completely lose motivation.

Students who are labeled as “average” or “below average” are indicated to, whether consciously or not, that their intellect is inferior. Often, this suggestive term results in a drop of confidence in youth, based on the belief that one may be less able to succeed if not ‘gifted’. This notion, a notion of self failure if not ‘gifted,’ is statistically disproven. In Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed academic journal on the education system, Vanderbilt University professor Jason A. Grissom and Christopher Redding of the University of Florida both conclude that observed relationships between success and giftedness are fairly small.

Another overarching deduction of the study was that whilst white gifted participants benefit the most from advanced education programs, “Black and low-income students do not see the academic gains that their peers experience when receiving gifted services.”

The other conclusion of this study, which was presented at the American Educational Research Association 2021 Annual Meeting, is that “no evidence that participating in a gifted program is related to non-achievement outcomes such as student absences, engagement in school, or whether a student leaves or stays in school,” which monumentally disproves the notion of gifted participants being more behaviorally dependent or less prone to negative actions. Often, this dominating notion leads to disastrous neglect of gifted participants’ need for personal care.

For many schools entirely serving the GT populace, the story is entirely different, subjecting students to a rigor that standardized assessments simply cannot determine readiness for.

These students are placed in higher-level, more “exclusive” classes which cause them to be isolated from their peers. When a child is placed in an upper or lower-level course, there becomes extreme competition and a placed hierarchy within education that can cause tension between peers. Sometimes this competition causes large divides in social groups since certain children feel lesser about themselves, and socialization issues between them can arise. Additionally, in some cases, “gifted” students are forced to only focus on academics instead of their social lives, and by the competitiveness prevailing in these institutions, mental health of these students can rapidly degrade.

Ineffective, Inefficient, and Inaccurate?

In some school districts across the nation, gifted has become the norm. Such a high proportion of students are classified as gifted that gifted education is no longer an advanced academic framework, and rather it becomes the traditional framework with a new name. This has an extraordinarily negative effect on both actually advanced students and students classified as regular. When the gifted system becomes the baseline, the regular system becomes a tragic setback for students’ education, holding youth back from their potential. Furthermore, when gifted becomes the baseline, ‘gifted’ programs no longer provide adequately for advanced students, as many of the students classified as gifted

This phenomenon of over representation in the gifted apparatus is particularly prevalent in wealthier districts. Gifted programs in the DOE’s classified Title I schools (schools in historically disadvantaged areas), are often non-existent, underfunded, or only serving a minority of students who could benefit from such a program.

Gifted programs, in their current state, ultimately overlook the vast majority of advanced students in these Title I Schools, which hurts students even harder than the disproportionate overcount of advanced students in wealthier districts. When a student’s potential goes unrecognized, a deficit forms and the student is denied the resources they need for their personal advancement.

This deficit is a stark reality. A study from Purdue University indicates up to 3.6 million youth, primarily youth in BIPOC communities and Title I schools, go uncounted in their ability, effectively unrecognized in a system supposedly created to recognize such ability.

BIPOC communities are vastly underrepresented in GT programs nationwide. The aforementioned study that concluded a lack of benefit for Black and low-income youth receiving gifted services shows another flaw in the gifted services system. The only means for advanced education provision is based on pre-existing privileges and support, and gifted services cannot effectively be provided independent of such home-based resources. Gifted services aren’t the foundation they should be. These services only can build upon an existing foundation of privilege and support.

It is about time that gifted education is a foundation for support and education, not just a consequence of an already built foundation.

Ending the “Gifted” Divide

“Gifted and talented”, when used with respect to students, 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.

— 20 USCS § 7801(27), Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Gifted education has one of the most legally lenient definitions in education law, only having been clarified once in the history of federal education policy and legislation (shown above). The incessantly vague terminology used in education policy in regard to ‘gifted’ doesn’t become any clearer in state laws either. States such as Alaska define gifted as simply as “exhibiting outstanding intellect, ability, or creative talent,” with no mention whatsoever of any determinants or qualifications (i.e. ‘top 2% of the state’s population in ___’). States such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and South Dakota have no definition for ‘gifted’ and yet still operate programs under the ‘gifted’ label.

The purpose and target group of gifted, when undefined, opens way for gifted education to be used for ulterior motives. That’s exactly what has happened. Ending the gifted divide means acting for all students and ensuring education access across the board. It means defining advanced students in order to actually provide for them and it means relabeling/rethinking the terminology we use.

If society aims to end the gifted divide, the first step is defining the gifted label and changing the way advanced education is perceived, not as an indicator of an innate superiority, but rather as an individualized support system for youth who are ahead. Ending the gifted divide means using innovative means and phasing out standardized testing quotas that enforce disparities and are defined on access. Ending the divide means providing these support systems as a fundamental right, wherein close-access advanced education is a right and a reality, not a privilege.

The future of education depends on how we act now; especially when it comes to the huge differences in education for gifted vs. non-gifted students. The education system should focus on academic equality, and ensuring every student gets similar quality education, and equal opportunities regardless of test scores. Test scores are proven to be inaccurate indicators of future success or cognitive capacity, widely outdated and misleading. American education must shift to ensuring that classrooms are not divisive and pressuring, but rather inclusive and focused on providing comfortable learning opportunities for all students. Different levels of education should still be provided for those with differing educational abilities, yet not far enough for it to negatively impact health, wellness, and the ability to interact and socialize.

About the Author

Kelsey Stichter is a 17 year old student researcher from Illinois. A high school senior, she will be graduating soon and plans to pursue Sociology in college. She is passionate about research and informing individuals on important issues, and in the future hopes to be a leader and impact society, whether it be large or small. Kelsey is currently a research coordinator at Simply Gen Z.

Edited by Zakareya Hamed

This Article is Made Possible through Coordination and Partnership with Simply Gen Z (simplygenz.com)

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