Gifted and Talented

In a previous post I discussed one aspect of the Special Education population. But another end of it are those we call “gifted.” I often hear from teachers I work with that the gifted students are shortchanged in our educational system, though like other “special needs” students Federal law states that schools are required to attend to the special needs of these students as well.

According to the Federal definition “The term ‘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 such areas 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.”[1]


The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the main advocacy group for gifted education, makes very explicit their belief in the genetic nature of giftedness and their belief it the accuracy of Intelligence Tests. They are also clear that they see this population as underserved by schools, stating, “America [is unable] to properly meet the needs of its most able students.”

My problems with the gifted education label are several fold. One is that it assumes a “fixed” belief in intelligence. These students are, by this term “gifted” in the sense that they are born superior intellectually in some ways—these gifts and talents are in some way innate. I find this problematic from both a scientific standpoint and from a moral standpoint. The idea that some people are born smarter is not an established fact, despite the claims of the NAGC, though it is a very popular concept and one that most of us intuitively believe. The fact is that whether some are born with more or less potential, we do know as a fact that our experiences –our education—has a huge impact on our intelligence, and that it can change at any age. In other words, I believe virtually all students can be gifted and talented if given the opportunity, and more importantly, there is no way to sort ahead of time those who can be and those who cannot. We can only measure what someone can do and has learned so far, and so we have no accurate way test for potential However, our assumptions that we do can become self-fulfilling prophesies in both directions.

Just as with learning disabilities, the label is highly subjective. As can be seen, the definition is quite vague. The “objective” part comes from scores on standardized achievement tests and IQ tests, both of which I find highly suspect.[2] Intelligence tests, and standardized tests cannot and do not measure some real object, but a construct, and idea. They are designed by people who had and have a predetermined notion of who should do well and who should not. If the results do not give the expected results it is the test that ends up being changed. The definition is also highly subjective in terms of how one decides a particular student “gives evidence of high ability” in the non “academic”  areas—who gets to decide if one is artistically gifted, etc.

While we find students from low-income backgrounds and minorities overrepresented in the learning disabled category, we find them underrepresented in the gifted and talented category. This is likely due to two factors—one is the high correlation with scholastic and testing success and socio-economic status. The other is the ability of higher SES families to advocate for getting their children the advantages of the gifted and talented label.

Another major problem I have with the label is similar to my issue of the label learning disabled—labeling students and the message it sends. Do I really want to send the message that some students are “better” and more valuable than others? Separating out kids as smarter and dumber I think is not good for a democratic mentality. This elitist mentality is very clear if you read any of the literature put out by organization supporting the idea of giftedness.

Just as importantly, I also dispute that “gifted” children need a different kind of education than other students. Virtually every suggestion I hear for “gifted” children I think is good for all children, and in fact maybe even more so for those who are having schooling difficulties.

The argument for gifted students is that they are not challenged in regular classrooms, and do not have opportunities to pursue their gifts and talents. Given the current state of most public schools—especially one’s serving low-income schools, I could argue that almost all students need services not provided by the schools to develop their “intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity.” The idea that only certain, gifted, children should have their leadership abilities fostered sounds dangerous to a society that is trying to be democratic. And in a civilized society, development of creativity and the arts should be for all.

The types of strategies generally supported for gifted students are more open-ended tasks, projects, problem solving, etc. These are all strategies supported by progressive educators for all students. Gifted advocates argue that the general curriculum holds back and bores their students. Well, teacher-centered, textbook, rote learning approaches bore most kids.

Rather than create special opportunities for some students to receive enriched educational opportunities, I would extend such opportunities to all students. Many successful progressive schools, often working with very disadvantaged students, work from that premise with outstanding results. (See my list of innovative schools for examples. Central Park East was also one of the first schools to implement full inclusion for students with disabilities back in the early 1970s.)

[1] No Child Left Behind Act, P.L. 107-110 (Title IX, Part A, Definition 22) (2002); 20 USC 7801(22) (2004)

[2] Read Kohn, Alfie. The Case against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000 and on IQ tests, Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

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