Education Opinion

Shouldn’t All Students Be Able to Participate in Gifted Programs?

By Starr Sackstein — September 29, 2015 4 min read
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Guest post by Douglas W. Green, EdD | @DrDougGreen | DrDougGreen.Com

Programs for so-called gifted students exist in most school districts in the United States today, and they vary widely in size and scope.

Some districts have gifted teachers who travel from school to school, while others have their own full-time gifted teachers.

To set up such a program, a school needs to do two things. You need to come up with a program for the gifted teacher to roll out, and you need a system for selecting the gifted students. No matter how you do this, it involves drawing an arbitrary line somewhere along the continuum of scores or ratings earned by all students.

Culling the Gifted

Most schools at least look at standardized test scores of some sort to identify gifted students. Such tests are usually designed to sort students along a low to high achievement spectrum. At any point, the difference between one student and the next one up or down in terms of scores is negligible at best.

A score on such a test usually locates a child within a range of scores with a certain degree of certainty. This means that a child with a slightly higher score than a classmate can be less accomplished the the lower scoring child. Any school that simply draws a line on a continuum of test scores is certainly leaving out some students who are more gifted than some of the chosen.

Schools that also use teacher recommendations most likely do a better job of selecting students who are more capable. I hesitate to use the term gifted as it implies an artificial dichotomy.

Certainly some students are more advanced in terms of reading, math, problem solving, and creative thinking than others, but I’ve never been in favor of drawing lines that separate students into gifted and non-gifted piles. This only serves to anoint some as gifted and others as second rate.

What complicates the selection process further in many schools are parents who lobby for their children to be placed in the gifted program. What chance does a principal have when a parent with a friend on the Board of Education wants their kid in the program when they didn’t make the cut?

Pull-Out Program Characteristics

In many cases, the gifted teacher takes the identified students out of their classes to a room where they engage in program activities. These activities tend to be interesting, engaging, and usually hands on. They are much more likely to involve science activities than what goes on in the regular classroom. Elementary teachers as a group don’t tend to be strong in either math or science so this is a good place to go for the gifted teacher.

Students left in the class who didn’t make the cut can’t move on to new material that their gifted chums would miss, so they are destined to review material and skills that they may or may not be so good at. A great way to turn kids off to school is to avoid doing anything new so this process can harm the motivation of non gifted students and their non gifted classroom teacher.

What Should We Do

If I had control of this type of program, I would tell the gifted teacher to provide the program to all students. The initial benefit would be to not waste time and effort on sorting kids in the first place. You also stop labeling students and no longer have unhappy parents in your face. Every student could tell their parents about how they are in the gifted program.

Most gifted lessons I’ve seen have been open, interesting, and engaging. They deal with new material, which means that background knowledge is less of an issue. Since all students participate, the classroom teachers would also be involved.

They would see the lesson and most likely be able to do it themselves next time. This amount to built is staff development for classroom teachers. This also means that there would be a need for new gifted lessons each year. Gifted classes could be bigger because the classroom teacher or teachers would be there to assist the gifted teacher.

If you keep skimming kids off the top of the distribution for special lessons, you almost doom the rest of the students to fewer opportunities to get excited about school and learning. To me this is unethical and wrong. Thanks to many gifted programs the rich get richer. That’s not what schools should be doing by design.

Does your school run a gifted and talented program? If so, who gets to participate and who gets cut? What can be done to level the playing field? Please share.

Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher of chemistry, physics, and computer science. He has held administrative positions of K-12 science chair, district director of computer services, director of instruction, and elementary principal. He teaches leadership courses for teachers working on administrative certification, and has authored hundreds of articles in computer magazines and educational journals. He retired in 2006 to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. After her death in March of 2009, he started his blog at http://DrDougGreen.Com to provide free resources and book summaries for busy educators and parents. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDougGreen.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.