School & District Management

Study Finds Few Learning Gains from Gifted Services

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 13, 2011 6 min read

As educators and lawmakers struggle to define the evolving role of education for the nation’s gifted students, a new study suggests that some aspects of gifted education that have been appropriated to improve the achievement of a broader population of students may provide less of a boost than commonly thought.

A new working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in Cambridge, Mass., evaluated the effectiveness of both in-class gifted programs and magnet schools for more than 8,000 middle school students in an unnamed Southwestern school district of more than 200,000 students.

The University of Houston researchers who conducted the study found that students in these programs were more likely than other students to do in-depth coursework with top teachers and high-performing peers. Yet students who barely met the 5th grade cutoff criteria to enter the gifted programs fared no better academically in 7th grade, after a year and a half in the program, than did similarly high-potential students who just missed qualifying for gifted identification.

“You’re getting these better teachers; you’re getting these higher-achieving students paired up with you,” said Scott A. Imberman, an economics professor and a study coauthor. “To our surprise, what happened was very little.”

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, and a coauthor of the 2008 study, “High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB,” said the NBER report “makes a contribution that a lot of studies currently do not” by using statistical methods to control for the kinds of students who participate in gifted programs.

Gifted Services in Middle School

Services for gifted students vary nationwide, a 2008-09 survey of state program administrators found.

35gifted C1s

Source: State of the States in Gifted Education, National Association for Gifted Children, Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted.

But gifted-education advocates including Mr. Loveless argue the study does not provide enough details on the curricula and services in the district’s programs to inform the larger debate about what gifted education should look like and who will benefit from it.

“I think the paper rightly points out that there is a population of students, high-achievers, who are going understudied,” said Kim Hymes, the director of policy and advocacy for the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children, which advocates for both gifted children and those with disabilities. But, she added, “to look at this as a blanket statement on all gifted programs would be a disingenuous way of looking at gifted education, because it does vary so dramatically.”

The NBER researchers did not describe in detail the curriculum or specific services of the district’s gifted programs, but district officials reported that their gifted and talented programs focused on exposing students to more in-depth discussions of grade-level topics, known as an enrichment approach, rather than acceleration, or moving through existing material faster and adding new topics.

Broad Criteria

While the study identifies these programs as gifted programs, their characteristics echo a typical Advanced Placement or honors course: more detailed and in-depth course materials, taught by high-performing teachers, with other high-performing peers. Experts noted the entry criteria, while rigorous, was also broad enough to include 20 percent of the student population.

“There are a lot of mismatches out there,” Jane Clarenbach, the director of public education for the Washington-based nonprofit National Association for Gifted Children said. “When gifted education is perceived as the only quality option, parents want their kids in it, whether they belong there or not.”

Fifth graders were identified for the district program based on a combination of criteria, such as scoring above the 80th percentile on total scores in math, reading, science and social studies on the Stanford Achievement Test, high grades or teacher recommendations. Students got bonus points if they had disabilities or limited English proficiency, or if they lived in poverty. As a result, researchers found students at the eligibility threshold for the program ranged widely in actual academic performance, from 45 to 97 in national percentile rankings in reading and from the 55th percentile to 97th percentile in math on the Stanford Achievement Tests.

Researchers tracked 2,600 7th graders and 5,500 6th graders who had been evaluated for the gifted programs in 5th grade.

In the first experiment, researchers compared students who barely made the cutoff with students who just missed it. This method, called a regression discontinuity analysis, allows researchers to compare the effect of the program on two groups of statistically similar students when pupils cannot be randomly assigned.

In a separate experiment, researchers also compared gifted students who were chosen via lotteries for one of the district’s two gifted magnet schools with students who applied for the school lotteries but were not selected. On average, the gifted students who applied for these schools scored significantly higher on all of the content tests, and had lower discipline problems and higher attendance than did the average gifted students in the district overall.

In both cases, participating in an gifted program did increase the likelihood that students would take more intensive courses, known as “vanguard” classes in the district, and the likelihood that they would be taught by teachers considered highly effective, as measured by their students’ test scores, yet it did not significantly improve students’ academic achievement any more than that of those who missed out on the programs. Students at the elite magnet schools did improve slightly, but only in science.

The researchers suggested that for a student who barely made it into the gifted program, the stress of working with very high-performing classmates may have outweighed the benefits of more in-depth courses and top teachers.

“The conventional wisdom is if you are surrounded by high-achieving peers, you will benefit,” Mr. Imberman said. “In our case it’s a bit of a cautionary tale; there can be situations in which being surrounded by other high-achieving students can be detrimental to you. It’s the big-fish-little-pond effect,” he added, noting that these marginal gifted students might go from performing at the top of every class to near the bottom of many.

However, Julia L. Roberts, a gifted studies professor and the executive director of the Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, said students at the margin of identification for giftedness can indeed feel intimidated when they first start a program, but often adapt over time. “As an example, she pointed to a program for gifted students that the university holds each summer. “I know there are some kids who come in and are initially intimidated,” Ms. Roberts said, “but when they have been here and realize they can work hard and achieve their goals, they have a sense of self-efficacy.”

Ms. Clarenbach also voiced concern that the district program did not seem tailored to students’ particular academic strengths.

“It sounds like whether you are good in math or language or science, you end up in the same program, and that’s not really where the [gifted education] field is going,” Ms. Clarenbach said. “The heart of [gifted and talented education] is about matching curriculum to a student’s ability.”

Changing Prospects

The NBER study, released late last month, comes at a precarious time for gifted education. While lawmakers have voiced concern over stagnant achievement of advanced students on national and international tests, shrinking budgets have left gifted programs vulnerable to budget cuts at the local, state and the federal level.

For example, the tiny but long-standing $7.5 million Jacob K. Javits program for research on gifted and talented education was one of 42 education programs axed in the final fiscal 2011 budget agreement. Joseph S. Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, which has been supported by the Javits grants for 21 years, said “it’s a long shot” that the grant will come back in a future budget.

That’s a problem, experts agreed, because there remains relatively little research on how overall education improvement and accountability systems should include high-achieving, as well as struggling students.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week

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