School & District Management

Study Finds Few Learning Gains from Gifted Services

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 13, 2011 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Gifted Services in Middle School

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

BRIC ARCHIVE

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

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 No Child Left Behind,” 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.

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.

“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,” said Kim Hymes, the director of policy and advocacy for the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children, which advocates for gifted children and those with disabilities.

The NBER researchers did not describe in detail the curricula 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 typical Advanced Placement or honors courses: more detailed and in-depth course materials, taught by high-performing teachers, with other high-performing peers. Experts noted the entry criteria, while rigorous, were 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 cut-off with students who just missed it. This method, called a 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 a gifted program did increase the likelihood that students would take more intensive courses 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. “It’s a bit of a cautionary tale.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Gifted Classes Don’t Benefit Pupils at the Margin

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion 7 Ways Principals Can Support Teachers
Listening more than talking is one vital piece of advice for school leaders to help teachers.
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
School & District Management What Schools Can Do to Tackle Climate Change (Hint: More Than You Think)
For starters, don't assume change is too difficult.
7 min read
Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox hold a sign together and chant while participating in a "Global Climate Strike" at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Across the globe hundreds of thousands of young people took the streets Friday to demand that leaders tackle climate change in the run-up to a U.N. summit.
Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox participate in a Global Climate Strike at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., in September 2019.
Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record via AP
School & District Management 'It Has to Be a Priority': Why Schools Can't Ignore the Climate Crisis
Schools have a part to play in combating climate change, but they don't always know how.
16 min read
Composite image of school building and climate change protestors.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)
School & District Management Some Districts Return to Mask Mandates as COVID Cases Spike
Mask requirements remain the exception nationally and still sensitive in places that have reimposed them.
4 min read
Students are reminded to wear a mask amidst other chalk drawings on the sidewalk as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Chalk drawings from last August remind students to wear masks as they arrive at school.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP