Special Education

How to Make Gifted Programs More Equitable

By Annie Goldman — June 13, 2024 6 min read
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The role of what is known as “gifted and talented” programs in public K-12 education has long been debated in contentious conversations on how schools determine their most advanced students and structure selective education opportunities. New models of advanced education are emerging in some areas of the United States, a topic of discussion among education professionals and other stakeholders at an online event earlier this month.

The webinar was hosted by FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and centered around a report by FutureEd senior fellow Peg Tyre, which profiled three school districts that have adopted an alternative structure of advanced education aimed at supporting advanced learning while simultaneously extending the opportunity to more students.

Tyre is the vice president of strategy, communications, and network engagement at the EGF Accelerator, which supports nonprofits working to improve educational equity. She was joined in conversation with Homero Chavez, the early college program director at the Gadsden elementary school district in San Luis, Ariz.; Jennifer Yonkers, senior director for accelerated learning in the New York City school system; Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the past president of the National Association of Gifted Children; and moderator Thomas Toch, FutureEd’s director.

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Advanced education programs have long been debated due to a history of leaving out students of color, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families.

“Access to advanced learning opportunities reflect many of the systemic biases baked into our society,” Tyre said as she detailed a history of gifted and talented programs denying advanced learning opportunities to marginalized groups.

For example, Tyre cited data from Vanderbilt University researchers saying the wealthiest 20 percent of families are six times more likely to get advanced opportunities than high-performing students from the poorest 20 percent.

Many critics are pushing to disband advanced education programs in the name of equity, which has, in turn, created pushback from parents who want their children to receive accelerated learning, and are leaving public school systems when they don’t, Tyre said.

Panelists agreed that despite flaws in past models and strategies for identifying qualified students, continually evolving advanced learning programs are necessary—and equitable.

The concept of moving away from ‘gifted and talented’ programs

Plucker, who has spent much of his career researching education and talent development, breaks effective advanced education down into two strategies: acceleration and enrichment.

Acceleration revolves around allowing students to move through the curriculum more quickly, and—ideally, Plucker said—with no limits. Enrichment is supporting students going more in depth on the topics they are learning about, and teaching them a broader range of information than the standard curriculum.

Although advanced education programs are still often known colloquially as gifted and talented programs, many of the panelists agreed that one of the first steps toward more inclusive and effective opportunities is simply moving away from the established terminology.

Toch pointed out the confusion surrounding describing children as “gifted,” including a tendency to believe giftedness represents students with exceptional innate abilities.

Yonkers said she and her colleagues shifted away from the term several years ago, and she doesn’t think it should be widely used in this context. She views all children as having the potential for learning and achieving at a high capacity, and instead focuses on how she can help create the environment necessary for developing those “gifted” behaviors.

Viewing academic talent as widespread and a trait that can be fostered instead of an inherent characteristic children are born with or without is significant when restructuring advanced education programs, the panelists said.

Strategies for equitable advanced education programs

Panelists discussed several strategies that show promise for making advanced education more equitable and inclusive of those who have been historically unable to access these opportunities.

First, panelists said using local norms to measure student achievement when screening for advanced opportunities expands access to more students. Comparing students to other students within their cohorts, schools, districts, or states, rather than students nationwide, factors in local social and environmental factors and allows educators to find more academically able and eligible students.

In the same vein, Yonkers said advanced education programs look different across New York City, and she wants each program to be responsive to the specific needs of the community it is serving.

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Anthony Vargas judges projects presented by 5th grade students at Baldwin Intermediate School in Manassas, Va., on Dec. 6, 2022.
Anthony Vargas judges projects presented by 5th grade students at Baldwin Intermediate School in Manassas, Va.
Valerie Plesch for Education Week

Panelists were also in favor of universal screening, where every student is considered for advanced education programs, regardless of social determinants, such as race and socioeconomic class. Instead of relying on nominations from teachers, peers, or parents, which is how such programs have identified potential students in the past, all students have a shot at advanced achievement.

Plucker said universal screening helps identify more students from low-income families who are already performing at advanced levels—a group that has historically been left out of advanced education. Universal screening moves away from old models of parents opting their students into testing or running for these programs, meaning only families with resources or knowledge of how to work the system could grant their children access.

Frontloading, or offering advanced learning opportunities as early as possible to students, allows students to acclimate to challenging instruction and be more successful with rigorous instruction later in their academic careers, panelists said.

For example, in the college preparation program that Chavez oversees, students take the ACT for the first time in 5th grade, leaving them better prepared to excel on the critical exam by the time they apply to higher education programs. Many students coming out of this program have found great success, and Chavez believes this was because they were challenged at an early age.

Panelists also said that training teachers and other education professionals is crucial when developing new advanced education programs.

In New York City, training teachers and leaders was key when expanding advanced education programs, Yonkers said. Changing the beliefs and mindsets of educators about what students are capable of and how to grow intelligence was the starting point in their multi-year professional learning plan.

She said it was important to give teachers the information found through research on how to make advanced education most accessible and effective, and then teach them professional decisionmaking so they could tailor programs to specific students.

Training can also combat biases educators may hold about students qualifying for advanced education programs, and give them accurate traits to look for in students. For example, Yonkers said, if a student is rushing through their classwork, educators may want to question whether that student needs more challenging assignments.

Communication with parents and guardians is just as important, the panelists said.

“There can’t be too much communication around this because parents really want this information, and they really want to know what opportunities are available to their children, and how to access that,” Tyre said, adding that advanced education systems are still not as transparent as they should be.

Scarcity has also historically been a criticism of advanced education programs, and many panelists agreed that providing students not only with more programs, but also opportunities to be admitted to programs throughout their schooling, is critical.

Chavez said building the infrastructure for more advanced education programs will help students from low-income families, particularly by giving them more opportunities to be included.

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