Special Education Opinion

Redefining Giftedness

By Nancy Flanagan — January 08, 2018 3 min read
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Back in the day, I was a big proponent of special edu-goodies for students identified as gifted. The conversation, back then, was all about pull-outs vs. self-contained classrooms for the gifted, as well as the accelerated (or was it enriched?) curriculum they deserved. Everybody agreed that gifted kids (here comes an important word) deserved these things. After all, they were the future citizen-leaders of our great nation—the ones who would cure cancer, straighten out the government and write the Great American Novel.

Or not.

Over time and ample experience, and after studying exceptional children as part of my masters’ work, I came to see that Gifted Education, as a premium offering in public schools, was fraught with issues. Not problems, exactly—but issues. While the field of educating our brightest students has advanced beyond the Renzulli triangle, and advocacy groups for the gifted have never faded from the education scene, most of the conversation now centers on school choice, not special in-house programs for the gifted.

The issues—identification and selectivity, appropriate curriculum, emotional maturity as part of intellectual prowess, actual outcomes engendered by isolating and tagging kids with exceptional potential—have never gone away. And now, we’re learning that there may be negative aspects to labeling children “gifted”.

Most people realize that it is harmful to not be labeled as gifted when others are.The labeling of some students sends negative messages about potential that are out of synch with important knowledge of neuroplasticity showing that everyone's brains can grow and change. But few people realize that those labels are damaging for those who receive them too. (Professor Jo Boaler, Stanford University)

As I see it, there are two overarching moral questions around the movement to set aside special resources for very bright children:

First, just who is doing the labeling, using what tools—and whose potential is overlooked?

Second, what are the ultimate outcomes in such labeling: to the labeled child, to children who never had a shot at “special” curriculum and instruction, and to schools and societies, down the road? In other words, what tangible benefits have there been, for all of us, in categorizing and offering enrichment to children with high potential? Have programs for the gifted yielded a class of better-informed, more empathetic adults whose specially developed talents are making a difference in the world?

All of this hinges on that word: deserve.

Do exceptional children from the wrong side of the tracks deserve small, personalized, accelerated learning experiences? Most educators (and policy-makers) would say yes, of course, we must find those bright and talented children and offer them the enrichment warranted by their intellectual gifts.

But we don’t. Instead, we squander public resources on no-excuses charter schools and ever more testing and data analysis. The number of gifted children who are overlooked and unstimulated until they dropped out is legion.

It's a theme in education: Missed chances early in life contribute to more missed chances down the line. Not only are poor kids less likely to get the stimulation at home needed to nurture their talents, but their parents and teachers are also less likely to push them into gifted programs. Furthermore, about one-third of states—including Florida—require students to score high on an IQ test as part of the screening process, and those scores tend to be intertwined with socioeconomic status.

Is the answer doing what Broward County, Fla. did—testing everyone in 2nd grade, yielding another 300 children of color into the ranks of identified giftedness?

Or is it finding other ways to give all children, the ordinary and the brilliant, what they deserve: a high-quality, custom-tailored education, at no excessive cost to their parents?

Advocates for gifted programs will often point out that educating students with learning disabilities was a burgeoning field for decades, with many of the same accoutrements as gifted education—testing, IEPs, segregation for special instruction, above-average expenditures and labeling. They ask: Doesn’t my early reader and 1st grade physics enthusiast deserve the same benefits?

And the answer is yes. The precocious pianist and song-writer deserves a musical mentor. The budding engineer deserves a LEGO robotics team. The 3rd grade poet deserves a sensitive reader and the senior class president who actually led change deserves a scholarship to study political science.

Matching children’s gifts to the education and opportunities they deserve isn’t about test-based identification and whether smart kids are more likely to save the world. It’s about investing in our future. Human capital, if you like.

I don’t think we’ll ever find resolution on the first moral issue—who is gifted, who is not gifted, and who is calling the shots? It’s impossible to unequivocally define giftedness, brilliance or genius.

But it is worth doing what Jo Boaler did: Look beyond initial labeling and programming, to track the stories and achievement trajectories of students identified as gifted. Ask them how their education could have been richer, less stressful, more productive.

And turn our goals away from dividing up the educational pie and toward investing in all children.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.