Special Education

Q&A: Jill Adelson Looks to a ‘Better Route’ to Improve Gifted Education

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 17, 2019 4 min read
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As new research raises questions about how gifted students are identified and served, Jill Adelson, the editor of the journal Gifted Child Quarterly and a research scientist with Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, sat down with Education Week to talk about why it can be so difficult to find what works for advanced students.

What do you see as the state of the field in gifted education?

Adelson: “Where special ed has a federal mandate to meet these students’ needs, we don’t have that. We don’t even have a common definition across states [regarding what] gifted education is. And so there definitely is a dissemination issue between what we’re now finding in research and what’s happening in classrooms. A lot of the researchers do a lot of professional development, but you’re only getting a pocket—this school here will change or this district there will change, but we’re not making global change. I think researchers are starting actually to really push for standards and quality. I had done a study published in [Gifted Child Quarterly] in 2012 where I used a national dataset and looked at the effects of gifted programming on reading and math achievement and self concept. And I found on average across the nation no effect. ... And if you think about it, it really makes sense that we aren’t seeing effects across the country, because some districts are pulling [students] out for an hour a week.

Why do you think there was so little evidence of effectiveness?

Do we really expect their math and reading [growth] to go up if they are getting an hour a week—and often an hour of critical thinking or creative things? Teachers like their flexibility; it’s fun to do these things, right? And so it really is about trying to align how we identify [advanced students] with the services we provide. The piece that we’re often not talking about—that I’ve been starting to talk about—is how we’re evaluating it. If we are saying the goal is increased achievement, ... then the whole range needs to be aligned to that when providing services. Yes, there are other good things to teach kids, but if that’s not your end goal, then that shouldn’t be the focus of the program.

How do we differentiate between what we need to provide advanced students, and what’s just good for all students, like critical-thinking skills or creativity?

It’s sad. Having been a classroom teacher, there can be that push of, if your kids are average or below average, you must just focus on repetition and doing the skills and teaching the content. And there’s no time for things like teaching critical-thinking or creativity—even though we know if we can improve critical-thinking skills, that’s going to improve other areas, too. So it’s not that gifted ed is saying these are our things and we control them; it comes from the way schools operate now, in which these skills are not being integrated for all kids. And so in gifted ed, educators are like, ‘Well, we’ll do this with our kids. We have the time, because they do know the grade-level content already. But again, if our goal is achievement, that’s not necessarily the best route.

What do you see as a better route to improving achievement for gifted students?

Some of us now advocate that it’s not even about defining or identifying ‘gifted,’ it’s about providing the services students need. So we have some kids who, yes, they’re high-achieving because of their privilege and experience they’ve had up to that point; they may need services because they’re above grade level. But what those services look like might be different than those of, say, the kid who can catch on quickly and go deeply.

You know, acceleration is one of the most research-based practices. Unfortunately that does not mean there’s public knowledge in the schools of how to use it. If you accelerate by just grade-skipping, content still moves at the same pace. That might be perfect for that kid who is high-achieving because of experience: I’m a 3rd grader, you put me in 4th grade math, this is the same speed at the level I needed. But now, your 3rd grader who can go faster and deeper in mathematics, you bump them up to 4th grade and, yes, now it’s challenging, but it’s still moving too slowly for them. That’s where you might need cluster grouping, so the teacher can move at a faster pace. There are multiple ways you can do that, but I would rather we find those [faster, deeper learning] kids because I don’t care if they get the ‘gifted ed’ program or not, I care whether we are meeting their educational needs.”


Do you have a question about education research, or just want to know what the evidence says about that pesky instructional problem? Let me know! Drop me a line at ssparks@epe.org, or

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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