Gifted and Talented Education

A month back I made a post on Facebook about funding for Gifted and Talented Students as compared to funding for Special Education. Here is the paper I was writing at the time.

Gifted and Talented Students: Equality’s Stepchildren

Definitions and History of Gifted and Talented

The No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001 has the following to say about “gifted and talented,”

The term ‘gifted and talented’, when used with respect to students, children, or youth, means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities. (Title IX, Part A, Section 9101(22))
(Page 544)

Some school districts define giftedness as a WISC score above 130, 2 standard deviations above the mean, others define it as the top 2.5% or 5% of students in the district, while others define it as working at least 2 grade levels above the student’s age. This highlights some of the challenges in identifying gifted students as giftedness can be defined in several ways: student potential (the IQ scores), performance (working above grade level), equity-based selections (a percentage of the total students regardless of absolute performance or potential). According to the 2008-2009 State of the Nation Report1 by the National Association for Gifted Children, there are an estimated 3 million academically gifted and talented students (GT) in America’s Pre-K to 12th grade classrooms. GT covers a number of abilities: math, science, creative writing, analytical writing, artistic endeavors, and musical skills, to name a few. The gifted are united by a shared potential for high achievement, but their differing interests and potentials make them a diverse group as well. To make the picture even more complicated, there are gifted and talented students who also have learning disabilities (GT/LD). There are four broad categories of these students: GT/ADD, GT/Dyslexic, GT/Ausperger’s/Autistic, GT/Dysgraphic. I will not spend much time in this paper on these “twice exceptional” students, but the reader can easily imagine that parenting and educating them can be quite challenging.

The education of the gifted and talented in America has a long history, but a particular emphasis on finding and nurturing mathematical and scientific talent began after the launch of Sputnik in October of 19572. As the 1960’s wore on, gifted and talented students were included under the term “exceptional children” by the Council for Exceptional Children, which represents the largest professional organization of teacher and parents concerned with exceptional children. In 1971 the Marland Report was submitted to Congress by commissioner of Education Sydney Marland. As quoted in Sisk2,

There is an enormous individual and social cost when talent among the Nations’ children and youth goes undiscovered and undeveloped. These students cannot ordinarily excel without assistance.
Identification of the gifted is hampered not only by costs of approved testing – when these methods are known and adopted – but also by apathy among teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, and psychologists.
Gifted and talented children are, in fact, deprived and can suffer psychological damage and permanent impairment of their abilities to function well, which is equal to or greater than the similar deprivation suffered by any other population with special needs served by the Office of Education (Marland, 1972, p3)

As a result of the Marland Report, the Office of Gifted and Talented was established in the HEW (Health, Education, and Welfare Department) in 1974 with a budget of $2.5 million to support grants to state agencies and fund model projects. In 1988 the Javits Act passed Congress, this resulted in the funding of programs to identify underserved GT students and develop curricula to meet their needs. Despite these acts, the 1993 report National Excellence: A Case for Developing American Talent, published by the U.S. Department of Education stated,

The United States is squandering one of its most precious resources – the gifts, talents, and high interests of many of its students. In a broad range of intellectual and artistic endeavors, these youngsters are not challenged to do their best work. This problem is especially severe among economically disadvantaged and minority students, who have access to fewer advanced educational opportunities and whose talents often go unnoticed. (p. 1)

When the No Child Left Behind legislation was signed in 2001, it reauthorized the commitments of the Javits Act. None the less, federal support for Gifted and Talented students is 0.02% of federal educational spending – despite the fact that GT’s make up roughly 2.5% of students. The Javits act budget for 2009 was $7.5 million. By way of comparison, the federal spending for Individual with Disabilities Education Act grants in 2009 was $11.15 billion3 for 6 million students identified as needing special education4, a spending ratio of 1:750.

Current Status of Gifted and Talented Education Programs by States
Per the NAGC 2009 State of the Nation report, 13 states provide no funding for gifted education, 32 states mandate some level of gifted education services but only six of those fully fund the mandate. Eleven states spend more than $10 million on gifted education. Only five states require all teachers to receive pre-service training in gifted and talented education. 36 states make no requirement that teachers receive training in the nature and needs of GT students at any point in their careers. The consequences of this are that the majority of gifted children are placed in the regular classroom settings with teachers who have had little to no training in dealing with gifted and talented students.

In Hawaii, the state budgeted $4.7M for Gifted and Talented education in 2005, but only $0.75M in 20071. I was not able to find budget numbers for more recent years.

Negative Perspectives on Gifted And Talented Students Classroom Experiences

Since the majority of gifted and talented students in America are in regular, heterogeneous classrooms, it is valuable to examine their experiences in that setting. In Klavir5 88 gifted and talented students in heterogeneous classrooms were interviewed by pre-service teachers. The four main issues that came out in the student interviews involved 1)Learning Environment, 2) Social Status, 3) Interactions with Teachers, 4) Reactions of the Gifted Pupils at School.

Learning Environment – the biggest problem identified by gifted students in heterogeneous classrooms was boredom. One gifted middle schooler commented, “My biggest problem is that I get to school and start getting bored right off. Sometimes I can’t get going and my whole body itches with boredom…”

The causes for boredom were identified as 1) boredom from fast understanding of the lesson, 2) boredom from prior knowledge of the lesson, 3) boredom from the lack of intellectual challenges, 4) boredom from subject not being in the student’s field of interest. Many students complain of boredom in school, but these complaints are not the same as the typical “it’s just stupid, I don’t like it.” The first three are the sorts of things that a would-be engaged student would say. These are students who are seeking greater knowledge and understanding in the classroom and are not being given it. The last complaint is a more common one for all students at one point or another.

Social Status and Self Perception – problems were identified as either internal (student’s self perception of their ability to get along with classmates) or external (classmates reaction to the gifted student). Internal problems are exemplified by an elementary school student’s statement “I have one friend in the class. The rest just don’t interest me and we don’t have a common language.” Gifted students are usually bright enough and self-aware enough to detect their differences from classmates and can simply choose not to associate with many of them.

External problems in social status are exemplified by the statement of another elementary school student, “ Last year the whole class ostracized me. They called me ‘show-off’ and other names. Maybe they were jealous that I was successful and got 100’s in all the subjects. It’s a bit better this year, I’m not really being ostracized, but I can’t say I’ve got many girlfriends in the class.” In a classroom environment where cohesion and commonality are valued, a gifted student can be made to feel like she does not belong. A student who strives successfully to mastery and displays that mastery can be confronted with anger and resentment from those who do not achieve mastery as quickly. Teachers untrained in dealing with GT students may not be willing or able to create a class where exceptional performance is welcomed and applauded. According to Saylor6 , highly gifted pupils (IQ’s above 160) had social self concepts a standard deviation below the age peers. For the more gifted student, a heterogeneous classroom is an unhappy place where he does not fit in with peers.

Interactions with teachers: attitudes and behaviors of teachers toward gifted pupils – supporting and inappropriate behaviors by teachers were identified by the pupils. Some of the supporting behaviors were labeled as “local.” That means the supporting behaviors were initiated and provided by individual teachers in their particular classrooms, but were not part of an overall program or process set up by the school or district. “I enjoy myself most of all with the biology teacher, she sometimes prepares additional explanation sheets for me,” said a middle school pupil. This is a supporting behavior done by an individual teacher, without necessarily an institutional support. Institutional support is provided when the school or district itself has additional resources for the gifted, “In our school there are groups for outstanding pupils. I chose chess, mathematical thinking, and art.”

Inappropriate behaviors on the part of teachers included excessive demands, “… the teachers think I can answer every question. It upsets me. (a middle school pupil)” Some teachers were intentionally offensive. “The english teacher gets angry with me because I finish the booklets very quickly (an elementary student).” And some teachers were unaware that the students were gifted and bored, making no attempts to engage or challenge their pupils. One telling comment from a high school pupil was, “In junior high we were three gifted students in the same class. We suffered from boredom but we were good kids who didn’t make trouble for the teachers. So they thought everything was fine with us and they would carry on teaching everybody and repeat things over and over without considering us.” Most teachers have a high degree of concern for the well-being and welfare of their students. But it is plausible to suggest that some teachers may from time to time feel resentment toward pupils who are much more talented than they were, and that these teachers do not always act with the consideration that one would hope for.

Reactions and feelings of gifted pupils at school – these ranged from excelling in all studies, to below average grades. Socially adjusted or intrinsically motivated students would come closest to fulfilling the potential of their giftedness. Students whose social needs were not met, or who required more extrinsic motivation than provided in the heterogeneous clasroom would not achieve their potential in such classrooms.

As mentioned above, detracked, heterogeneous classes are the norm for gifted students. The Fordham Institute’s report on tracking in Massachusetts7 asks and answers

Does detracking pose risks for high achievers? Kulik and Kulik’s 1992 meta-analysis detected significant benefits for students with an enriched or accelerated curriculum. Students in accelerated classes outpaced similar pupils in non-accelerated classes by 0.87 standard deviations
(23 studies used), a whopping amount for any education intervention. Students in enriched classes (25 studies) gained 0.41 standard deviations compared to similar students in mixed-ability classes studying regular curriculum.

Solutions for Gifted and Talented Students

Accelerated and enriched classes offer the best academic outcomes for gifted and talented students, as the report from the Fordham Institute indicates above. What are the social and self-perceptive consequences for acceleration on GTs? Neihart8 and Delcourt9 report on the socioaffective impact for gifted students in accelerated and homogenous settings. Neihart reports that “Academic acceleration of high-ability youth is one of the most well-researched topics in education.” She notes that the emotional effects of grade skipping, and early admission to college have benefits in social adjustment and self-perception for most gifted students – as measured by self concept or teacher or parent ratings of risk taking, independence, and creativity. She mentions a study of 60 Australian children with IQ’s above 160 who were tracked over 10 years. Of the 17 students who were accelerated radically, not a single instance of harm or disadvantage resulted. But the majority of children retained with their age peers experienced significant and lasting difficulties in forming or maintaining friendships. The more gifted the student, the more harm tends to come from detracked, unaccelerated, heterogeneous classrooms.

Delcourt reviews the literature and examines grouping strategies for gifted student, from complete integration into regular classrooms, to complete segregation into separate schools. She found that gifted students in any sort of program perform better academically and have better self-perceptions than students in regular, heterogeneous classrooms. The one potential negative she found (also mentioned in Rogers10) was that some students did not like homogenous classrooms because they experienced a drop in social standing in that setting as compared to their older heterogeneous classroom. They were no longer the smartest kid in class, and did not like that.

With this research in mind, my first recommendation is that acceleration and grade skipping be made more common. According to High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB11, only 27% of teachers in the country report that their school allows students to skip a grade. 46% of teachers say that their district does not allow this, with 27% unsure of their district’s policy. Given that acceleration (grade skipping) has almost uniformly positive academic and social outcomes, and (importantly in this era of tight budgets) no additional cost beyond assessment of the student, this option should be common across the nation. Teachers need to be educated about the benefits of acceleration, districts need to allow it. In fact, there are prejudices against acceleration, with 63% of teachers opposing grade skipping.

There are benefits to special schools for gifted students: either STEM schools, or performance and art schools like the famous one in New York – but proposing more of those schools is not reasonable given the current constraint on local, state, and federal educational budgets.

My second recommendation is that all states adopt policies toward identifying and serving gifted students. McBee12 describes Georgia’s referral system, where high test scores can get a student automatically referred to the gifted program, but students can also be nominated for gifted program placement by teachers, parents, peers, or themselves. Students are then evaluated for placement with data collected for mental ability, achievement, motivation, and creativity. Students must demonstrate superiority in at least one of these domains. This strikes me as an excellent system to allow for giftedness to be found either through potential or performance.

My last recommendation is that pre-service teacher training include units on identifying and accommodating gifted and talented students. I believe that this will go a long way toward decreasing the prejudices against grade skipping, and some of the inappropriate behavior mentioned above. Teacher nominations can identify a substantial number of students who are not identified through high standardized test scores. The MacBee paper (particularly Table 3) indicates that in the state of Georgia, 62.8% of students who are nominated as potential GTs do meet the state’s criteria for entrance to GT programs, and teacher-nominated students make up over 40% of Georgia’s GTs. The students nominated by a teacher (and who enter the program at an almost 2/3 rate) were not nominated by test scores. This highlights the importance of teacher training to identify GT students. Over 40% of the students in Georgia’s GT program would not have been found if only test scores had been used.

As a final comment, I want to re-direct the reader to the 750:1 federal spending ratio of Special Education to Gifted Education. And remind the reader that only 11 states budget more than $10 million dollars for gifted education. With the drive toward detracked classes, and the entirely laudible emphasis on lifting up the scores of the lowest achievers, comparatively little emphasis is given to nurturing the most talented and gifted of our students. It is important that everyone be able to contribute to society and have the opportunity to lead a fulfilling life, but the students most likely to contribute exceptionally to society are currently offered the least help.


1. 2008-2009 State of The Nation Report, The National Association for Gifted Children.
2. Sisk, Dorothy (2007). Historical Perspectives in Gifted Education, Achieving Excellence: Educating the Gifted and Talented, edited by Frances A. Karnes and Kristen R. Stephens, Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall Publishers, pps 2-17.
3. Department of Education budget 2009, downloaded as excel spreadsheet from DOE website.
4. Tables 1-3, Students aged 6 to 21 served under IDEA, Data Accountability Center, IDEA data
5. Klavir, Rama (2008) Contemporary Issues In Education Research, How Do Gifted Children Of Various Ages Perceive Their Situation In Heterogeneous Classes And What Can Pre-Service Teachers Learn From Them? Volume 1, First Quarter 2008
6. Saylor, Michael F (1996), Annual Meeting Education Research Association paper, Differences in the Psychological Adjustment of Accelerated Eighth Grader Students.
7. Finn, Chester E. and Winkler, Amber M. (2009),The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools
8. Neihart, Maureen (2007) Gifted Child Quarterly, The Socioaffective Impact of Acceleration and Ability Grouping, Volume 51, Number 4, pages 330-341
9. Delcourt, Marcia A. B., Cornell, Dewey G., Goldberg, Marc D. (2007) Gifted Child Quarterly, Cognitive and Affective Outcomes of Gifted Elementary Students, Volume 51, Number 4
10. Rogers, Karen B. (2007) Gifted Child Quarterly, Lessons Learned About Education the Gifted and Talented: A synthesis of the Research on Educational Practice, Volume 51, Number 4.
11. Loveless, Tom, (2008) The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB
12. McBee, Matthew B. (2006), The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, A Descriptive Analysis of Referral Sources for Gifted Identification Screening by Race and Socioeconomic Status, Volume XVII, Number 2, pages 103-111.

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