4 Reasons Gifted Programs are Irrelevant

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Some things I’ve heard in 17 years of working in gifted education:

  • “What do I need to do to get my kid into the gifted program in your school?”
  • “You know how important it is in this community to have your child labeled gifted.”
  • “I need my child in the gifted class because I don’t want her in classes with those ‘other kids’.”

Statements like these are part of the reason that gifted programs are controversial. So in places like Newington, Connecticut, schools are moving to eliminate gifted programs. While cost is a significant factor in these decisions, here are four reasons gifted programs are irrelevant in the 21st century:

Limited resources shouldn’t be wasted on kids who are already proficient.

Our mandate is to get students ready for college and career, and we are judged on how many of our students are proficient on grade level exams.

Gifted students are likely going to be ready for those despite what we do in school, and in many cases they walk into school already proficient on grade level content, so there is no need to expend precious dollars and personnel boosting the achievement of kids who need no boost.

Gifted programs are the only remaining acceptable form of segregation.

Gifted programs allow schools to keep the serious students who want to learn isolated from the slackers and slow learners. On the surface this seems appropriate until you look at those classes. In practice, gifted programs, even in ethnically and economically diverse communities, are filled with primarily wealthy white and Asian students. African American and Latino students, and those from lower income families, do not have the opportunity to participate. When we base admission to gifted programs on apparently objective criteria, schools and parents can say, “It’s just how it works out. We can’t control how smart they are.”

The best instructional practices shouldn’t be reserved for the privileged elite.

Because gifted programs are freed from many (or even all) of the normal constraints placed on general education, they can adopt methods like project-based learning and avoid low level drill and practice. Unfortunately, innovative methods often stay in the top track classes, limiting students who don’t make the cut to a less rich experience.

Today’s tech personalizes everything anyway.

When it was first invented, one of the selling points of gifted education was that it could personalize learning for gifted children, allowing them to work at their own pace and on their own goals.

Today, companies like Dreambox tell us that digital technology allows us to personalize the experience and learning for every child, effectively making gifted programs obsolete.

Gifted programs may be irrelevant…BUT gifted education is not.

Let me explain.

The way we have always done gifted doesn’t work in the 21st century. Two of the “reasons” above, however, are red herrings, and the other two have real alternatives that don’t involve ignoring the needs of high ability learners.

  1. Although we may only be measured by the state exam, I don’t know any educator who would argue that striving for adequacy is enough. We should be able to help every child fulfill her or his potential, and it doesn’t have to involve allocation of large amounts of resources.
  2. If schools invested more in talent development in earlier grades, we can close the excellence gap. Districts like Fairfax County, Virginia, are finding young students with latent strengths and intentionally building them through experiences and activities available to everyone. And incidentally: our old concept of IQ as a fixed, inherited trait? Not so much. Turns out we probably can control how smart the kids are.
  3. If instructional methods are working well for the best and brightest, why wouldn’t we try them with everyone? Approaches like the Schoolwide Enrichment Model or Genius Hour are bringing strategies that were traditionally used in gifted programs into all school environments.
  4. The promise of personalization via technology is a hollow one if all it means is picking just the right multiple choice question or just the right drill exercise for a student at a specific moment. True personalization happens when teachers develop thoughtful curriculum that accounts for student personalities.

Real gifted education (not gifted programs) involves seeing every student as an individual, finding out what they need, what they want to learn, and what they care about, and then adapting the instructional environment and curriculum to those needs, wants, and passions.

There’s no reason we can’t do this for everyone, letting gifted students soar without the downsides of selective gifted programs.

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Gerald Aungst

Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Math at School District of Cheltenham Township
Gerald Aungst has more than 20 years experience as a professional educator, specializing in digital technology, mathematics, and gifted education. In his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, he has worked to create a rich and vibrant learning culture. He is also passionate about improving learning opportunities for all students. Gerald is a founder of AllAboutExplorers.com and ConnectedTeachers.org.
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