Best in the World? How the US Is Getting Gifted Education Wrong

In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik satellite, an event that catalyzed unprecedented scientific and technological innovation.

It quickly became evident that education in the United States was not designed to foster the kind of thinking that yields cutting-edge technologies that, in turn, extend the limits of human discovery. A year later, in 1958, the National Defense Education Act was signed into law with the goal of promoting science, math, and advanced academics. The sense of urgency around the international space race and the perception that the U.S. lacked the academic heft to compete with other countries spurred the development of gifted programs in schools. These were meant especially to cultivate scientific talent among students.

At present, politicians and educators have expressed a renewed sense of urgency about U.S. students’ science readiness. Because STEM jobs are in high demand, many schools have sought to strengthen STEM and STEAM initiatives, as well as gifted education, as the U.S. education system once again faces international comparisons and falls short on a global scale.

Gifted Education in the U.S.

The model for gifted education in the U.S. looks much like it did in its early days, when students were pulled from class to participate in enriching — but separate — learning activities. Traditionally, schools identify students using either group- or individually-administered aptitude assessments, or IQ tests. In some districts, schools use other measures of student achievement, including examples of creativity and input from teachers, and in some cases, parents can opt their children into gifted programs, regardless of whether teachers recommend those students. When students enter gifted programs, they are typically served in small groups with programs of study that extend beyond what is offered by the general curriculum.

These programs are often desperately underfunded and forced to operate with very little financial and administrative support; quite often, they are cut entirely. Only four states mandate fully-funded gifted programming; in 10 states, it’s not mandated at all.

Over the past 15 years, federal and state measures have focused on closing the achievement gap, rather than on increasing excellence for all students. Little attention has been paid to
whether or not gifted and talented students are thriving, a fact made evident in the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation study, Equal Talents, Unequal Opportunities, published this year. The study compared gifted education programs and policies in each state. It examined the academic performance of high-ability students from low-income backgrounds and found “a correlation between between state demographics and outcomes — higher poverty states tend to have lower outcomes.” The report argues that “we must ensure that talent is developed equally in all communities, starting with ensuring that all students have access to advanced educational offerings.”

Card and Giuliano recently released a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research on the disparity between high- and low-income students’ access to gifted education. They found that underprivileged, gifted students may be overlooked during the very process in which advanced students are typically identified. In other words, the most talented learners from low-income communities may never have an opportunity to realize their full potential.

Gifted Education in Other Countries

In India, there are almost 600 Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya schools that serve more than 180,000 gifted and talented students who can’t afford to attend residential schools. These are run by an organization called Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti, and there is one school per district across India (except in the state of Tamil Nadu, where there are no such schools). According to a Ministry of Human Resource Development website, the vast majority of students (77.3 percent) come from rural areas; just over one-third are girls. These schools attest to the importance — and the possibility — of developing the talents of all children, regardless of socioeconomic status.

According to research by Ibata-Arens, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore have devoted significant resources to gifted education. In China, for example, gifted students are supported with enrichment (which expands on the grade-level curriculum with academic extensions), acceleration (which promotes moving ahead in the curriculum, or skipping grades), and resource programs similar to those in the U.S., where students are pulled out of their regular classes to participate in activities separate from the other members of their class. There are also schools devoted entirely to gifted education, for which students have to take entrance exams.

Hong Kong has a three-tiered approach. In Level 1, all students are exposed to a gifted education curriculum that promotes higher-order thinking and creativity. In Level 2, select students are removed from their regular classes to engage with students who have similar abilities and interests. Level 3 provides offsite support for gifted students; they are mentored and counseled in preparation for higher education.

In Taiwan, as in China, gifted education comes in the form of enrichment and acceleration, as well as grouping, in which advanced students work with one another in a group but remain in their regular classroom.

In Korea, students have the opportunity to enter selective schools and to specialize in their areas of interest and ability.

Singapore also provides extensive education options for high-ability students, including enrichment, self-paced instruction, online courses, mentorship, subject acceleration, dual enrollment, early primary school admission, and grade skipping.

And in Australia, Gifted and Talented Education programs are similarly a high priority. The government has a number of options for gifted students, ranging from specialized programs to selective schools requiring entrance exams for admittance.

The Future of Gifted Education

While a number of other nations offer a variety of options for gifted learners, the United States lags behind. Acceleration and schools specifically for gifted students are extremely rare in the U.S., as is the recognition of the needs of very young gifted children.

The United Nations recently launched the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, an initiative committed to addressing 17 problems that need to be solved within the next 15 years — a period in which today’s elementary school students will be entering college and starting their careers. These essentials are as wide-ranging as “no poverty” (#1), “industry, innovation, and infrastructure” (#9), and “responsible consumption” (#12).

We should invest now in the students who show promise in solving these problems later; if we are serious about competing on the global stage and improving public education in the United States, then gifted students cannot be forgotten.

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