Does Gifted Education Exacerbate Social Inequities in U.S. Schools?

For many parents and educators, “gifted” is an uncomfortable word. Well-meaning people sometimes say “every child is gifted” (which makes advocates for gifted education crazy).

Noodle Expert Celi Trépanier explains why in her blog: Denying the exceptionality of gifted children leads to ignoring their educational and emotional needs.

Defining “Giftedness”

Like it or not, “gifted” is the word used by psychologists and professional educators to designate children with extraordinary academic abilities, particularly abstract reasoning skills. Briefly speaking, giftedness has generally been associated, for educational purposes, with having high IQ scores. IQ tests focus on certain specific cognitive abilities, like reasoning, pattern recognition, and memory — although there are other abilities, like perseverance or musical aptitude, for instance, that IQ scores do not measure. IQ scores are re-normed every few years (they tend to climb higher over time) so that 100 remains the “average” score. Giftedness, and gifted educational programs, are generally defined explicitly in terms of being above the norm: So, gifted students are those who, compared to their age group, score above the average range.

The Link Between IQ Tests and Giftedness

Given the connection of giftedness with IQ tests and the fact that giftedness is explicitly defined as those students who “are above” their peers, it’s understandable that the word makes us uncomfortable. First and foremost, it seems inequitable: If these children are gifted, does that mean those children are inferior? Since school is the primary activity in most kids’ lives from ages 5–18 (or longer), the fact that giftedness applies to a skill-set that is advantageous in a school setting makes it all too easy to feel as if saying that a child is gifted means she is “better” — rather than just better at this particular kind of “job.”

Advocates for gifted education will often point out that, in other arenas like sports, music, or art, saying a child is better than others is not so fraught (and, in fact, many schools will use the phrase “gifted and talented” as an umbrella term in order to include these other kinds of talents in gifted programming). But since we think of school as both a child’s main job — these other activities are, after all, often described as “extracurriculars,” implying they are “extra” rather than fundamental — and because we emphasize academic achievement as the surest route to adult success, the sense of unfairness remains.

The Relationship Between Educational Inequities and Giftedness

Inconsistencies in how schools define and apply the term giftedness exacerbate this sense of inequality. And ongoing and pernicious socioeconomic inequities — class, race, disabilities, even gender — in the broader society have, in fact, historically had an impact on who gets access to gifted programs. It is also true that average IQ test scores have risen over time, which is why tests are “renormed” and new ones introduced periodically. These scores, moreover, are affected by socioeconomic status for a variety of reasons; higher status and more money generally mean that young children are more likely to be exposed to the kinds of tasks that help them develop the cognitive wiring that we value in schools.

Using IQ scores as the exclusive determinant of giftedness has obvious potential drawbacks across populations, and generally speaking, we have moved away from such simple rubrics: Most schools rely heavily on tests but also take into account factors like achievement (assessments to measure achievement differ from IQ tests), teacher and parent recommendations, and so on. It’s important to note, too, that universal testing in schools actually tends to increase, not decrease, the representation of poor and minority children in gifted programs, probably because, without such widespread testing, far fewer poor and minority children are assessed in the first place.

The Public Perception of Giftedness

Nonetheless, the perception persists that “giftedness” is really a proxy for social class or whiteness; that it is incompatible with cognitive or even physical disabilities; even that it’s a term that unfairly favors boys or girls. Indeed, as all of these studies point out, such perceptions are not imaginary: It is true that giftedness and gifted programs in schools have all too often been defined and made available in ways that reflected and perpetuated existing social inequality.

In places where public schools are widely perceived as inadequate or where parents’ ambitions for their children’s academic and economic futures lead to intense competition for the most-desired schools, parents with money and status are more likely to have the means to push for advantages like gifted education classes. Where educational funding disparities exist, as in many districts that primarily serve impoverished communities or children of color, non-mandatory “extras” like gifted education are likely to be less available. When disabilities impact a child’s school performance, communication skills (including writing), or test-taking ability, the focus on “deficits” may cloud adults’ ability to see this child’s strengths. Where gender norms, racial stereotypes, or other social pressures affect — even unconsciously — students’ senses of themselves and their teachers’ expectations, kids are likely to be channeled into established paths.

An Improving Landscape?

Sadly, this unfairness is not in the past, as the U.S. Department of Education’s 2014 Dear Colleague letter on the subject points out. The good news, though, is that research and understanding of giftedness, and policymakers’ interest in educational equity and fairness, are topics of great interest to educators and lawmakers. As noted throughout this piece, there has been considerable research done within the last fifteen years that provides a sense of the current understanding of giftedness and demonstrates the benefits of current medical and technical advances in brain science to the field of psychology, whose focus on human intelligence, intellectual performance, happiness, fulfillment, and emotional well-being are all important factors in understanding giftedness and how best to educate gifted students.

On the policy side, Senator Barbara Mikulski successfully advocated for restoring federal funding to a program aimed at increasing the enrollment of underrepresented students in gifted education following a three-year hiatus. And as I pointed out in my recent Noodle article The State of U.S. Gifted Education: Your Rights & Resources, educational protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) are spurring many parents and advocates to lobby for including gifted education under the umbrella of special education as a category that entitles students to learning accommodations.

Looking Forward

It is true that gifted education programs, and our understanding of giftedness, are works in progress. They are far from perfect, and like every aspect of life in a democracy, they are and will be forever subject to reassessment and adjustment as the needs of the public change and our understanding of ourselves improves. It is also true that researchers, advocates, policy makers, and parents are deeply concerned with questions of educational equity and fairness. For parents, educators, and policymakers, trying to ensure that gifted education is available to everyone feels even more important than to the average American, though it’s probably also true to say that most Americans, with or without children and in or out of education, care about this issue. It touches on some of our most deeply held values — hence the misperceptions I mentioned at the outset of this article.

As Americans, we believe that achievement and skill should be things that people have control over. We view childhood poverty, disability, race, and gender differences as misfortunes and accidents, or as details of people’s identities, rather than as intrinsic markers of worth. We think of formal education as one of the key routes to achievement and one of the best ways to learn and improve important skills, and we want public schools to provide a level playing field, one that will help our society ameliorate political, economic, and social inequity. While we expect formal education to serve a credentialing function that will help define social classes and peoples’ places within them, we want it to do so fairly. All of these values mean that the tension between what feels equal and what feels fair — that is, between wanting educational evenhandedness and wanting to ensure that we provide opportunities for academically gifted young people to develop their talents — may never go away completely. Nurturing children’s gifts to the best of our abilities and understanding must mean, though, that we continue to strive to nurture gifted children as well.

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