On the basis of a qualifying entrance exam, I was admitted to my district’s Gifted and Talented program in second grade. Once a week, every year until fifth grade, a select group of students and I were put on a bus to spend the entire school day on an alternate campus. While our peers spent the day in their typical core classes, we made robots, dissected animals, solved puzzles, and studied Shakespeare. The Gifted and Talented program is something I am forever grateful to have experienced, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve questioned it. What is the true value of these programs? Are they creating equity, or are they actually promoting inequity? What is the right way to approach gifted education?
My main concern with differential gifted education is that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies. For those who are told at the ripe age of seven that they aren’t creative or intelligent enough to be considered gifted, they may spend their entire educational journey believing they lack the necessary intellect to enroll in advanced courses or programs. Meanwhile, the gifted students, showered in praise and opportunities, are more likely to pursue more challenging academic or creative endeavors with a greater sense of self-efficacy. This is known as the Matthew Effect-the power of those given an advantage to continue to gain exponential advantage over time.
And how are these children admitted? It varies by district, from parent referrals to district-wide tests. But when it comes down to it, most of the time, the admittance process simply favors kids with more parent involvement and the money and resources to be involved in out of school instruction or enrichment programs. There are racial disparities as well, with multiple studies finding black and Hispanic children underrepresented in gifted programs, often because teachers are less likely to refer them.
Districts nationwide are eliminating or altering their Gifted Programs, but are facing understandable pushback. These programs were created to uplift kids and provide them with resources to cater to their natural abilities, and in many instances, do provide kids from underrepresented backgrounds or lower class families opportunities to excel.
Studies show that kids admitted to gifted programs are often much more engaged in their work, as they’re being intellectually challenged in a non-traditional way. But is this not something all kids would benefit from?
My mother always talks about how she would have thrived in grade school had she been given the opportunities I was given in the gifted program. She was dyslexic and did not excel in the traditional classroom. School perpetually made her feel unintelligent. When I would come home, telling her about my photography classes or how I spent the day dissecting a cow heart, she always expressed how she felt that kids who were like her would perhaps be a better fit for the alternative learning styles. It can be argued that these kids need to first focus on their core classes, especially if they’re falling behind, but maybe new programs and opportunities are what they need to unlock their potential.
Of course, the school system is evolving. We’re slowly seeing more experiential learning and coursework engrained in regular classroom settings. So what does the future of gifted programs look like? Is there a way to honor gifted students fairly? To what extent does “giftedness” truly exist- is it more nurture than nature?