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Gifted education is often a flash point in school desegregation debates; in large cities, these programs often operate as an essentially separate school system, dominated by white and Asian children. Though gifted programs touch only 3.3 million school children, about 7 percent of the U.S. student population, it’s disturbing that Black and Hispanic children are rarely chosen for them.
Some progressives have proposed eliminating gifted programs altogether. Others are seeking ways to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students. Only 4 percent of Black children and 5 percent of Hispanic children are in gifted programs compared with 8 percent of white and 13 percent of Asian children, according to the most recent federal figures.
Against this political backdrop, a new study raises big questions about whether gifted education benefits the kids who are lucky enough to be in it. Researchers analyzed the records of about 1,300 students, drawn from a nationally representative sample of children across the country, who started kindergarten in 2010 and participated in a gifted program for at least one year during their elementary school years through fifth grade.
In school systems that offer gifted programs, children generally begin their schooling in a regular kindergarten classroom with children of mixed abilities. Some are labeled as gifted during that first kindergarten year. Others get assigned as late as fifth grade. Researchers compared student performance before and after participating in a gifted program.
Students’ reading scores were only slightly higher after receiving gifted instruction, moving from 78th to 80th percentile in reading on a national yardstick. The boost to math achievement from gifted instruction was much smaller, about a third of that size. No improvements were detected in how engaged or motivated students were in school after joining a gifted program. For example, teachers reported no difference in how hard students worked, how much they participated in discussions or how much they paid attention and listened in class.
Black students didn’t experience even the small reading gains that their white peers did in gifted programs, showing zero difference after receiving gifted services, on average. Similarly, low-income students of all races tended not to reap the academic gains that their wealthier peers did. Asian children, by contrast, posted larger gains in math after joining a gifted program.
“What was most concerning to me was that even this small benefit wasn’t equally distributed across all students subgroups,” said Christopher Redding, an assistant professor at the University of Florida and one of the study’s co-authors. “It seems like Black students benefit less than white students and that high income students benefit the most.”
The study, “Do Students in Gifted Programs Perform Better? Linking Gifted Program Participants to Achievement and Nonachievement Outcomes,” is slated to be published in May 2021 in the journal of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Redding and his co-author, Jason A. Grissom at Vanderbilt University, presented their study in April 2021 at a session of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
This federal data was only recently made available to researchers and it’s the first time that we’re getting a comprehensive national picture of how well kids are doing in gifted programs from kindergarten through fifth grade. Previous research, most of it limited to specific states and school districts, has been mixed. Some studies have shown sluggish learning growth for gifted students. However, high achieving students tend to improve less than average or below average students whether they’re in gifted or regular classrooms.
A well-designed 2011 study of one city found no evidence that students in the gifted program outperformed those just below the cutoff for giftedness by the time they reached seventh grade. It also found that high achieving students who won a seat in a lottery to attend a popular magnet school did better in science but not in math or English compared to similar students who lost the lottery.
A 2016 study of a school district in Florida found no benefit for white students but large benefits for Black and Hispanic students who were assigned to separate gifted classrooms. This national study found the opposite, that white students reaped benefits from gifted programs that children of color did not. The Florida study wasn’t wrong but this national study shows that different schools administer gifted services differently and can get different results.
What to make of these small-to-nil benefits across the nation depends on your perspective. Advocates of gifted education might see promise in the fact that high achieving students saw any gains at all from gifted programs. In many schools children might receive only a few hours a week of extra instruction. Students are pulled out of their regular classroom or a teacher is sent into their classroom to work with advanced students in small groups. One might rightly wonder if “gifted” students would see a larger boost if they received more hours of advanced instruction.
Unfortunately, the federal data that the researchers relied upon didn’t document the type of gifted instruction or how many hours each student received. So the researchers weren’t able to see if higher dosage — or separate full-day classrooms for gifted students — generated better learning outcomes for high achievers.
Virginia Roach, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, which operates programs for high achieving students, commended the study in an email. She said the disappointing results are a sign that teachers need better training to teach gifted students differently. She added that pressures to increase the number of students who pass annual state tests discourage teachers from focusing on advanced students and giving them an “optimal” challenge.
A startling finding from the study is that most students in gifted programs are only slightly above average in achievement, far from anyone’s idea of a genius. The average “gifted” student across the nation ranked between the 75th and 80th percentiles in math and reading, according to the national yardstick tests used by the researchers. The process for deciding which students get assigned to gifted programs varies a lot by state and school district but clearly the identification process is broken if it’s not targeting students who are several grade levels ahead of their peers and in need of more challenging material.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that students aren’t achieving more in gifted classrooms when most educators admit they don’t even try to teach advanced material in them. A 2019 survey of teachers in gifted programs found they primarily focused on “enrichment activities,” such as creative, fun projects and critical thinking exercises and discussions, keeping children on grade-level material, rather than moving them ahead to advanced academic content.
The research consensus, by contrast, argues for propelling high achieving children ahead. “This acceleration question is a really important one,” said Redding, arguing that researchers need to re-examine ideas for exceptionally advanced kids, from starting kindergarten early and skipping a grade to giving advanced instruction in a particular subject. “We need to learn whether other approaches would be more beneficial for supporting gifted students versus some sort of a pullout or enrichment model,” said Redding.
It’s possible that standardized achievement tests and teacher surveys on student engagement are unable to measure the benefits of a gifted education. Perhaps placement in a gifted program raises a child’s self-esteem and confidence and the results don’t emerge until decades later in the form of PhDs, poems and patents.
But based on the measures we have now and the current state of affairs of these programs, it appears that gifted education isn’t much of a gift to students.
This story about gifted programs was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.