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New York City is overhauling its gifted and talented program. Existing programs across the nation tend to admit few Black and Latino students and they often don’t show evidence of helping students learn more. Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

After years of discussion, New York City announced in October 2021 that it is overhauling gifted and talented programs, eliminating the testing of thousands of 4-year-olds and the city’s separate education system of schools and classrooms for students who score high on this one test.  I wanted to know what the research evidence says about the model that New York is discarding and how education researchers would remake gifted and talented programs.

In New York City, roughly 2,500 kindergarteners a year are put into separate gifted and talented classrooms. That’s less than 4 percent of the city’s public school population and below the national average where almost 7 percent of students are tapped for gifted and talented programs. Gifted and talented programs are especially popular in the South. Maryland has the highest percentage of gifted students at 16 percent. By contrast, in Massachusetts, where students consistently post the highest test scores in the nation, only one half of one percent of students — 0.5 percent — are labeled “gifted” and given extra services.

Regardless of the number of students, the racial and ethnic composition of the students in gifted and talented programs is often askew. In New York City, the difference between gifted and general education is especially stark. White and Asian parents who have the resources and inclination to prepare their 4-year-olds to excel on standardized tests snag more than three quarters of the coveted seats, although these two groups account for less than a third of all students. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic students make up more than 65 percent of the public school system but win only 16 percent of the gifted seats.

Nationally, more than 13 percent of all Asian students are enrolled in gifted programs compared with just 4 percent of Black students, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Among whites, 8 percent get tapped for gifted classrooms. Among Hispanic students, it’s 5 percent. That mirrors long-standing achievement differences on standardized tests but researchers have also found that gifted Black students are often overlooked, especially by white teachers.

A 2021 study in Ohio found that high-achieving students who score among the top 20 percent on third-grade tests were much less likely to be identified as gifted and stay high achieving if they are Black or low-income students. As they grew up, these Black and low-income high achievers were less likely to go to college.  

“If we want to improve the racial or socioeconomic diversity of our colleges and beyond, these are the kids who have the best shot at doing so, and yet our schools are letting them down,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, which published the Ohio study.

Researchers have been studying ways to diversify the ranks of gifted-and-talented programs. Testing all students rather than relying on teacher recommendations and parent initiative has helped districts identify more students of color who qualify. In New York City, the system relied on parent initiative and many Black and Hispanic parents didn’t register their 4-year-olds to take the test. 

Scholars applaud New York City’s plan to stop testing 4-year-olds and wait until later in elementary school to identify students. 

“As a general rule, test scores become more accurate as students age with second- or third-grade being when they tend to stabilize,” said Scott Peters, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who studies gifted education. “It was ridiculous to ID students at age four for any kind of long-term services.”

Even with universal screening, which New York City said it is planning to do in the future, the numbers of Black and Hispanic students selected for gifted-and-talented programs can remain disappointing, researchers have found. That’s true even in school districts, such as Raleigh, North Carolina, that also review student work, not just test scores, when deciding who is gifted. 

One popular idea is to cream the top from each school, creating a threshold for giftedness that varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. While that qualifies many more students of color from low-income schools, they would still be underrepresented in gifted classrooms, researchers have calculated. In a simulation across 10 states, Black students would still account for only 8 to 10 percent of the gifted classroom seats, even though they make up 14 percent of the student population. Hispanics would have 8 to 9 percent of the seats while they make up 13 percent of the population.

Racial achievement gaps are real in our society and it isn’t easy to overcome them simply by changing test-score thresholds or formulas for who gets admitted.

A second, equally important line of research is whether gifted-and-talented programs are worthwhile for the students who are in them. Several studies have found that students aren’t learning any more when they receive gifted services. A 2011 study in the Southwest found that gifted-and-talented programs throughout the district generated no discernible impact on math or reading. The study did detect higher science scores but only for students who attended a particular gifted-and-talented magnet school. Another 2012 study also found that gifted instruction had no effect on achievement. Most recently, a 2021 study published in the journal of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found that gifted programs across the nation provided little to no academic boost.

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 with accelerated lessons. 

“Acceleration has a larger impact on student learning than many common instructional strategies and yet schools tend to rarely use it,” said Peters of the University of Wisconsin.

While some students display talent in all subjects, it’s far more common to have talent in one domain, such as math but not reading. Scholars say advanced lessons in specific subjects might be more effective and targeted to a student’s needs. 

Some argue for the elimination of gifted-and-talented education altogether. But other researchers, including David Card, a University of California, Berkeley, economist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in October 2021, have found that bright students of color especially benefit from being surrounded by high-achieving peers. He and his University of California, Santa Cruz co-author Laura Guiliano, are now studying the long-term outcomes for gifted students in Florida.

University of Wisconsin’s Peters also argues for preserving gifted education.  

“Schools love to say that they will just challenge all kids in the regular education classroom,” said Peters. “The problem is this tends to include five to seven grade levels of readiness. The result is teachers have to make hard choices on who gets to learn and there is self-report data that kids who are already at grade level don’t get attention.”

There’s still no consensus on how best to administer higher-level instruction for children who are already several grade levels above their peers. Across the country, gifted services vary widely. Sometimes, students learn in separate classrooms. Sometimes, they are pulled out for separate instruction. And sometimes, a specialist is sent into a classroom to work with advanced students in small groups.

As New York City fleshes out the details of its future gifted-and-talented program, the research evidence isn’t yet clear on which model is most effective.

This story about gifted and talented 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.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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  1. Dear Editor,

    Your story, Proof Points: What Research Tells Us about Gifted Education, on the equality and effectiveness of Gifted Education was interesting, but I feel it missed an important point. I have been teaching gifted education classes as well as school-wide enrichment in Oklahoma for nearly 30 years. In my experience, the most effective side of gifted education is to give bright students, no matter their background, an opportunity to use the skills they possess in the school setting. Why is this so important? Because I have see scores of gifted students drop out of school because of lack of motivation, and the idea that they can “do something” more effectively if they strike out on their own like Bill Gates and change the world. MOST of these students, however, are destined to seek out other activities to fill their racing minds. This is where we find the computer hackers, drug dealers and other “leaders” who take their gifts and skills in an extremely negative direction. Motivating gifted kids to see the importance of education, and more importantly the application of education, keeps them in school and on track. This has to start young and it has to include critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, innovation, entrepreneurship, and all of the other skills that will make school lessons applicable and interesting. IF gifted students learn what they can do with the knowledge they are acquiring in the regular classroom, they will always want more.

  2. Yet again, Hechinger Report slams gifted education without interviewing the families of children who need services, without reaching out to the many organizations who provide social and educational services, and asking about the unique needs of these students. The focus is always on the most restrictive and biased programs and strong programs that have excellent access are not mentioned.

    LAUSD is the second largest district in the nation. It tests every second grade student. It tests at parent and teacher request. Students can also access services by high achievement on state tests and to the arts via portfolio. It provides programs for 2E children. It provides programs for profoundly gifted students. Students can access services at their home school or attend specialized magnet programs. Students new to the district are offered testing. There are specialized magnets in everything from math, science, and humanities to performing arts and the zoo open to all students. There are three accessible math pathways.

    Please start writing stories with deep research instead of reflexive attacks.

  3. Students attending Head Start programs do well but lose steam in grades 1-3 when homework is given (overall demographics). Gifted students in heterogeneous classrooms become bored readily 7& are unable t get stimulation in afterschool activities, a great recipe for gangs & criminal activity. W gifted will succeed despite it all, but the USA will lose.

  4. Our daughter was selected for the G and T program in her first week in school. She participated through middle school, then opted out. She did not think the program did anything for her. We, her parents, were deceived by the implication that such a program would provide a more substantial education. It did not.

  5. I’ll tell you a secret about the most widely used intelligence tests for identifying gifted students – they measure what a student knows rather than how well a student can think. For example, they demand knowledge of words, that is not intelligence, it is achievement. The effect is that students of color who have not had high quality educational experiences are at disadvantage and get lower scores and therefore do not score high enough to be selected. It is that simple. To find ALL gifted students the intelligence tests must measure thinking not knowing. This can be achieved using tests that have been explicitly designed to measure thinking in a way that is not confounded by knowing.

  6. Dear Editorial Team,
    Thank you Jill Barshay for bringing the topic of gifted education to light and highlighting some of the criticisms of current identification as well as programming in gifted education. I would like to ask a few questions of the critics: 1) If school boards refuse subject area acceleration as an option for those in need (until high school) and will only define gifted education as enrichment activities, why would they use academic growth as a criteria for judging a program that is limited/required to provide only depth?
    2) Might these enrichment programs provide growth or keep alive something other than academic knowledge, something like curiosity and wonder?
    3) Might the lessons in creative and inventive thinking make a difference years later when they go out into the world?

    When I asked myself those questions after 20 years of developing and implementing an enrichment program for ‘producers of ideas’ while they remained most of the time in classrooms where they learned to be ‘consumers of ideas’*, we sent out an alumni survey that was designed to measure their perceptions based on the program goals we had set forth. With an excellent response, a statistically significant finding stated early exposure to creative thinking was the most influential and pivotal contribution to their entire education.
    True stories that support the statistics:
    One young man straight out of college was hired in a large tech company and within the first 6 months obtained his first patent. His proud mother was excited to share the news with the extended family at Thanksgiving, but he would not let her because he said he did no more than exactly what he had done in 4th grade -so that was nothing to brag about! She came into school the next day to tell me.

    Another event – Young lady graduated from college with a business degree, was hired as an assistant to the CEO of a company who set up a meeting with all his regional directors and she was there taking notes. The CEO asked everyone to go around the table and describe the company as a particular make of a car. Everyone picked a car stating accolades in common. When my former student was asked, surprised to be included, she said from what she has learned thus far, she saw the company not as a car but as a garage for all of the expensive cars mentioned. Her promotion was quite significant, if memory serves me right it was VP of the company. Again, a proud dad/colleague came to tell me of this amazing application of the concrete realization of our program’s purpose.

    There some good resources that provide deep thought on the subject – Abe Tannebaum’s 1983 book “Gifted Children” where the concept of educating ‘consumers’ and (for those with interest and capability) ‘producers’ of ideas is just one of many contributions to the research by a highly respected. The book on programming I find to be the most comprehensive includes the work of many scholars “Best practices in gifted education” edited by Bruce Shore and colleagues. Joyce Van Tassel’s book on curriculum are favorites for helping teachers modify regular curriculum content. I wrote “On Human Potential: nurturing talents, cultivating expertise” to offer a means of moving past the ‘have and have not’ conversation that has been so divisive as well as help teachers recognize and become better instructional strategists for gifted education.

    With all the talk of problems with gifted education that has been based on myths, misinformation and misdirection, why haven’t the critics looked at some of the success stories out there? Seeing what works might help others know what might be wrong with theirs. Let’s move forward so all children’s needs are addressed.

    Most Sincerely,

    Sandra Kay, EdD

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