Every student has gifts. Given time and support, all students can learn deeply and accomplish amazing things.
But a small fraction of students have truly rare potential. What does it take to provide these students with the opportunities they need to become extraordinary?
Students can be gifted in many ways. Some have unusual artistic potential, if provided the opportunity to develop it. Some are socially gifted, with unusual capacity for empathy and insight. Some are physically gifted, with rare athletic potential or extraordinary good looks.
And, of course, some are gifted in ways that most people think of as smart. Classically "smart" kids might have a knack for math. Or they find it easy to remember things, or to solve problems.
A person who is gifted in one way is not necessarily gifted in every way. Uneven gifts are the stuff of literature, legend and stereotype. The absent-minded professor. The dumb jock. The psychopathic mean girl. The silent painter. The telegenic dope. The awkward nerd.
Giftedness in any dimension is, by definition, rare. It implies an unusual degree of aptitude and the potential for unusual achievements.
But there is not an automatic connection between amazing potential and amazing results.
Imagine a world-class violinist. By definition, such a person must have musical gifts: a strong sense of pitch, timing and rhythm, a strong memory for sounds and composition, fine coordination in both hands and an unusual capacity to draw pleasure from repetitive practice.
Oh, and consistent access to a violin. And time and space to play it. And a teacher.
It makes a lot of sense to support gifted students by providing the things they need to flourish. Among other things, long-term research suggests that when things go right, gifted students are disproportionately likely to change the world.
Most California schools do not automatically screen students to find out if they are gifted. In most schools, screening tests (which generally cost hundreds of dollars to administer) are used only if there is a reason for doing so, and if a teacher requests it. This subjective "referral" approach creates an unequal result sometimes called the Gifted Gap. Low income students, students of color and girls are less likely to be referred into gifted programs.
There are many reasons why gifted students might not be noticed for referral. Kids don't always want to be pigeonholed as smart, for example. Being gifted is a form of being different, which can also feel like being weird. Some gifted students underperform in school because they find it tedious. Some, bored, may fidget or disrupt class. Others, not wanting to be noticed, sit quietly in class, do what they're told and endure the slow pace.
Giftedness is not a disability.
Neither California nor the federal government sets aside money to educate gifted students.
Although California administers standardized tests to most students annually, these tests don't identify gifted children. These tests evaluate students' knowledge of grade-level curriculum, not their aptitude for general reasoning.
Psychologists use a variety of assessments to estimate different forms of intelligence, including "general" intelligence ("G"). The most widely used test for this purpose is the Wechsler assessment, which yields a statistic known as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ). By design, the average average IQ score is 100. Higher scores reflect above-average general intelligence. The Wechsler assessments have been around for a long time, and are far from the only ones available. For example, some California schools and districts use group-administered tests such as CogAT, an assessment from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
All of these tests share a common flaw: false negatives. They can easily understate a student's intellectual potential. For example, difficulties with reading, a language barrier, cultural barriers, anxiety or a bad night's sleep can interfere with a student's performance on the test, making them seem less bright than they are.
In 1979, the ninth circuit court ruled in Larry P. vs Riles that this flaw has civil rights implications. Low-scoring students were being diverted from traditional classrooms into special ed classes, with disproportionate impact on African American students. California responded by banning the use of general intelligence assessments when determining whether an African-American student has a learning disability.
Interpretation of the Larry P. ban on using cognitive tests to assess African American students for special education has evolved a bit, but it basically remains in effect. Ironically, this ban now serves roughly the opposite of its original purpose: it now complicates the documentation process for African American students to access special education services. The ban also has made it complex to administer assessment tests for gifted students that are African American.
Very high scores are rare, and not random.
Although cognitive assessment tests have been proven unreliable in assessing low scores, the same cannot be said of high scores. Very high scores are rare, and not random.
Tests with consequences tend to come with unintended consequences, too. For example, if parents perceive that a high score could materially help their child (for example, by helping them get access to an accelerated class or a better teacher), some will cheat by trying to prepare their kids for the test in advance. This might work: the tests are meant to be administered "cold" to students seeing them for the first time.
On its own, giftedness is not defined as a disability or special need. Some gifted students do have special needs (known as "twice exceptional" or "2e"), but most don't.
Today, neither California nor the federal government sets aside resources for the education of gifted students. This is a shift.
In October of 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world with the launch of Sputnik. Suddenly, support for the education of unusually gifted students became a matter of national security. America needed more rocket scientists, fast: where would they come from?
In 1958 Congress enacted and funded the National Defense Education Act. For quick results, the bulk of the measure encouraged colleges to expand their engineering and aerospace departments, but Title V set out to mine diamonds in the rough at scale. It established a matching fund that encouraged states to develop "Gifted and Talented Education" (GATE) programs in K-12 public schools. President Kennedy added to the momentum by setting America's sights on the moon. States and school districts responded enthusiastically; by 1964 expenditures on GATE had swelled to the 2017 equivalent of $1.3 Billion.
Along the way, the purpose of those funds shifted from narrow testing and identification of the gifted to a broader aim: providing lots of bright students with access to higher education. At first, the main impact was to spur the growth of counseling services in high schools. In 1965, however, the National Defense Education Act was superseded by a key element of the Johnson administration's war on poverty: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Title I of ESEA remains the largest component of federal support for education. It provides funding for schools and food for students in lower-wealth communities throughout America. The focus on identifying giftedness survived, in modified form, in expanded use of standardized testing.
It was in this Cold War swirl of competing priorities that California's leaders developed the Master Plan for Higher Education. Under this plan, the University of California became the top tier of the college system, responsible for serving the top eighth of the state's high school graduates, based on their grades and test scores. This was a far broader aim than the laser-beam identification and education of only the most gifted students.
School boards may fund programs for gifted students using LCFF funds, but they are not compelled to do so
As this larger vision came to pass, the funding for GATE programs withered, first at the federal level, then at the state level. The last vestiges of California's state funding for gifted education disappeared with the adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in 2013. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, a nonprofit organization, most other states have taken a similar path, leaving to school districts and schools the question of how to invest in students with unusual potential. In its 2018 federal budget proposal, the Trump administration eliminated the last remnant of Federal support for education for the Gifted, known as Javits grants. [Note: Congress restored the appropriation to its prior size, diminished but not zero.]
Any programs for gifted students that now exist in California are local and/or private. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) gathers basic data about these programs. An extensive 2018 report, Is There a Gifted Gap, suggests that these local programs can make inequality in educational opportunity worse. According to the report, compared to students in high-poverty schools, "students in low-poverty schools are more than twice as likely to participate" in gifted programs.
Gifted students are diverse in every way. "Merely" gifted students might just be the handful of students in each grade who have a fairly easy time meeting the academic expectations at school. But a small percentage of students are so profoundly gifted that they basically break the evaluation tests. Each year in California about half a million students enter kindergarten. Among them are perhaps fifty students that would surpass 160 on an IQ test. These are the students that teachers might come across once in a career.
Massively gifted students aren't like other kids their age. They aren't like older kids, either. They more than just "advanced" — they are operating on a different level. The 2017 movie Gifted explores some of the challenges:
"What can I DO for this kid?"
Parents of gifted students often wonder what to do. Would their child would flourish (or at least be less bored and cranky) in a different public school? Is homeschooling a good option, or a recipe for disaster? What about private schools? Under recent changes to tax laws, families lucky enough to have college funds saved in tax-advantaged 529 plans can withdraw funds early to pay for private K-12 tuition without federal penalty. Should they break the college piggy bank open early and pay for private school? Some private schools will offer scholarships to make the tuition more affordable. GreatSchools.org is a good resource for investigating different schools to get started.
State and federal funding support for gifted education have gone away, but GATE programs do still exist in some of California's large school districts such as Los Angeles. Some schools throughout the state identify themselves as specializing in education of gifted students. Selective or intensive summer programs like the Center for Talented Youth attract gifted students from all over the world.
Parents, teachers and counselors of extraordinarily gifted students tend to seek one another out for advice. The California Association for the Gifted holds conferences periodically to help parents learn from one another. Carolyn Callahan, a longtime researcher into the special needs (and not-so-special needs) of families with gifted kids, will be the keynote speaker at the CAG conference in San Diego March 2-4. Many helpful resources can be found online at hoagiesgifted.org.
Find them. Gifted students are randomly scattered throughout your schools. Testing can definitively identify intellectually gifted students at a very early age. A few have truly rare potential; are your schools administering a screening test capable of noticing them? These students might become a great legacy of your school and change the world, but not without support. Do you know who they are, by name? Who is looking out for them, and how?
Fund them. No federal or state funding specifically supports programs to find and fund gifted students. Gifted students do not receive special education services unless they are "twice exceptional" and specifically need them. Gifted programs need to be funded through your district LCFF budget.
Make exceptions for the exceptional. PTAs, Chambers of Commerce, museums and other local organizations might want to support the education of gifted students, both financially and by developing creative beyond-school opportunities for them.
Be mindful of motivation. It doesn't help kids to honor them for things that take no effort, like being tall, smart, talented, or left-handed. Weirdly, doing so can actually backfire. Studies of motivation suggest that it is more constructive to celebrate hard work and creative risk-taking (behaviors that kids can change through effort) than to celebrate giftedness (which they can't).
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