Who gets to be gifted

Who Gets to Be Gifted?

New York City may be phasing out gifted programs in public schools. Seattle is under fire for its “Highly Capable Cohort.” And in San Francisco, a school considered one of the nation’s academic jewels tried using a lottery system rather than test scores to admit students.

As school districts from coast to coast face pressure to reconsider gifted programs amidst cries of inequity and elitism, there’s a renewed emphasis on identifying students of all backgrounds who need talent development and figuring out how to best serve them.

It’s an approach that has been used for four decades at the School of Education and Social Policy’s Center for Talent Development, which carefully chose its name to put greater focus on the idea that giftedness can be cultivated. Though this wasn’t necessarily the prevailing view in 1982, when giftedness was largely seen as an inborn, immutable characteristic, CTD’s inclusive model for supporting advanced students has now become a standard in the field.

“Giftedness is not a fixed trait that you are born with, like eye color,” says Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, CTD’s longtime director and SESP professor. “It involves developing a child’s strengths early on and providing experiences and support so they can turn their abilities and interests into achievement in an area they love.

“It used to be just ‘gifted,’” she adds. “Now, everybody’s talking about talent development. The rest of the world has caught up with us.”

Though 3.2 million students in US public schools are in gifted and talented programs, millions are being overlooked, experts say. The consequences go beyond wasted talent and unfulfilled potential.

Loaded term

“Gifted” is a controversial label, especially when applied to children, and is defined differently by parents and educators.

There’s no agreement on how it should be defined and measured, whereas in adult- hood, talent is readily recognized through one’s performance, ideas, and outputs.

Early in the 20th century, giftedness was equated with a high IQ. More recent research suggests that giftedness is multidimensional.

In a groundbreaking monograph published in 2011 in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Olszewski-Kubilius, along with colleagues Rena Subotnik and Frank Worrell, proposed a new definition of giftedness that describes it as “performance that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain, even relative to other high-functioning individuals in that domain.” The definition includes the idea that “cognitive and psychosocial variables are malleable and need to be deliberately cultivated.”

Wealth and resources are also factors, says Worrell, distinguished professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of its Academic Talent Development Program.

“If I live in a household where my parents are professionals and well educated, the resources I have—the books I have access to, visits to museums, trips I go on—are going to be substantial,” says Worrell. “It’s no wonder that giftedness is connected to socioeconomic status.”

Though 3.2 million students in US public schools are in gifted and talented programs, millions are being overlooked, experts say. The consequences go beyond wasted talent and unfulfilled potential.

Research suggests that children whose needs aren’t met in the classroom grow frustrated, bored, and depressed. They suffer both academically and emotionally and fail to develop key executive functioning and psychosocial skills, including resilience or persistence, says Susan Corwith, associate director of CTD and president of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children.

Signs of exceptional reasoning ability can show up differently and may be harder to discern in children who have experienced poverty, according to the 2012 report Unlocking Emergent Talent, which Olszewski-Kubilius coauthored when she was president of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Often it’s wrongly assumed that low- income students who aren’t performing at high levels can’t achieve academic excellence. “That’s confusing potential with performance and implies a stunning lack of faith in low-income students and what they’re capable of,” says Jonathan Plucker, professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Some argue that ability should be viewed as relative to circumstances. In schools with wealthy families, students scoring above national norms at the 95th percentile are often offered advanced opportunities. “But in another school, it might be appropriate to do that for kids scoring at the 75th percentile,” Olszewski-Kubilius says.

In fact, she believes that offering rigorous, above-grade- level work in specific subjects to see how children do is a better method of determining potential. “The chance to do challenging work might reflect higher-level reasoning that clues you in that kids who might not be high achievers on a test are capable of much more,” she says.

An uncertain future

Increasing the number of gifted programs within schools would make the opportunities more equitable, says Worrell. Instead of having selective-enrollment schools with limited seats, every public school could provide programs for all kids who need enrichment beyond the typical curriculum. 

But while the federal government acknowledges a need for gifted education, there are no provisions, mandates, or requirements for serving academically accelerated kids. Services entirely depend on local funding and leadership, which often means that only higher-income school districts can provide services, fueling concerns about elitism.

“We can’t deny children who are ready for advanced work the opportunity to do just that,” Olszewski-Kubilius says. “We’ve got to go from looking at minimum performance for all students to identifying how to move more students to excellent levels of performance. This includes promising low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse students who too often literally languish in our schools.”

--By Julianne Hill

Did You Know?

Five facts about giftedness

Talent can be developed beginning in childhood through challenging learning experiences that force a student to study, practice, put forth effort, and learn organizational habits. Parents and teachers can foster talent by emphasizing growth and improvement over grades and performance and reframing “failures” as learning opportunities.

Gifted does not connote good or better. It is a term that allows students to be identified for services that meet their unique learning needs.

Gifted status isn’t permanent. “Early high-flyers” from disadvantaged backgrounds often gradually regress toward the mean and even fall below it over time without access to the right kind of learning opportunities. It’s important to periodically reassess students to ensure their current curriculum and opportunities are a good fit.

Most gifted children are socially adept and are as likely to be extroverted as introverted. Gifted students are not a homogeneous group. They have different personalities, backgrounds, temperaments, and interests. There is no one psychological or personality profile for gifted individuals.

All children have strengths and positive attributes, but not all children are gifted in the educational sense of the word. The label “gifted” in a school setting means that when compared with others of a similar age or grade, a child has an advanced capacity to learn and apply what is learned in one or more subject areas or in the performing or fine arts. This advanced capacity requires modifications to the regular curriculum to ensure that these children are challenged and learn new material and move to higher levels of achievement.

Sources: Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Eric Calvert, National Association for Gifted Children