Gifted Isn’t Good

There, I’ve said it. The startling. The scandalous. Or maybe just the incomprehensible. But gifted isn’t good. It isn’t bad either. “Gifted” isn’t a value statement.

Gifted education is not a privilege or a prize. It is not an elite club.

Believe it or not, “gifted” is not a label to aspire to.

Changing the mindset of the public on this issue is difficult. I worked in a district years ago where I not only tested students for the gifted program, but I contacted the parents with the results of the testing. At first I followed the district protocol of mailing letters home, but I got so many questioning phone calls and unhappy letters I finally decided it was more efficient just to call every parent to talk them through the results before mailing the official results.

“Mrs. Brown, your daughter’s scores were really great,” I’d say and read the scores to her. “But she didn’t make it into the gifted program.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.” I could feel her disappointment.

“Well, tell me about your daughter. Does she like school?”

“Yes.”

“Does she get along with her peers? Her teacher? Does she do well? Get good grades?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Then, Mrs. Brown, thank God. You have a bright child. They are so much easier to raise than a gifted child! For a gifted child, very often the answers to those questions is no.”

I don’t notify parents any more, but I still encounter parents who crave the label. The trouble is, if parents’ aspirations exceed their children’s capabilities, it can harm the children academically, according to the American Psychological Association. Encouraging children to do well is helpful, but pushing too hard is counterproductive. It’s a fine balance, and it’s sometimes hard to strike that balance. In conferences, I sometimes need to counsel parents gently that their child is swimming as hard as they can, but they can’t keep their head above the water. A gifted program is not for everyone.

On the other hand, a general education program is not for everyone either.

Imagine observing a swimming program one summer. Some children test into guppies, some into minnows, some into fish. As soon as they master the skills at one level, the students move to the next. They can advance rapidly or take their time moving through classes over the course of the summer.

School is another matter entirely. In September we take five-year-olds and put them in the same classroom, no matter their skill level. And we keep them in the same room all year, no matter how quickly they advance through learning their skills. We have students in classes where most of their classmates are, so to speak, learning to hold their faces under water and blow bubbles while they should be perfecting their strokes as they swim laps—in the deep pool. Some of them should be diving and thinking of training for the Olympics!

I have an obligation to go diving regularly with my students. Last week’s fifth grade Time for Kids suggested debating whether or not sugary drinks should be taxed. Instead my students debated life-extensionism. Some thought the search for immortality a great idea, but one boy demurred. “Every day of your life now has value because it’s a fraction of your whole life. But if your whole life is forever, then each day is a fraction of that, and its value is nothing.” I’m not sure they’re considering that argument at MIT!

One thing I really appreciate about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that it talks about identifying “students with specific learning needs, particularly

  • children with disabilities,
  • English learners,
  • students who are gifted and talented, and
  • students with low literacy levels” (page 328, bullets mine).

Notice how the ESSA considers gifted students to be “students with specific learning needs” and it groups gifted students with children with disabilities, children who are learning English, and children who are having difficulty learning to read. In another section it again lists gifted students with children with disabilities and English learners (page 336, lines 6-12).

I am so pleased with this level of understanding on the part of the legislators who wrote this law. Gifted students are one group among many with “specific learning needs”—different educational needs.

I would love it if I could help people shift their mental construct. No more imagining a vertical framework with gifted education being at the top or the best or only for the elite. Instead picture a horizontal framework. Ask yourself, how far are students from the center, from the middle, from the norm? The students at both extremes are exceptional students who need a qualitatively different education.

So gifted students aren’t good/better/best. They’re needy/needier/neediest. And for those who do need it, gifted education is a necessity—a necessity designed to meet the unique educational needs of an outlier group.

3 thoughts on “Gifted Isn’t Good

  1. Mark Gardner

    Wow, that one boy’s comment about an eternal life, each fraction meaning nothing!

    I have never taught any form of gifted, honors, accelerated, or other label, but I have had students in my classes that I recognized had the kinds of intellectual traits associated with being gifted. Were they on the needy/needier/neediest spectrum? Sure. But, that spectrum applied to every single one of my students as well…it was just that the needs were different and the ways those needs were expressed were different. Your point, if I’m reading it correctly, is one I agree with regardless: recognizing and responding to the differences is what is important for all students’ education.

  2. Tom White

    Great post, Jan. It brings to mind a student I have this year who recently tested into our district’s gifted program. Joyce is inattentive, she reads while I’m teaching, she forgets her homework, her writing projects are always late, she has very few friends and her sense of humor is awkward.

    But she’s gifted. She thinks of things no one thinks of. She sees connections that no one else sees. Her imagination is in overdrive. What we do just doesn’t hold her interest. She belongs in the gifted program, and thank God, next year she’ll be there.

  3. Karen Foley

    This is spot on. Gifted also = anxiety. It’s not the easiest path. I love to see it on a spectrum–just filling the needs of each individual student. Bravo!

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