In my last Civic Issues post, I discussed tracking and the various forms it has taken on throughout history and in the present day. One specific form of tracking that I would like to look at more closely in this week’s post is gifted education. How many of you were enrolled in your elementary, middle, or high school’s gifted education program? How many of you were tested and did not get in? How many of you were never tested at all? Any one of these choices has impacted your education in one way or another, and I am sure that all of you have success and/or horror stories pertaining to it.
Almost every state has passed legislation that requires schools to provide gifted education. However, since there is no federal law regulating it, there is a lot of discrepancy in how gifted programs are orchestrated. I could go into a lot more detail into the organization of gifted education programs, but for now, I would like to focus on the broad ethics of gifted education in general. (To read more about the organization of gifted education today, click here.)
**The states in blue mandate support for gifted programs and provide funding for it. Those in red neither require nor fund gifted education.
Let’s begin with entrance to the program. Traditionally, the way to enter a school’s gifted program was solely through an IQ test. The student had to achieve at least a score of 130. The higher the score was above 130, the more gifted the school considered the child to be. In today’s time, most states require more than one method to determine if a child is in need of gifted education or not. These include student grades, achievement tests, parental advocacy, teacher referrals, etc. In Pennsylvania, school districts must “adopt and use a system to locate and identify all students within that district who are thought to be gifted and in need of specially designed instruction.” Nice and vague, right?
The legislation goes on to specify that schools must consider “multiple criteria,” but does not state how many. Examples of other criteria are: being a year or more above grade achievement level; early and measured use of creativity, leadership skills, high level thinking skills, etc; accelerated acquisition of new information and ideas. As you can see, there is a lot of room for school districts to develop unique systems.
I believe that the basis for placement into a gifted program should be whether or not the child is sufficiently challenged in a regular classroom environment. There are students who have IQ’s higher than 130 and who display strong leadership skills, for example, but whose needs are met in a normal classroom. School is challenging them and they will succeed without needing to be placed in the gifted education program. Other students, however, may also have an IQ over 130, but a regular classroom environment is clearly not stimulating enough for them. For example, a student who is reading complete novels when his class is still learning to read picture books will become very idle and bored. A student like this would greatly benefit from an additional program which challenge his reading skills.
Next, I would like to discuss the allocation of resources for gifted programs. Because there is no federal law mandating exactly what gifted programs should look like, the effects are extremely uneven. In some school districts, gifted education simply means taking all of the students who are not challenged in their regular classroom environments (regardless of chronological age) and putting them in a supplemental classroom where they can all engage in another activity (like computer brain games or chess). Other programs offer their middle schoolers SAT prep and practice tests so that by the time everyone takes the SATs in a few years, they have already mastered how to take the test.
Despite the inequity in gifted programs, gifted education is generally considered to be the “better stuff” of education. One reason people have such a problem with gifted education is that it takes the best resources and teachers and allocates them to a select group of people. The argument is that those resources would benefit every student. Is it fair to give the already-talented students additional materials that will advance them even further while “normal” students get left behind?
Again, I return to my policy of providing sufficient challenge for every student. Gifted education should take individuals who are clearly festering in boredom (based upon achievement tests and teacher referrals, mainly) and stimulate their minds with more individualized attention. Although every student would certainly benefit from individualized instruction, this is a far-off goal that we simply do not have the means to make a reality. If students are sufficiently challenged and are benefiting from a regular classroom environment, then we can prioritize gifted education for those who are not.