The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child

Why our policies for good students really aren't that smart

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When news broke late last week that behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs in New York City, it united Gotham’s quarreling education community — everyone was outraged. Parents, teachers and city officials all had good reason to be, as the scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified. But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

For starters, what exactly makes a child “gifted”? In New York City, like many school districts, giftedness is decided by a standardized test that measures verbal and nonverbal facility. Score at the 90th percentile and you make the cut for some programs, but at the 97th percentile students become eligible for the highly competitive citywide options for gifted students. The problem isn’t the test, per se, it’s the false precision that comes with it. There is no consistent standard — some experts say the top 10%, some say the top few percent (in which case, most of the children whose parents think they are gifted are merely talented). In the case of New York City, does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

(MORE: Why Kids Should Learn Cursive)

Then there are the limits of standardized testing. We certainly should support students with high academic potential, but it’s hardly the only measure of human potential. Some school districts identify students with talents in the visual and performing arts, for instance, for various gifted programs. But in general, the measure for defining giftedness is narrow — and can be manipulated by access to test-prep programs.

Which is one example of why class and race also matter. Affluent parents have resources to help their children do better on tests. Low-income and minority students are substantially underrepresented in gifted programs. The more general problems of low school quality for poor and minority students likewise matter. A 2007 report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that 3.4 million high-performing low-income students are being overlooked by today’s policies. Not as exciting as occupying a park, but these are the real drivers of America’s lack of social mobility.

(MORE: Why Parenting Is More Important Than Schools)

So what can policymakers and school districts do to create better policies for gifted students? Here are three ideas:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. Students with different kinds of giftedness should be able to find schools that work for them, and giving parents more options does a lot more to get them invested in public education than an annual fight over a limited number of seats in coveted programs.

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. Programs aimed at students by race or income are suspect in today’s politics, but a high bar is only meaningful if all students have the chance to meet it.

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

MORE: Highlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques

169 comments
ArtVandelay
ArtVandelay

Many grade-school children are required to take intelligence evaluation tests or gifted-program qualification tests. These tests are usually aimed at predicting the child’s ability to participate and cope with tasks that require a high intelligence level. The tests pretend to be objectives and provide a non-biased indication of the child’s ability. However, studies have shown that this is not the case, and children who were prepared and practice similar tests get significantly higher results. True, someone who is not intelligent will not be able to get high results even after massive training. Still, training allows gifted, intelligent children to realize their full ability and make the most of the stressful test situation; 10%-25% improvement is guaranteed for every child. http://www.giftedkids.us/


SamSeller
SamSeller

Meh, the solution is obvious. If your parents are part of the 1%, then you are gifted.

NevilleRoss
NevilleRoss

To be brutally frank, I think that gifted children should be out of school as soon as their talents are recognized early-for example, if a gifted child has already complete high school by the age of ten (c.f. Doogie Houser) and is about to be in college, they should be in college and be done with high school and school (primary, elementary, and secondary) itself, ready to move on to getting proficient in the field of endeavor they've shown an aptitude for. Prolonging school 'just for the social development of the child' or the other bullcrap that would be spewed is just that, bullcrap-children are resilient, and can be so enough to be working early if they have the aptitude to do so. The whole thing reminds me of the problems encountered by Reed Richards in Ultimate Fantastic Four; so smart that he's already figuring out how to travel into other dimensions at age 14, he's constantly bullied in school, and his home life isn't amazing, either. he becomes saved when the U.S. government recruits him for a special program designed to make use of his abilities now as a young man rather than later. 


What happened in the movie Good Will Hunting is also something that should be considered when a child's gifted status is realized.















































BenJamN
BenJamN

I'm still convinced the Gifted Program is a method PTA parents have developed (consciously or otherwise) to horde resources for their kids at public schools.

Anooshka
Anooshka

When living in Queens, my son scored 97% on the G&T Test, and was placed into a Gifted & Talented Program in a Public School closest to where we resided. He was given three schools to choose from, and our first choice was reserved for people living in that area. We moved to Roslyn, NY and he started 3rd Grade in an elementary school, that did not offer a Gifted Program. He is bored out of his mind. He was getting a really good education in the G&T Program, and is so disenchanted with school. I thought we were moving to the suburbs for better education, but I was wrong. Now he attends a supplemental gifted program at Hoftsra University, which he was accepted to based on his IQ Test Scores, but it meets on Saturday mornings and he has religious school on Sunday morning, so attending classes 7 days a week is proving too much. It is a complete mess. My alternatives are:


1. Go to the School Board and ask that he takes a test to skip out of 5th Grade


2. Meet with the principal of his current elementary school, and ask to meet with his teacher, in the beginning of the next school year, and ask for more hw, including weekend hw and projects.


Getting him to do workbooks, on his own, is painful. 


He needs more work. Also, in his new school, they dont learn too much in Science. I remember in 2nd Grade, he frequently had Science Tests. 


Anooshka
Anooshka

When living in Queens, my son scored 97% on the G&T Test, and was placed into a Gifted & Talented Program in a Public School closest to where we resided. He was given three schools to choose from, and our first choice was reserved for people living in that area. We moved to Roslyn, NY and he started 3rd Grade in an elementary school, that did not offer a Gifted Program. He is bored out of his mind. He was getting a really good education in the G&T Program, and is so disenchanted with school. I thought we were moving to the suburbs for better education, but I was wrong. Now he attends a supplemental gifted program at Hoftsra University, which he was accepted to based on his IQ Test Scores, but it meets on Saturday mornings and he has religious school on Sunday morning, so attending classes 7 days a week is proving too much. It is a complete mess. My alternatives are:


1. Go to the School Board and ask that he takes a test to skip out of 5th Grade


2. Meet with the principal of his current elementary school, and ask to meet with his teacher, in the beginning of the next school year, and ask for more hw, including weekend hw and projects.


Getting him to do workbooks, on his own, is painful. 


He needs more work. Also, in his new school, they dont learn too much in Science. I remember in 2nd Grade, he frequently had Science Tests. 



TrevorAGreen
TrevorAGreen

Segmenting people into classes is a huge part of the problem. Remember aspergers with is now a autism spectrum disorder? The human need to simplify and segment people in order to deal with them is a limitation. And it leads to stereotyping and the same abusive segmentation of people that other civil rights violating practices, such as racial segregation, cause. It is not a problem to help a student determine where they are on a map of their education so that you can instruct them on how to get where they want to be. It is a problem when you determine access to opportunity based upon where you think they are.

So what is the solution. I believe the solution is in both the democratization of education and the empowerment of students through technology. By allowing everyone to participate in educating everyone else without institutional boundaries, you break down the false legitimacy of failing public education (see Khan Academy). By using digital tools you allows students to learn what is most appropriate for them at the time and move forward at a pace that doesn't require aggressive segmentation.

Unfortunately the adoption of modern tools at an appropriate pace doesn't satisfy the governments need for control. Our best thinkers are creating modern solutions that provide for the education of students in a modern way. Lesser minds occupy the bureaucracy and move at a snails pace to approve the work of their betters for consumption. This upside down thinking is a clear sign that our socialist education system is at its core, at failed model, that props up ancient process instead of putting children first.

Look at the red flags, if you school says "We can't afford enough books" Instead of "We can't afford enough ChromeBooks" you know that they are hopelessly mired in the past and are engaged primarily in protecting their own jobs and fading relevance. 

Children should come first, not teachers.

LucyMerriman
LucyMerriman

First of all, schools shouldn't be measuring giftedness with a standardized grade-level test. The WISC-IV or the Binet test are *clinical* tests that measure for intelligence--that is, capacity to learn; it is high intelligence, not high achievement, that causes boredom in gifted students. An example often given is, a gifted student may understand a mathematical concept intuitively or with one explanation, whereas a typical student may need to hear the concept multiple times to remember and understand it.

 These tests emphasize verbal, logical-mathematical, and spatial intelligence, which, admittedly, leaves out kids with amazing kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, existential, and musical intelligence levels. Be that as it may, helping some highly intelligent kids is better than helping none.

I agree that the playing field needs to be fair. Students like Carissa Yip, Adora Svitak, Gabrielle Turnquist, Thessalonika Arzu Embry and Carson Huey-You underscore what scientists have already shown: there is no genetic link between race and intelligence, and black and Asian students are just as likely to be gifted as white students. If the admissions test don't reflect this truth, there is either a problem with your test or your culture. 

Of note: I myself was identified as Gifted and was in the 99th percentile. I participated in Mensa, but beyond that, wasn't given much in the was of extra attention at school. In high school, I had the option to take AP Classes, which I did. Now, in college, I don't think my life is all that different from typical Honors students, except perhaps that I skip classes more often.

 I think it's interesting that of the headline-makers I just mentioned, ALL of them were homeschooled. What this tells me is that for gifted students to truly flourish, it is unlikely they will be able to have the space they need in public schools. 

CaLi
CaLi

The research I did on this in grad school -- back in the late 1990s, showed that the needs of the top 10% indeed could be addressed in a well-run classroom...but that the top 2-3% really needed separate enrichment programs to meet their potential. These students are not just advanced, they are operating on a whole other level. While they may benefit from age-peer relationships, they are at risk for negative behaviors if their academic needs aren't met.

TexasTruBlu
TexasTruBlu

The problem with what are often labeled as "gifted programs" often are not interesting nor are they challenging. Too often the curriculum for gifted children is simply more of the same kind of work the rest of the kids are doing. And if you are simply in that level below gifted, sometimes called "talent pool" level, you are paired in your general ed classes with the worst students wherein you get to be a miniteacher for the kid who is disabled, destructive or disturbed. This is the stark reality of many gifted kids. My two oldest kids were a year apart. My daughter tested into the gifted program but was dropped for daring to reveal that the teacher's pet was cheating. She remained in AP programs throughout school and did well in college. Her brother tested out at the same level but absolutely refused to be in gifted or AP classes. It wasn't that he was lazy, it was that he saw how teacher far too often used those kids as surrogates. He simply wasn't interested. Until we make gifted programs truly elite without the imposition of false outside demographic expectations, we will end up with programs that do not truly serve those kids who should be our leaders and our innovators for the future.

HearTheirScreams
HearTheirScreams

Interestingly enough, most of these comments include something along the lines of "I was in gifted in high school." That was a long time ago, schools have changed. I'm currently in high school (yes, yes, yes, we all know children aren't allowed to have opinions or comment on grown-up articles) and it's boring as hell. Where I live, there's gifted programs all over, even the IB program, not technically gifted but still presenting an advanced curriculum. When will the school system learn that free time is more important than arts? Yes, the arts are great. Yes, I appreciate them. No, they don't really allow for creativity at my school. It's "memorize this composer" or "play this piece" or "act this skit" with no room for creativity. What we need most is just a room for tinkering. I've been labeled as gifted since second grade. I certainly don't feel gifted. I didn't read till the age of four, I've never screamed at a teacher that we were being denied education, and I've certainly never cried from boredom in a class. I'm not a high achiever either: I simply cannot be bothered to complete the work or study. It's boring and all memorization. Besides, you can simply BS a multiple choice test and do rather well without trying. I get A's and B's. Yet somehow, I've always gotten the top score on standardized testing and I've always been at the top of the class for understanding. If parents would stop yelling about grades, it would help so many more kids. I've been told all my life that "School doesn't care how smart you are, just how well you produce" and that's the most accurate way to describe our system. Leave us alone and let us think without sapping the will to bother.

TexasTruBlu
TexasTruBlu

@HearTheirScreams No offense, but the main place where creativity is still encouraged is within the AP Studio Art programs. Too many of those classes are categorized as second rate because they don't involve science or math, but they make avid use of higher order thinking skills, creativity and innovation. These are skills our world needs to create and invent the next technological wave, but some parents and even some educators will put their kids in AP classes that they won't pass rather than "risk" an AP Art class. If you've read any Daniel Pink you know that creativity is a skill in which Americans excel. Yet we're still trying to compete with kids who are human calculators. I'm just not sure that being able to apply a formula or translate an excerpt in another language is a demonstration of creativity. This is largely because administrators don't understand art and they really don't understand creativity. Multiple choice tests are easy for them to defend.

DebbieDacute
DebbieDacute

@TexasTruBlu @HearTheirScreams 5pts just now

@TexasTruBlu @HearTheirScreams I really like your opinions Texas TruBlu and I agree with you both on creativity.  I also agree that the arts are extremely important.  Art and science go hand and hand.  And there are ways to be creative when solving math problems as well, especially when a child absolutely hates rote learning and finds new ways to solve an equation.  I watched a really interesting TED talk the other day given by Jacob Barnett on just how creativity can show through mathematically.  Absolutely fascinating child.  I think I read somewhere his IQ is higher than Einstein's (Einstein by the way HereTheirScreams didn't feel he was gifted either).  Search Jacob Barnett TED talks to see this remarkable presentation by this 13 year old. This child unbelievably (or not so much after experience)  was placed in special ed.  He talks about it in the video. Enjoy. :-D



Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2013/04/25/the-illusion-of-the-gifted-child/#ixzz2WWiWmbO1

lechatelierite
lechatelierite

As a former "gifted" child, in my experience the value wasn't so much that we learned new or particularly advanced material - most of what we learned were enrichment topics like archeology, which are exactly the sorts of things  that nerdy elementary school kids like we were will happily read on their own. Rather, the purpose was really to keep us from disrupting regular classes out of frustration and boredom. Having an outlet where you can learn at your own pace (meaning, in most cases, quickly) but that's still officially a part of "school" breaks up some of the tedium, and missing class regularly means you always have a bit of catching up to do, instead of getting further and further ahead.

I don't think this arrangement is ideal, but countries that use truly homogeneous grouping for primary and early secondary education also have radically different pedagogical systems and methods that would be problematic to introduce here.

ricosu
ricosu

Well, for me, the word "gifted" means exceptional and I don't see how top ten percent yields exceptional. One thing I learned being a parent is a category that never occurred to me in referencing a student's academic prowess for a college. That category right there with the rankings of average, above average, and superior is "once in a lifetime". I'm also not certain that genius needs three squares a day and a plush Serta mattress. I do think that the most irritating thing is hearing from parents of the "potential" of their child who has a very high IQ. I've come to believe potential is like "common sense". They don't mean much and are very egocentric(i.e.what is common sense to me should be to you). Giftedness entails so many behaviors that have to magically come together to yield results. If the IQ isn't getting a child to the next level what can you do with that? It really has no meaning without follow through in behaviors that advance the IQ.

Someone mentioned how amusing it is to hear from parents speak of their gifted child's experiences. I totally understand that and believe many of these parents actually have a high academic performer, not a "gifted" child. But it is a tough spot to come from. Some of these kids are "gifted" and it's almost always going to sound like an overdone parent bringing it up. I'll add this: I don't know that a child who reads like a 5th grader at the K level is any more gifted than another child in the top IQ levels. I still get down to what is/was that child doing at the college level. Did it have carry through? Did the child go on to a top academic experience in college and excel or did the child go on to a so so academic education and perform just OK? 

sictransit5
sictransit5

As a couple of posters note, truly Gifted children are not just high achievers. Though they get 99%ile every time, they process information and generate ideas differently and uniquely as well. In my experience (as a psychologist) public schools are almost never equipped to teach these kids. Also, a couple of the very minor points in this article may be it's most important. At least where I live, financial constraints limit the "gifted" program to being pulled out of regular class in grammar school for one afternoon a week. My first grader, who reads at 6th grade level and does square roots and algebraic equations, gets direction and challenge from a teacher outside the normal school work, but she can't do that for everyone. In a school system where fewer than half the 9th graders ever graduate, 70% qualify for free lunches,  and school funding has been cut every year for seven years straight, just trying to insure a literate populous is about all one can ask. The suggestions at the end of the article are pie-in-the-sky for too many school systems.

Firebrand
Firebrand

What makes me angry is the fact this author wants us to "level the playing field"!  Hell no, I do NOT want the playing field level.  If a child is not up to the level of the other kids, move him to a class that IS at his level, do NOT dumb down the curriculum so he won't feel singled out.  Same goes for a child ABOVE the level of the other kids - move him to his academic-appropriate level.  I am so freaking sick of this goody-goody feel-good kerrap where "everyone's a winner". NO, they are NOT.  There are always going to be some kids who are more apt at some things than other kids.  That is why in professional sports, there is a winning team and a LOSING team! They don't give everyone "participation" trophies just for showing up to play the game.  LIFE IS NOT FAIR SO STOP TRYING TO SUGARCOAT THINGS!!!!  Life sucks!  Some people will win, others will lose.  Get used to it and get over it.  Same goes for school: some kids are smarter than others.  That's just a fact of life.  When these kids get out in the adult world, life isn't going to bend over and kiss their snot-nosed faces and tell them that everything is peachy-keen.  GET FREAKING REAL and prepare these kids the same way we (age 40+) were prepared.