An Educational Paradigm Shift for Low-Income Gifted Students


We also had lots of parents, rich people who had computers, and who used to tell me, “You know my son, I think he’s gifted because, you know, he does wonderful things with computers and my daughter, oh surely she’s extra intelligent.”  I suddenly figured all the rich people are having these extraordinary gifted children. What did the poor do wrong?

Sugarta Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud
TEDTalks Education
Wednesday, February 27, 2013


In his TEDTalk Mr. Mitra is telling a story about his experiences teaching computer programming classes in New Delhi at a school located next to a slum. The story is wonderful and I highly recommend watching his entire talk. This one line stood out to me because in many ways it also applies to the state of gifted education in the US.

We live in a time of increased recognition of giftedness and ever expanding enrichment opportunities for gifted students. However, while gifted programs are enjoying more publicity, there is an increasing scarcity of high-quality school programs for both regular and gifted students.

Our free, public educational system is suffering from a combination of the effects of decreased funding, overall decreased teacher knowledge and talent (yes, there are still great teachers out there but they are more in the minority), administrative and state policies that emphases test scores over actual learning, and a mindset that locks innovation and creativity out of classrooms. Today’s classrooms might have more technology than a classroom from the 1950s yet the teachers generally use smart boards and computers the same way the 1950s teachers used their blackboards.

As long as our schools continue to use a top-down, rigid curriculum, lockstep, district micromanaged and dictated approach to teaching, our classes will remain inadequate to meet the needs of average and gifted students alike. Parents with resources make up for the gap between what their children have available in school and what they need to succeed as adults through enrichment activities. Gifted children lucky enough to be born into upper middle class families have huge advantages over gifted children in families that are less well off. They are generally sent to high quality preschool programs that prepare them to succeed in academic environments. Once in a K-12 school, they are more likely to benefit from free school programs for the gifted because their wealthier districts have better funding of gifted education and their parents made sure they were ready for the gifted screening tests — sometimes by hiring expensive private test prep companies. Outside of school they may be sent to academic camps, take private music lessons, have personal tutors and mentors, and through their parents’ connections, have access to knowledgeable, successful adults that serve as role models and inspire greatness.

Gifted children born into families that are struggling financially have fewer opportunities. By the time they graduate from high school they have had fewer enrichment experiences and, despite high test scores, they generally don’t even apply to top colleges.

For the first time in human history technology has made it possible to provide individualized education to the masses. Online educational courses such as Khan Academy, Aleks, Rosetta Stone and Coursera classes allow students to learn at their own pace. Students can soar ahead when they have an intuitive understanding of the subject matter or slow down when a particular concept is confusing. By allowing each student to work at their own pace and by freeing teacher time to work with students as individuals, these new educational programs can and should revolutionize our schools.

Teachers and districts need to back away from the explicit age-based and grade-based standards that many times dictate exactly what every teacher in every school in a district will be teaching each week of the school year. Mass testing should only happen one a year with explicitly limited prior prep time and all US public schools should use the same tests. This is already done with the Explore, the SAT, and the ACT. A similar, national test should be used in elementary schools and should be the only mass test students are subject to each year. Too much time is wasted these days prepping for high-stakes tests. Instead, we should use technology to flip the classroom. Flipped classrooms allow students to work at their own pace while giving instructors the technical tools to track students and target help exactly where it is needed most.

When all students are allowed to work at their own pace, yes, certain students may end up significantly above grade level in some classes and some may end up below official grade level. This is one of the reasons schools traditionally have rejected the idea of students being given a full curriculum which they can work through at their own pace. This is ridiculous. There have always been students who fall behind. That is why we spend billions of dollars on remedial education, special education, and No Child Left Behind. There have also been students that pull ahead, although we as a nation have not wanted to spend much helping those students reach their full potential. The big difference, it seems to me, is that with a flipped classroom, the students demonstrate their abilities and are in control instead of having the school define them as a special needs, average, or gifted student. One of the interesting things Mr. Khan has noticed is that in flipped classrooms the groups of “gifted” kids and the groups of “slow learners” are much more fluid than current educational policy would lead us to suspect. The same child that was noticeably ahead six weeks ago may have slowed down to wrap their head around a new concept and the child that a snapshot look said was clearly in the bottom of the class last month may now be racing ahead. Yes, there will still be students who are gifted and those who are below average. The basic reality of the bell curve won’t go away. What will hopefully go away is administrators and teachers locking down student potential based on pre-conceived notions, one-time test scores, and age.

We need a paradigm shift in our classrooms and educational policies. While we cannot eliminate the extracurricular advantages wealthy gifted students have over poor gifted students, we can and should equalize educational opportunities and experiences within our public schools. We need to embrace the use of technology to give each student a high-quality, customized educational experience that allows them to learn at their natural pace, regardless of their age, neighborhood, parental income, or school assigned label.

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