The Value of Exclusive Gifted Programs

I’ve spent much of this summer reading parenting books. I’ve been trying to figure out how we got to our current state of over-the-top parental involvement in children’s lives at the same time our general education system is failing. Why isn’t parental concern translating into increased investments in our children, our schools, and our future?

One of the realizations I’m coming to is that unlike the American educational reforms inspired by Sputnik, this time around the emphasis is not on how to improve the education of all *our* kids, the parental pressure is on how to make sure *my* kids have every possible advantage. Instead of working to improve all public schools, we pass laws that give parents the freedom to dump their local school for magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools, and even private schools, paid for with public tax dollar vouchers. When each family can customize their child’s education, they have less of a need to work within the system to fix problems. They also work to cherry pick programs they feel are prestigious and desirable, making sure their own children get coveted spaces in AP classes, honors classes, and even gifted programs.

Gifted programs are now viewed (and taught) not as classes for students that are truly gifted but instead as enriched curriculum with superior instruction that is beneficial to all students. Wendy S. Grolnick, PhD and Kathy Seal in their 2008 book, Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids, state:

Often created to keep middle-class students in public schools, gifted and talented programs offer a high-quality curriculum enriched by field trips, art and drama offerings, and special projects. They frequently provide superior pedagogy, emphasizing hands-on and creative learning experiences.

Dr. Grolnick and Ms. Seal then go on to discuss groups that are working to make sure gifted and talented programs are open to all students and urge parents find out about the gifted programs in their local school district. They tell parents to work to change the admissions requirements if their children do not qualify because learning about these programs is “crucial for helping your child navigate the increasingly complex journey from preschool to college graduation.” Nice scare tactic there. Just for the record there is also a section titled, “The False Danger of “Overinvolvement”: You Can’t Be Too Involved.” A statement they support with evidence from child development studies done primarily in the 1990s before the advent of helicopter parenting.

We see how much parent involvement has changed when we compare the above to the 1964 classic on parenting, Children: the Challenge, by Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D. with Vicki Soltz, R. N. (recommended to us by Dr. Ruf of Educational Options). Throughout Children: the Challenge, Dr. Dreikurs urges parents to refrain from overprotection and let their kids work out their own battles. He says that parents should not involve themselves in making sure homework or practicing gets done, and instead should mind their own business because, “We cannot protect our children from life.” My favorite story is about a mother who does the right thing in letting her 7-year-old bike to the store on the busy street, alone, because she needs to stop being so overprotective.

Back when Dr. Dreikurs wrote Children: the Challenge, there was an assumption that the public schools did a decent job and students and teachers could work together to make sure students received a quality education. We no longer trust the public schools and there is a fear that if students stay in regular classrooms they may miss out on something critical to their future success. Gifted and talented programs are treated as one more notch in the college resume belt, similar to AP and honors classes. They should not be.

Well-designed programs for academically gifted students are not just regular classes taught in greater depth and at a faster pace. Yes, as in honors courses, critical and independent thinking is emphasized but a good gifted program also addresses the special needs of gifted students.

Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students may need a different teaching style that works with their high energy and overexcitabiliities. A gifted classroom may seem chaotic with kids intensely moving, arguing, and even crying. They may easily get frustrated because the ideas in their heads move so quickly or are so deep, they just can’t complete an assignment that would be easy for a more normal kid. They may have mini emotional breakdowns because they feel an intense need to contribute to the world and can’t figure out how to mesh that need with their day-to-day lives. Gifted students may suffer from existential depression at a very young age and may need an environment where they can feel understood and less alone. The fact that they are capable of reading, writing, doing math, or understanding complex concepts at younger than average ages is not the only difference between gifted children and regular children.

Truly gifted kids may be the ones disrupting the regular classroom. Having programs targeted to and reserved for gifted students allows teachers to focus on the different needs of the different student groups. Sharing a classroom with gifted students, especially ones on the extreme end of the bell curve, does not necessarily benefit the more regular kids. Gifted students do not just acquire knowledge faster than regular students, they process information differently. Exceptionally gifted kids may find it difficult to answer questions that average and moderately gifted kids find simple. The more gifted the child, the increased possibilities they see and while they may intuitively understand complex issues, their need for extreme precision may paralyze them. The best way to present material for gifted students may not be the best way for regular students. All students benefit when educational material is introduced in a way that best fits their own, personal learning style. Gifted students process information differently, not better or worse, just differently. Acknowledging this difference is not the same as saying one child is better than another. Assuming that every hardworking, smart student that does well in AP and honors classes also needs the special services of a gifted program does our entire educational system a disservice.

Valuing and Nurturing IQ Isn’t Expensive

Minnesota Public Radio just aired a segment on the smartest 1% and whether Americans Value IQ. As too often is the case, the discussion quickly centered around two themes. The first is what I like to call the, “But what about my kids?” argument. It is the common line of reasoning that IQ tests do not test enough factors and may miss some highly intelligent kids.

Yes, IQ tests can and do miss kids. They do not test as much for spacial ability as they do for verbal ability. Depending on the test and how it is administered, kids with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia may be missed. Tests administered only once or only once a school year may miss the kids that are having a bad day. Finally and obviously, any kid that gets any type of test anxiety will not show their true potential on an IQ test.

Now some of the issues surrounding missing gifted students can be fixed the same way schools are fixing their scoring under the grade-level standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. In Minnesota, for example, it is now common for schools to spend classroom time teaching the students about the tests and how to take them. The students then take the official test at least twice during the school year to give them every opportunity to achieve a high test score.

We can work to minimize the number of missed kids but there will always be some. This is not a reason to short change the kids we have found to have higher than average IQs. Let me say that again more clearly. Just because we know we are missing some high IQ kids DOES NOT mean we can ignore or marginalize the ones that we have identified. Once we have identified a student as gifted, highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, or profoundly gifted we owe it both to that kid and to society in general to do what we can to recognize and nurture their potential — just like we would do if their talent and potential lie in sports and not intellect. Not doing anything because there might be other talented people we have missed borders on criminal neglect. Let’s try that line of thought in another area. Someone comes to a hospital with a broken leg and the doctors don’t set it because they worry about diverting time, energy, and resources away from possible patients who have not yet shown up with broken legs. Ridiculous, right?

The second theme that rang through loud and clear both on-air and in the discussion on MPR’s Facebook page was the lack of resources argument. Why should we devote extra resources to just 1% of our students? Over and over again folks commented that they were more concerned about the middle students that needed more help to reach their potential than the top kids. They offered that the gifted kids have their gifted programs which already drain resources from the bulk of the student body. Just to make sure we are all using the same numbers, Jonathan Wai the MPR guest who just published an article on Brainiacs in Psychology Today states that the gifted education budget in public schools is only 0.02% of the total education budget. Now depending on the school and the district, that 0.02% funds programs not just for the top 1% but for the top 5% to 10%. Right now our gifted education programs are not taking resources away from the general student population. Programs for the general student population are funded at the expense of the intellectually gifted kids. Shouldn’t the top 5% get closer to 5% of the resources or at least something more than 0.02%? Although the difference between the actual funding of gifted programs vs. the wild speculation and paranoia about them is appalling, it is not my main issue with this second theme.

The idea that to recognize, value, and nurture gifted students we need more funding is just not true. While additional monetary resources can and should be devoted to gifted programs, kids are being hurt much more by prejudice and ignorance within school districts and classrooms than any lack of funding. There is much we can do that is essentially free to address the needs of our gifted students.

First and foremost we need all our teachers to recognize more highly gifted students. This may sound easy and like it must already be happening, but it is not. Gifted students are devalued all the time within our public school system. This is especially likely to happen to students on the very high end of the IQ spectrum, the 1% folks. Their brains are wired differently and this can lead to them not standing out as gifted kids. They may not actually do well in school, they may not be viewed by their teachers as particularly good students (the kind that should be in gifted pull-out programs). Instead their high intensity along with their racing minds and need to find significance and relevance in everything they do makes them more likely to have trouble with “busy work” homework, speak out of turn in class, look distracted, and be identified as trouble makers, possibly with ADHD. The very high IQ boys may be especially difficult for teachers to identify because their intellect may intersect with their need for large muscle movement and possibly slower developing executive function in a way that completely hides their true potential. All elementary school teachers need training on how high intellectual potential might manifest itself in their classrooms. They need to be aware that the kid that is a pain may be as much in need of gifted education services as the bright child that is easy to work with and turns in perfect homework, on time.

After we identify gifted students, there are four free and basic things we can and should do to nurture these students.

  1. Teachers within their classrooms should be sensitive to the intensity of gifted students. Sometimes these students need to move around more than the rest of their classmates. Sometime they are highly sensitive to loud noises and fluorescent lights. Allowing these kids to take the breaks they need, quietly walking the halls when they need to move or eating together in a classroom instead of the noisy, crowded lunchroom, can go a long way toward making schools more gifted-child friendly. The character Rachel Pizad in the Syfy show Alphas shows an exaggerated version of what it is like to live with heightened sensitivities.
  2. Teachers, schools, and districts should make it easy for students to subject skip. Gifted kids, especially ones on the high end, often have asynchronous development. They may be able to do 6th grade math in 2nd grade but aren’t ready to be a full-time 6th grader. We should structure schools to allow students to study subjects at the level they are capable of and let the talented second grader study math with the 6th graders. Again, a gifted solution that is completely free.
  3. Third, full grade skipping should be much easier than it is today. Although on paper most school districts allow grade skipping, frequently teachers and principals are very reluctant to advance students. We need to allow more grade skipping and start thinking about how this might help students instead of all the things that could go wrong. Studies consistently show that generally students that are grade skipped, thrive.
  4. Finally, we need to start grouping these outlier kids together. Tracking is a dirty word in education because of the sad and enlightening studies that show that teachers teach to their pre-existing bias about the potential of their class. In order to avoid this we have moved against grouping kids together by knowledge and ability and instead had saddled teachers with classrooms that have a 5-year or more range in pre-existing subject knowledge and possible ability. There need to be better ways of addressing this bias than lumping all students together. Especially since the behaviors and potentials of the top 1% to 2% are so outside the norm, grouping these kids together should allow us, again at no extra cost, to address their particular needs without negatively affecting the funding or the particular needs of the rest of the students.

It is time to stop framing the gifted discussion as an us against them, limited resources, zero sum game. Once we truly value gifted intellectual potential we can start meeting the needs of these students with creative, effective, low-cost solutions.