Proponents of gifted education argue vigorously against doing away with it entirely. “There’s nothing worse than having a bright, talented child just sitting,” says Joan Franklin Smutny, director of the Center for Gifted, a nonprofit based in a Chicago suburb. “They need to be challenged. They need to be inspired.”
Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at University of Connecticut, agrees with Smutny: “The biggest problem with bright kids in urban schools, besides being picked on, is they are dying from boredom. The longer they stay in school, the lower their scores become.”
Supporting their argument is a 2011 study of high-achieving children by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank. It found that many such students lose ground over time, prompting the researchers to worry that “closing achievement gaps and ‘leaving no child behind’ [are] coming at the expense of our ‘talented tenth’—and America’s future international competitiveness.”
The racial disparities are “a great shame, of course,” wrote Chester Finn, the president of Fordham, in a recent blog post, “but it’s not exactly a surprise that more affluent kids are likelier to end up in gifted programs. Their families don’t face the stress of poverty, and they tend to have two parents who read to their children, send them to preschool, etc.”
Determining whether a child is actually more intelligent than her peers or whether she’s just the product of more affluent, ambitious parents is a difficult task for school systems interested in breaking the cycle of privilege that gifted education tends to fuel. Experts caution against relying heavily on tests, as New York does, but there are no national or even state standards defining giftedness, according to the National Society for the Gifted and Talented, an advocacy group.
The society suggests that parents and teachers check a list of traits, including whether children are “perfectionist and idealistic,” “asynchronous,” or “problem solvers.” Smutny says teachers should be trained to look for a different set of characteristics, such as creativity, well-developed imaginations, and curiosity, which she says are correlated with above-average intelligence. They must also be trained to “cut through” stereotypes, she says, so that talented children who are also poor or from a racial minority are not overlooked.
Is there a better way to provide education for gifted children without exacerbating racial inequities? Officials in the Washington, D.C., public schools believe they’ve found a possible answer. This year, for the first time in more than a decade, the D.C. schools have reintroduced gifted education. The decision comes as many city neighborhoods are experiencing a surge of new middle-class, white families, and one reason for the reintroduction of gifted classes is to entice more of them to choose public, not private, schools. The district opened one gifted program in a middle school near the affluent blocks around Georgetown University.
But it also opened one at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7, a majority low-income, black-student-attended school, and at West Education Campus, in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood, where there is a small but growing population of Hispanic immigrants mixing with the predominantly black population.
Unlike traditional gifted programs, which usually require a test to get in, the D.C. programs are open to any student who wants to enroll. D.C. is aiming the program both at students who are book smart and those who may struggle on traditional measures of achievement but have other extraordinary talents that are harder to measure with a test. The plan is to “build up the gifts they have rather than just focus on their weaknesses,” said Mathew Reif, the district’s director of advanced and enriched instruction.
The principal at Kelly Miller, Abdullah Zaki, explains that the idea is to expand the concept of giftedness. “If there’s a kid who is not reading at grade level but has the gift of gab and can argue you down in a heartbeat, they’re obviously interested in debate,” he says. “We can take their natural gift and talent and hone and polish it.” Working on the skill the student enjoys and is good at might improve other skills that don’t come as naturally—such as analysis or reading of complex texts, Zaki says.