February 04, 2017

Kacey Templin

Beyond Different: Defining Gifted Education

Topics: Kids And Creativity, STEM, STEAM

These days, nearly everyone with grade school-aged children has heard about gifted education. It could be that your child has been identified, or a child that you know personally. Perhaps you yourself were once labeled as a gifted learner. If identified in elementary school, these children are often removed from regular classes routinely during the week to be amongst their gifted peers in special classrooms. When these children head into middle and high school, gifted classrooms turn into advanced placement courses. Many people assume the label “gifted” simply means that students have a high IQ score, but gifted education means so much more than that. But what is the true definition of gifted learning? And why do so many not know what being gifted means? To answer these questions, we must take a look at the students themselves.

The Gifted Learner


While a high IQ can be a sign of a gifted student, not all gifted students’ talents are measurable on an intelligence test. Although each state adopts a slightly different definition of what a gifted student is, many are similar to the one used by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), which states that, “Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).”

Gifted students often exhibit similar traits that can lead to identification. These characteristics can include a perfectionist attitude, heightened sensitivity to their own expectations, excellent abstract thinking, and an asynchronous development. Children can also exhibit a heightened sensitivity or empathy to the feelings of others and have an insatiable curiosity about the world around them. It is these traits that can separate a highly intelligent child from a gifted child.

In addition to several common traits, gifted children can also be placed in 6 different types of giftedness – the successful, the challenging, the underground, the dropouts, the double labeled, and the autonomous learner. The successful are the most easily identifiable, and account for the majority of gifted students. They are often well-adjusted and can easily become bored with the school system, requiring only the minimum amount of effort to get by. Challenging students possess high levels of creativity and often have conflicts with teachers and parents. This group is the most at-risk for dropping out of school for unhealthy activities. Underground students deny their talents or hide their giftedness in order to conform with the rest of society. Children in the dropout type are students who have not been identified early, and feel that they have been rejected in the system. Counseling for these students is highly recommended. Double labeled, or twice-exceptional, are identified as both gifted and as having a physical or emotional handicap or learning disability. Schools tend to focus more on their weaknesses and can therefore fail to nurture their strengths. The final type, the autonomous learner, does not work for the system like the successful group, but rather, makes the system work for them. They are also successful and are able to express their feelings, goals, and needs freely and appropriately. Successful and autonomous learner types are easily identifiable, but the rest are at risk of never being identified.

The NAGC estimates that there are approximately 3 to 5 million gifted children in the U.S., or roughly 6%-10% of the student population. The numbers vary because there is no federal agency or organization that collects these student statistics. Today, decisions about gifted education are made at the state and local level.

 A History of Gifted Education

Although interest in gifted education has become more prominent in the recent decades, the history of gifted education stretches back as far as the beginning of the 20th century. Lewis Terman, a pioneer in education psychology, devoted much of his studies to examining intellectually high-performing children in order to disprove common misconceptions. The longitudinal study, named, “Genetic Studies of Genius,” involved 643 children in California who scored at IQ 140 or above. Observations began in 1921 and were continued until 1959, after Terman’s death. The study disproved that highly intelligent children were more prone to physical and mental illness, that their intelligence burned out early in their lives, and that they could not be average adults (the common belief was that they would either be overachievers or underachievers, but nothing in-between). Terman’s studies also found that heredity played a vital role in intelligence.

Leta Hollingworth, a colleague of Lewis Terman, then continued on with Terman’s work by setting guidelines for how best to serve students who performed well on tests. She also added that home environment and school structure helped to shape intelligence, in addition to hereditary influence. Hollingworth stressed the importance of identifying high achievers early in their educational careers and group them together with similarly performing students.

471443a-i1.0.jpgGifted education began to become a major focus with the beginning of the Cold War and the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik. Competition with the Soviet Union to be the brightest nation led to an emphasis on education for bright students. The National Defense Education Act, passed by Congress in 1958, gave 1 billion dollars to public education, with the proceeds ear-marked for science, math, and technology studies. Students who scored at 130 or above on IQ tests were identified as gifted students and given access to accelerated learning plans.

The Marland Report, a report to Congress delivered in 1972, provided the first general definition of giftedness and found that students could be high functioning in areas that could not be measured by an intelligence test. The Marland Report defined gifted as –

"Children capable of high performance include those with demonstrated achievement and/or potential ability in any of the following areas, singly or in combination:

  1. General intellectual ability,
  2. Specific academic aptitude,
  3. Creative or productive thinking,
  4. Leadership ability,
  5. Visual and performing arts, or
  6. Psychomotor ability."

Today, most school districts still use this definition of giftedness.

Gifted Education Today

In recent years, initiatives led by the federal government have served to curtail the efforts of gifted education advocates. The introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 sought to bring all students to a proficiency on par with their grade level, but this meant that the needs of gifted students, who perform above grade level, were largely ignored. The Act does not require any programs for gifted, talented, and other high-performing students, and ended up cutting funding for these programs by a third over the law’s first five years.

While decentralization of gifted programs has allowed for states to respond to their own specific gifted education needs, a wide disparity in services across the states has been observed. A 2015 report conducted by the NAGC, titled State of The States in Gifted Education, found that out of 42 responding states, 8 states had no mandate or funding for gifted and talented education, 19 states did not monitor or audit educator-led programs, 16 did not require educators to submit reports on their programs and students, and 11 states reported that they either did not collect data of identified gifted learners or did not have it available. Of the 26 states that did collect data, the demographic information varied greatly for subgroups of students by gender, race/ethnicity, dual exceptionalities, language and socio-economic status. Only a select group of states required that teachers undergo professional development for gifted education, but did not specify the amount of training required. These varied requirements for gifted education means that students across the country are receiving vastly different gifted educations, or even none at all.

Because gifted education is so vastly differentiated, it is up to parents to advocate for their children’s education. If a parent believes their child might be gifted, seeking a professional evaluation is mandatory. Parents should observe their children to identify their strengths and weaknesses, then study the programs offered by the school for gifted education. Learning district policy statements can also help when creating an educational plan for a child. Advocating for an appropriate education for a child can be time consuming and stressful, but the rewards far outweigh the work.

While some people believe that gifted education does not contribute to the students’ education in a substantial manner, others believe that it allows students to achieve their maximum potential. Every child should leave school each day feeling challenged with new knowledge and abilities. As we prepare the next generation to realize their full potential and make positive contributions to the world, it is our responsibility to provide them with the best education possible.

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