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Who Are the "Gifted" Children --- and How Should Schools Handle Them?

A "gifted" child in one community might not be "gifted" in another community. Should the "gifted" label be standardized across communities? Do "gifted" children deserve the same extra attention that other children with special labels get? Education World addresses those and other questions.

It happened again yesterday. I walked into a room and, when asked what I did, I mentioned that I taught the gifted. What a reaction! There is so much controversy surrounding gifted education. Some virulently attack it as elitist. Others just as staunchly support it. Perhaps it would be a less contentious issue if educators could just agree on which group of a school's population we are referring to when we say the word "gifted."

Gifted students are those in the top 3 percent of the school's population. That's how Patti Bricker, the coordinator of gifted programs in Grove City, Ohio, defined gifted students in an NEA Today article, "Are Too Many Kids Labeled Gifted?" (January, 1998). In the same article, Roberta Braverman, the vice president of the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children, defined them as those who represent the top 5 to 10 percent of the population. That is quite a difference right there! A student who functions in the top 3 percent of the population may have very different educational needs from those of a student who functions within the 10th percentile. Additionally, some school districts adhere to the concept of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence, so students in those districts who perform in the top percentile of the population in nonacademic areas like leadership or the visual or performing arts are identified as gifted.

If educators cannot agree on who the gifted are that they are trying to serve, how can they agree on what is the most appropriate education for them?

Bricker expresses the fear that by defining "gifted" too broadly, and including too many students under the gifted label, the curriculum a school offers to meet all these needs could become very diluted. The fear is that a program that tries to meet too many needs frequently meets no one's needs well.

Broad-based programs that reach many students are expensive, too. In difficult times gifted education is frequently the first to be cut. Perhaps programs that have kept their costs in check and can demonstrate their effectiveness may be left intact even in those times when school districts must restrict spending.


Meri Kock, an eighth-grade math and algebra teacher at Park View Intermediate School in Lancaster, Calif., expressed her thoughts about gifted kids this way on a recent middle school listserv posting:

"Resource students have an identified learning disability. They get extra help. Special teachers, special classes, and accommodations made to help them deal with their specific learning need. Gifted students have an identified learning benefit; they have extra talents, special needs ... Should the gifted student receive just as much support, time, and quality programs as those with identified learning problems? Are we setting a double standard?"

"It just seems to me that the resource student and the gifted student are opposite sides of the same coin and each needs special programs to fully develop what they have to offer," Kock told Education World. "The resource student gets it by state mandate ... the gifted student is supposed to learn to get along with others and 'handle it.'"

After all, don't gifted students reap huge benefits from the intellectual challenge, peer interaction, psychosocial support, and intervention techniques found in gifted programs?

Another listserv participant offered her thoughts: Gifted students need to learn to get along with those who are not gifted, she said.

True -- gifted students live in an "average" world, and they need to get along in it. One best learns a foreign language by being immersed in that language. Does a gifted child best learn how to interact with those who are not gifted by being in classes with children who are not gifted?


Jonathan Plucker, assistant professor of learning, cognition, and instruction at Indiana University, points out in an Education Week article, "Is Gifted Education Still Viable?", that like many academically accelerated countries in Asia, Eastern European countries provide no gifted educational services. Instead they raise the bar for all students, expecting the average to attain a higher level rather than siphoning off the brightest and accepting mediocrity from the rest.

Frequently those who argue for a differentiated curriculum for the gifted cannot agree on what programs best meet that group of students' needs.

  • Some believe the education provided the gifted should be academic acceleration. Others believe in enrichment.
  • Some believe exemplary gifted education is an honors/gifted program where high-achievers and identified gifted are taught together. Others believe in inclusion, a program in which gifted students are provided extra enrichment within the regular classroom.
  • Some believe an exemplary gifted education can be provided by a pull-out program where the gifted leave their classrooms and go to another room or off-campus site for their gifted instruction.

Also to be considered is how well do after-school, weekend, or summer programs for the gifted work? Could it be that some gifted programs might be more effective for one grade level than another, that one type of program might not work equally well for all grades?


According to an Atlanta Business Chronicle article, State Studies Ways to Revamp Gifted Programs, during a state audit in September 1997 the Georgia Department of Education realized that they had no procedures to gauge whether or not public school students in gifted programs were actually benefiting from the curriculum provided. The audit uncovered insufficiencies in operating guidelines and standards. As a result, the Board of Education is now considering new amendments to spell out requirements for teacher certification, classroom structure, the level and pace of lessons, teacher planning time, and other methods to evaluate a school's gifted program. The Board wants schools to be able to show how the special services they provide gifted students meet the students' special needs.

Many educators consider Georgia's gifted program to be an excellent one; it has been in place for a long time, and they only now have realized that they were not evaluating their program's effectiveness. One can only guess how many other gifted programs are not measuring their effectiveness.

The National Education Association is conducting a survey to discover the general population's thoughts about gifted education. What are your feelings about gifted education as it exists today? Do you think too many are labeled gifted? Check out the NEA Today Web site to discover the results of this survey.


  • National Association of Gifted Children This site -- of interest to administrators, teachers, and parents -- provides access to current and past issues of Gifted Child Quarterly, Parenting for High Potential, and other NAGC publications.
  • National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented This site is a super source. It links to The Gifted Education Press; provides information about summer programs, and a mentor connection; and, as an extra bonus, offers students in grades 4 through college the opportunity to find same-age overseas pen pals who are looking for someone to correspond with in English. 

Article by Glori Chaika
Education World®
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