Gifted Classes May Not Help Talented Students Move Ahead Faster

Editor’s Note: The following story was originally published in The Hechinger Report and has been republished here with permission.

A multi-ethnic group of young children are indoors at a preschool. They are wearing casual clothing. Their male teacher is reading a story book to them. The students are listening and crowding around him.
Photo credit: iStock photos

One of the big justifications for gifted-and-talented education is that high-achieving kids need more advanced material so that they’re not bored and actually learn something during the school day. Their academic needs cannot be met in a general education class, advocates say. But a large survey of 2,000 elementary schools in three states found that not much advanced content is actually being taught to gifted students. In other words, smart third-graders, those who tend to be a couple grade levels ahead, are largely studying the same third-grade topics that their supposedly “nongifted” classmates are learning.

“If kids are given more accelerated instruction, we see higher growth.”

— Betsy McCoach, Professor, Department of Educational Psychology

The survey found that instead of moving bright kids ahead to more advanced topics, gifted classrooms are preoccupied with activities to develop critical thinking and creativity, such as holding debates and brainstorming. The third-most common focus in gifted curriculums is to give students more projects and games, so-called “extension activities” that are tangentially related to their grade-level content. Accelerated math instruction ranked 18th on a list of 26 items that gifted curriculums could focus on. Advanced reading and writing instruction ranked 19th. Teaching academic self-confidence, leadership skills, and social emotional learning all ranked higher than teaching above grade level content.

“Teachers and educators are not super supportive of acceleration,” said Betsy McCoach, one of the researchers and a professor at the University of Connecticut. “But it doesn’t make sense to pull kids together to do the same thing that everyone else is doing.”

More than half the gifted students in the three states were white. In one of the three states, almost three-quarters of the gifted students were white even though they made up roughly half the population. In that same state, blacks made up a quarter of the population but had fewer than 10% of the gifted seats. Hispanics had 7% of the gifted seats and made up 16% of the population.

It’s important to point out that the researchers only surveyed schools and district administrators; they didn’t actually analyze the content or quality of gifted curriculum. Still, it’s revealing that three-quarters of the schools admit that they don’t use a separate curriculum especially designed for gifted students in reading or math. Without a curriculum, teachers are making their own decisions about what to teach. One classroom in one school might be offering a very different education than another gifted classroom down the hall.

Researchers found a wide variation in how schools teach gifted students. Within each state, roughly half the schools put gifted students together in separate classrooms.  Other schools pull students out of their regular classrooms for a few hours a week of gifted instruction. Other times, a teacher is sent into classrooms to work with gifted students. A fourth common approach is to create small groups within a class, clustering gifted kids together for many assignments. Most schools used a combination of the four approaches, but researchers didn’t find one approach worked better than the others. Achievement gains were similar regardless.

The researchers say their survey is evidence of a “disconnect” between who gets labeled “gifted” and how these students are actually getting taught in American classrooms. They point out that the kids are being selected for these programs because they have high math and reading scores yet they’re not given much advanced instruction in either subject.

Sluggish learning for the brightest Americans may be the consequence. The researchers also tracked the annual state test scores for more than 350,000 students in these three states who started third grade in 2011. Gifted students, on average, began third grade with academic achievement two grade levels above the academic level of non-gifted students but posted slower academic growth than general education students between third and fifth grades. Other studies have also found slower growth for advanced students during the school year.

However, it doesn’t seem that gifted education is entirely useless. High-achieving kids who weren’t identified for gifted services but still scored above the median score for gifted students on the third grade test had even slower academic growth than students in the gifted programs. So perhaps these critical thinking and creativity exercises are doing something.

This research points to the lack of consensus on what the goals of gifted education should be. Many don’t think it should be about advancing students as quickly as possible. High-quality instruction that helps kids who’ve already mastered the basics go deeper into the material may ultimately be beneficial. And annual state assessments may not do a good job of measuring this kind of depth, creativity or critical thinking.

McCoach argues that research supports acceleration, citing a 2004 summary of the research evidence conducted by scholars at the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa. She also points to rigorous studies that found learning gains for gifted students who learned from different curriculums that combine acceleration with enrichment, such as those developed at William & Mary College and the University of Virginia. “This is one area where there is the most solid research base,” said McCoach. “If kids are given more accelerated instruction, we see higher growth.”

Why do schools tend to ignore this research evidence? McCoach speculates that many educators are worried that students who race ahead will face social problems at school, even though, she says, there is no research to support this widely held belief.

State testing itself might also discourage school leaders from changing the curriculum for gifted children. Gifted kids tend to score at the top, propping up school ratings and rankings; there’s a fear that even bright kids might do worse on grade-level material emphasized on the test if they are spending most of their time on future topics. “Gifted students are the ringers for the state tests,” said McCoach.  School leaders “don’t want to be shooting themselves in the foot,” she added.

I hope this study calms anxious parents who worry that their kids will miss out on a great education if they don’t get into a gifted program. And for education policy officials, it’s worth revisiting what the point of gifted education is, especially when the students are disproportionately white. In the future, McCoach and her colleagues plan to study how gifted programs increase racial segregation. In the meantime, the debate over gifted education continues.