Gifted Education, We Have a Problem

Take a moment and call to mind the gifted advocates you know, the parents of gifted kids, the gifted parents of kids, the kids themselves. The professionals who specialize in and work with gifted kids. Notice anything unusual about them?

Actually, notice anything that’s not unusual about them?

My hunch is that just about everyone you could think of was consistent with a particular demographic — probably white, probably middle class or better, and, if an adult, probably a college graduate or better, and not a first-generation one at that.

If people accuse gifted advocates of elitism, can you really blame them?

Growing up gifted, I was surrounded by people of far less natural ability who had access to private tutors, opportunities, and connections I didn’t have. They could afford to sign their kids up for extracurriculars, camps, programs, and expensive academies. I attended parochial schools K-12, sure, but my parents bought my clothes at Walmart, Salvation Army thrift stores, and garage sales, not at Esprit and Guess.

I was lucky: I got a world-class high school education from a public magnet. Anyone who scored well enough on the tests could get in. The demographics were not nearly proportional to those of the general population in the area, making the school’s admissions policies controversial, but it was a start. There were plenty kids of color, and many kids qualified for free or reduced-cost school lunches.

But when I look at the gifted advocacy movement, those kids largely don’t appear on the radar. Sure, there’s research on those populations, but our involvement doesn’t go much further. We hold up kids who overcome adversity as exemplars of giftedness, but did we help them in any way to get there? Do we have any right at all to lay claims on their accomplishments?

There are practical obstacles, to be sure, and financial ones are foremost. Education and opportunity do not come free, and professionals who work with gifted kids deserve to make a living doing so.

Still, it’s a shame we’re spending so much of our collective creativity and intelligence fending off claims of elitism instead of putting our talents to the task of creating accessible, scalable methods of gifted education and making our social circles a bit more permeable to encourage greater equity. Drawing in more perspectives would enrich us all.

2 thoughts on “Gifted Education, We Have a Problem

  1. I grew up gifted as well. Some of my students have been gifted (in a low-SES school). I always felt stupid, because gifted programs were oriented toward non-verbal gifted kids and I was gifted. I wrote a novel in the fifth grade and a graphic novel in the sixth grade. I played with words like they were toys. I love debates and discussions. However, gifted classes were always logic games (how many times can you play Set without getting bored?) or “let’s build a ________”

    So, I was naturally insecure about being gifted. By high school, I had convinced myself I wasn’t gifted at all – just a geeky kid who loved language and ideas and words.

    It has me thinking about kids who are low-income and verbally gifted. Often times, they don’t feel that much brighter. Many times, they come from a second language background and they might not score as high on the test. How many verbally gifted kids in low-SES settings aren’t being noticed, notified or properly tested because of the lack of a print-rich household, language acquisition issues and community context?

  2. Your long-ago tweet repeating what one of your students said, that they’d never been in a bookstore and the only bookstore in their neighborhood was an adult bookstore, broke my heart.

    This is what I mean. It’s not enough to prescribe a curriculum from the top down, based on what the research says and the environments and people you are accustomed to.

    Gifted advocates frequently cry for money, but what if the money doesn’t come? What if the money was never there to begin with? How do you do gifted education, mentorship, and opportunity on a half-frayed shoestring? Some schools have made amazing strides without great funding.

    What can everyone else learn from them? Also, what help can we offer?

    I found this story a day or two ago. It’s about a principal who turned around an at-risk school in Mississippi:

    He decided to evaluate every child in the school for giftedness, and found they’d missed 2/3 of them doing it the old way. . . he also made sure they hired the best, expected the best, followed the kids’ interests, and optimized everything. Did he get extra funding to do so? I doubt it.

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