Manhattan mom Heather McFadden is grateful that entrance into the prized New York City Gifted and Talented program has worked out for her two kids. Her daughter cleared both hurdles – she scored in the 99th percentile on the test, and then was lucky enough to get chosen for the lottery. Her son tested in as well. “I am thankful they [gifted programs] exist. There simply wasn’t a school in our district we would send our kids to because of their ratings,” McFadden said. “G and T [Gifted and Talented] was our only chance besides moving.” She had also heard from teachers that kids who are more advanced would not be challenged in a standard setting.

While McFadden knows that her kids will receive an extra push in Gifted and Talented, not everyone in New York is so lucky. More than 11,700 kids qualified for about 2,700 Gifted and Talented seats last year.

What does it mean to be “gifted” — at least by school standards? The U.S. Department of Education defines gifted and talented as “Children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience or environment.” According to the National Society of Gifted and Talented website, areas of talent include “creative ability, general and specific intellectual ability, leadership, psychomotor ability, and visual and performing arts abilities.”

But how “giftedness” plays out in the classroom for the roughly 3 million students who qualify can be hard to characterize. Some gifted and talented programs emphasize critical thinking and problem solving, others focus on creativity, and still others take what’s going on in standard classrooms and go into greater depth and complexity. Some G/T programs have separate schools, others have students for just an hour or two a week in a special classroom, and still others try to serve G/T students in standard classrooms by differentiating instruction in classes of mixed ability.

The wide variety of programs and curricula can mean that many G/T programs may end up being essentially ineffective to high potential learners. “The field of gifted education lacks convincing research as to what works,” writes Chester E. Finn, Jr, coauthor with Jessica Hockett of Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools. “We found just two smallish studies focusing on the actual effectiveness of selective-admission public high schools. Worse, those two studies found scant advantage for the selective-admission schools.”

Compounding the effectiveness of G/T programs is what it takes to qualify for entrance, usually IQ or other intelligence tests. According to cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, the overwhelming use of IQ tests to understand student potential is limiting at best, and damaging at worst. Besides treating all students with the same IQ as having the same academic needs, Kaufman writes in the LA Times, defining students by a test only measures one aspect of their potential to be successful: “Even done well, standardized testing has limits. Many other factors contribute to learning and real-world success, from active learning strategies to intrinsic motivation, grit, self-regulation and outside support and encouragement.”

In addition, Kaufman warns that abilities and talents can change as students get older, but often, tests that measure cognitive ability like the IQ test are taken early in life, and the scores follow children throughout their school careers, their numbers becoming immutable. “Although no state permits a single IQ score to determine gifted eligibility, 18 states set strict cutoff scores, and testing is typically a one-shot deal,” Kaufman writes. “You’re either gifted or you’re not, for the rest of your life.” Kaufman, who was diagnosed with a learning disability early in life, went on to defy his label and attained a PhD at Yale.

According to a North Carolina G/T teacher, Lisa, who asked to remain anonymous due to her district’s media policy, what many misunderstand is that being gifted is a learning need, not a privilege. “It is just one learning style that needs to be met, due to the speed and ease at which the student learns,” she said. “It does not mean they are better or likely to become more successful in life than their peers.”

In Lisa’s Academically and Intellectually Gifted program (AIG) for 4th and 5th graders, students are taken out of class for 45 minutes a week to focus on deeper conceptual understanding of what they’re already working on in standard classes. Lisa gave examples using math and reading instruction.

“When working with place value in a regular classroom, for example, in AIG I usually teach a 6-week class on alternative number systems, where we look at Roman numerals, Mayan numbers, binary numbers, as well as other number systems that don’t use a base 10,” she said. “In reading, we may work on a novel, or tie in social studies content such as doing a unit with American History that look at ‘History’s Mysteries’ such as The Abraham Lincoln Conspiracy, Lindbergh baby kidnapping, or the Lost Colony.”

Lisa’s main concern with the AIG program is time — or lack of it. “If I could change anything it would be the amount of time we are allowed to spend with the students,” she said. “In order to insure equity in the program, we are limited to 45 minutes a week in the areas identified as strong or very strong need. To say a student has these needs and only serve them 1/30th of the time they are in school seems, to me, to be problematic.”


For some parents of high-ability students, navigating the Gifted and Talented programs can be frustrating. Matt Prewett of Austin, Texas, doesn’t particularly like the term “gifted,” because it is easily misconstrued. He prefers to say “advanced in particular subjects.” He decided to pull his son, who was advanced in both language arts and math according to test scores and class performance, out of the local public school — not because they didn’t have a G/T program, but because he felt it was poorly implemented. “We pulled our son out of the district elementary school after 3rd grade, because we felt they had an inadequate system for ability-grouping,” he said.

Prewett gave an example of how the local school grouped for math ability: “They advertise a program for advanced students but there is only one chance to qualify, and it is on the first couple of days of school,” he said. “My son was very upset about attending a new school and cried during the exam, and didn’t qualify for the program. Despite good grades in math and extremely high scores on standardized exams, his teacher said there was no flexibility for students to move from the standard program to the advanced program. This is because the way they make the math program ‘advanced’ is by teaching them the curriculum from the next grade level: acceleration rather than enrichment.”

Prewett, who has since become a fierce advocate for more and better advanced programs in schools, founded the Texas Parents Union to advocate for more quality education options for all parents. He worries that children at the top of the achievement ladder are often under-served.

“Schools need to provide a way of making sure that children are educated at the level that is appropriate for them,” he said. “While putting all abilities in the same classroom might be easier to manage, it results in a high likelihood that at least one group of children will be neglected. With NCLB and the focus on proficiency, the odds are that the advanced students will be neglected since principals/teaches know that they will pass standardized exams.”

Kaufman takes it one step further: perhaps it’s time to step back and re-define what it means to be gifted and talented. “It may be time for a paradigm shift,” he writes. “Perhaps we should stop describing people as gifted or ungifted and start describing a wide range of personal characteristics and environmental factors as potential gifts — and promote an educational culture that develops them.”

Kaufman recommends the work of another North Carolina organization, Project Bright Idea, a pilot program offering Gifted and Talented curriculum to every student. According to one of the program’s founders, Duke professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy William “Sandy” Darity, Project Bright Idea “shows an extraordinary increase in overall test scores despite demographic trends toward more ‘at-risk’ students (90% poverty rate at the end of the period),” he said. Even though some of the schools’ students wouldn’t have ever qualified for G/T programs, after two years using a G/T curriculum, nearly one in four was identified as “gifted.”

Project Bright Idea’s success has spread to 20 North Carolina public schools, and maybe the idea is growing. Brooklyn mom Karina Gauge reports that her two sons receive Gifted and Talented curriculum at their neighborhood school, P.S. 58, although they’ve never had to stress over getting in: “They have never had a G/T program, because our principal believes that all of the kids should be treated as gifted and receive the same quality education,” she said.

  • No gifts please

    So many world famous inventors and artists were deemed bad students and daydreamers early on that is laughable that a good and bad learner test exists for our children today. The only purpose seems to be that it feeds beautifully into a parent’s ego. You have seemingly won the elementary school lottery- who doesn’t want a wrapped gift?

    I find the gifted program at my children’s school a never ending mine shaft of entitlement- for the parents of these children. I have never met a parent of a gifted child that can keep that news to themselves. It is a topic of deep and loud concern for them that their child’s educational needs be well met. What else can they do? Their children must be keep in a bubble they seem to be saying as if the world is not going to shake hands with them someday. In fact, every child be treated like a genius, because they will try to live up to your expectations- at some point in their lives. Each child is on a spectrum of learning there are visual and auditory learners for example and all are naturally curious. It is the child themselves who will find their genius through interests and dedicated encouragement from a staff who has not built a tall wall separating children holding a wrapped gift of extra information and the children who are not. No one can see the future so it is crazy and god-like that the schools and parents who buy into this silliness pretend to.

    • meet all needs

      It is a topic of deep and loud concern for them that their child’s educational needs be well met.:

      of course it is, isn’t it one of your concerns for your children? Why do you think we have NCLB – because many people loudly expressed their deep concern that the needs of their children be met. Why shouldn’t the parents of kids at the other end of the spectrum have that same consideration? Not to mention the kids themselves. In our neighborhood, the local high school lost some funding. What did they cut? They cut the AP classes. To the students’ credit, they demonstrated outside the school building; many students choose that school because of its wide AP offerings. When you can do much more, getting As in a general setting is neither satisfying nor engaging; a general setting does not meet the needs of a student who can do much more. Why do you think it is silly to recognize when a child learns differently, if different means faster and deeper?

      • Elaine

        What you’re missing is the poster’s point that GT programs draw bright lines that separate children of almost equal IQ, ability and proficiency. The children who are only slightly more advanced–based upon extremely subjective testing–are admitted to a whole new world of privilege and honor, while children very closely matched in all ways are effectively told “you’re not good enough” and are precluded from advancement.

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  • Gail Post

    Despite the fact that there are problems inherent in identification and delivery of services, there are differences in what “gifted” students need.

    Comments such as those cited by Kaufman highlight the many problems in the system, along with the fact that there are many, many successful people who are not gifted in terms of IQ. Some comments are misleading, though. Most schools are willing to readminister an IQ test if it is warranted, for example.

    Giftedness encompasses a distinct learning style, associated with pace, complexity, and depth of learning, to name a few examples. It is not a club or a class students who are privileged get to join. It should meet the needs of these students as much as learning support may be needed for students with learning disabilities. The label of “gifted” incites bitterness and anger among those who perceive it as elitist. Perhaps it would be more important to change the name rather than eliminate desperately needed services.

    Gail Post http://www.giftedchallenges.blogspot.com

  • george lovenguth

    Funny actually when compared to those in the Affirmative Action programs who gain entrance to “better” universities, and then become employed as well before those whom are educated. Does it all really matter anymore? Not really.

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  • emilie

    who need to be more successfull????? im my opinion that s not the point, the point is hapinness and self confidence and yes i believe GT children need to be educate at the level that is appropriate to them to achieve that. a bowred child can never be happy and self confident!!

  • Josh Shaine

    Redefining “gifted and talented” won’t fix *any* of the problems under discussion.

    Dr. Kaufman’s notion of “describing a wide range of personal characteristics and environmental
    factors as potential gifts — and promote an educational culture that
    develops them” is worse than a pipe dream. It is a 100 year old concept that has never been successfully implemented.

    “The recognition of individual differences urged in section 1
    necessitates a differentiation and a flexibility of the high school
    curriculum that is limited only by the social and individual needs to be
    served, the size of the school, and the availability of means. The
    rigid inflexibility of the inherited course of study has contributed
    perhaps more than its full share to the waste product of the educational
    machinery. … ‘Specialization of instruction for different pupils
    within one class is needed as well as specialization of the curriculum
    for different classes.’ There must be less of the assumption that the
    pupils are made for the schools, whose regime they must fit or else fail
    repeatedly where they do not fit.”

    F. O’Brien, 1919.

    It’s not that I disagree with the concept of teaching kids based on those personal characteristics – it’s that I cannot see how we are to do it in a society that opposes it on a deep basis.

    And while I think our doing it,however unlikely that might be, will improve the overall level of education, it still does not respond to the needs of the (formerly known as gifted) kids for whom the standard curriculum is too slow and too shallow. Those students are not a product of IQ scores, they are merely (sometimes) identified with them.

    The students are resented for being able to do more, regardless of whether they are labeled or not. Their needs are denied, with or without the label and with or without IQ scores. The programs *sometimes* at least manage to give the kids a chance to be with each other, which is usually better than nothing.

    But redefine the words? A waste of time and effort.

    See also the redefinition progression of “Feeble-minded,” “moron,” “idiot,” “retarded,” and “developmentally delayed.”

    • erika761

      like Lisa explained I didnt even know that some one can earn $7732 in 4 weeks on the internet. her explanation w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  • 2e-mom

    Very few would argue with the assertion that children at the bottom 3% in reading and math abilities need special instruction. So why is it controversial whether children in the top 3% need anything different? I am the mom of a twice exceptional kid (gifted with learning disabilities – yes they do exist) and he desperately needs special instruction that caters to both his deficits and strengths. Should all children receive the same instruction? No, because not all children are the same.

    • mommap

      Amen! I also have a twice gifted child. It was difficult to get him an IEP because he does so well on standardized tests and in the classroom. They assumed his writing issues were just due to laziness. (He actually has dysgraphia.) But because he is on an IEP, teachers now assume he shouldn’t be in the advanced class. We need to start looking at the whole child, not just the labels.

    • Julie Waguespack

      Not only are they not the same they do not learn the same. For example, my son has dyslexia and to give him a standardized tedt is crazy. But, his verbal comprehension is above that of college students, and his mechanical aptitude is behond his age, but a the education system isn’t set up for vrrbsl or hands on learning. The system isn’t set up for children who learn by a means other than reading to succeed.

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  • Donna Y Ford

    I was the expert witness in this case. I appreciate what is here but am troubled that my work was not mentioned. Also see Ford (2013) Recruiting and retaining culturally different students in gifted education. This case is MORE than about TESTING… It is about discrimination and under-representation regarding policies and procedures and tests. DO NOT simplify this groundbreaking case. I URGE you all to read this case for yourself — starting on page 21.


  • Norah

    I love the Project Bright Idea. It’s a bit like the Pygmalion effect. We need to think about how far one’s potential may be extended through encouragement and support, rather than imposing limits through standardisation.

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  • Scooter

    Culturally, we seem to have a serious problem in accepting that kids learn at different rates, and to different standards. Humans are NOT homogeneous – we DO NOT all have the same ability levels. However, try to discuss this openly, and many people become very “antsy”, at best – antagonistic, at worst. It is bad enough to try to discuss the needs of children who are in the bottom % of learners, never mind those who form the top.
    Humans unfortunately are prone to JEALOUSY, and I feel personally that THIS is the main barrier to meeting the needs of so-called “Gifted & Talented” kids in education. Put simply, most kids at school are jealous of those who are “top of the class”. In all likelihood, parents of lower achieving kids are also jealous of the high achiever (and their family). Thus, any child singled out as “Gifted & Talented” in any way is hugely at risk of BULLYING. To make matters worse, teachers often overlook their needs, in the belief that the highly capable learner does not need much help or attention – they simply pass exams and tests “like robots”!
    How do I come to say this? Well, I have personal experience of being one of those bullied “top of the class” kids. No “Gifted Programme” existed at any of the schools I attended, and even though the High School I went to did grade kids according to ability, kids in the top grades still attended the same school as kids in lower grades, and thus were open to bullying by those children. To this day, I can recall being spat on, having my hair pulled and being taunted “Teacher’s Pet”, and “nerd”. Things like this stick with you FOR LIFE. They actually serve to make you feel ashamed, and very self-conscious. Uncomfortable with your level of ability.
    I went through several years at school where I deliberately “dumbed myself down” – just to be able to fit in, and have friends. When you are faced with attending a multi-ability-level school, you do become aware that you can be singled out if you demonstrate talent, or get high grades. However, despite the fact that teachers think such singling out equates with praise; amongst your peers it more likely equates with ostracism, or bullying!
    Few people seem to be aware of, or acknowledge, this fact. Schools need to think VERY carefully about how they provide a good education for all – and about how they meet the needs of each and every student. Not just the need to teach the child things; but also the need to provide a safe, and nurturing environment in which a child can feel free to learn at their own pace, with no shame or stigma attached.

    • Susan

      Eactly, well said!

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  • mraz

    How many innovators or scientist or writers do we know that went to school that was for gifted kids? Many talents arise from public school. There are many opportunities such after school clubs available for kids who are advanced to nurture and challenge their intellects.

  • Marie Lockyer

    First, “gifted” implies a giver of the gift so is not an appropriate descriptor. Better choice is: “has potential to excel”. Over 50 years of teaching I have encountered many children with ‘potential to excel’ who have not taken up the challenge of exploiting that potential. On the other hand, I have taught many children with the potential to excel who did take up the challenge and dared to be different. Furthermore, there are those determined young people who overcome specific disabilities by applying themselves rigorously to their chosen field of endeavour and who achieve great success. These are the people I find most inspiring and most worthy of receiving a gift!

  • Gifted at Knowing My Kid

    Although it had been recognized earlier on that she learned things at an accelerated pace, my now-30-year-old daughter was evaluated and then placed in a public school “rapid learner” program (self-contained classroom setting for gifted kids due to their test scores) for third grade. Her experience in this environment was the worst year of her educational life.

    What is missing in these discussions is that while many kids are whizzes at conventional learning, their emotional ages may be on a par or even lower than their academic age. My daughter was ADHD (non-medicated) and was often bored, acting out in ways the teacher deemed unproductive or disruptive. We had plenty of serious consequences at home for her misdeeds at school, but it was difficult for my daughter to truly make the connection. In the meantime, her teacher prided herself in the rest of her students’ advanced behavior and did not want to have to deal with a little oddball like my daughter. She actually TOLD my 3rd grader that she did not TRUST her instead of finding positive ways to guide her and stimulate her.

    My anxiety level was through the roof about this, however, and when I tried to pull her out of this environment before the school year ended, the teacher (fearing reduced funding or perhaps failure) prevented our placing our daughter in a more structured environment (this teacher was fine with kids laying all over the floor with shoes and socks off, expected them to line up like little soldiers at recess time without much prompting, and gave them owl pellets to study for science projects) by telling the school we had applied to that she was a troublemaker.

    The end of the story? My daughter is now the CEO of a multi-million dollar company she started on her own, without funding, without a college degree and without a business school course. Perhaps I will someday write a book of my own on this and enlist the stories of other parents of successful gifted kids who were written off as by many of their teachers because their boredom resulted in behavior issues teachers prefer not to deal with. It would be a good one.

    • Guest

      Congratulations on your daughter’s success, but it says more about our society in general than about our education. If somebody without a college degree or business school course ends, and ADHD, ends up commanding millions of dollars in undisclosed business venture, while most well-educated and hard working people in the nation don’t even have a job security, something is not right in the society. Yes, we are a nation of entrepreneurship and competition, but it is the extreme disparities that are going to destroy us eventually. Sorry to hear
      your daughter’s teacher didn’t meet your expectations in “serving” your precious little girl, but I hope the teacher did a good job in teaching other 25 kids in the class who also had a right to receive instruction in an orderly classroom, without constant disruptions from someone very special, even if they were going to become big shots/ CEO in the future. Good luck with your book, but I am not buying it.

    • carlusha

      Congratulations on your daughter’s success, but it says more about our society in general than about our education. If somebody with ADHD and without a college degree or business school course ends up commanding millions of dollars in undisclosed business venture, while most well-educated and hard working people in the nation don’t even have a job security, something is not right in the society. Yes, we are a nation of entrepreneurship and competition, but it is the extreme disparities that are going to destroy us eventually. Sorry to hear your daughter’s teacher didn’t meet your expectations in “serving” your precious little girl, but I hope the teacher did a good job in teaching other 25 kids in the class who also had a right to receive instruction in an orderly classroom, without constant disruptions from someone very special, even if they were going to become big shots/ CEO in the future. Good luck with your book, but I am not buying it.

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  • OregonMomofTwo

    This might make sense for the marginally gifted, but what do you do with the child who taught himself to multiply before starting kindergarten. Parents threw the vocabulary in there, but he was getting operations on his own. What do you do when this same child starts fighting with his fourth grade teacher daily because he wants to use prealgebra on his fourth grade assignments or at least give the class the answers so they can FINALLY move on? What do you do when that same fourth grader scores in the 99th percentile on a seventh grade math test?
    Grit is critical, but how does a child who taught himself all the answers years ago ever develop it? The best way to remove grit seems to be to keep a gifted child in a standard classroom and the reputation of older gifted children and adults bears this out. What do you propose for the very gifted? Just let them fail?

  • Anon E. Mouse

    “because our principal believes that all of the kids should be treated as gifted and receive the same quality education” …koff

  • S Ann

    My son likes math since he was very young. He didn’t like the homework from school because those math questions were too easy and dry for him. I kept looking for an enrichment program for him and finally his teacher recommended Beestar’s online GT math to us.
    Beestar’s GT math questions are well organized to go beyond the math basics to mind-opening advanced puzzles. Students gain confidence gradually from the beginning then eventually are able to tackle fairly complex and tricky problems, which is the a wonderful process of discovery and improvement. As a parent, I can monitor his progress online any time and I am delighted to see his rapid progress. There are many talented students from nationwide on Beestar. They make my son realize how big the outside world is. They share the same interests and have a lot fun together online. I am so glad that it works very well for my son.


Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey's work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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