We read Chester Finn’s recent Flypaper column, “Public attitudes toward gifted education: Supportive, complacent, incomplete,” with great interest and painful recognition. We’re business executives and parents who have been involved with gifted education for more than a decade, at the school, district, and state levels. We’d like to elaborate on some causes and consequences of the issues he highlighted.
Our introduction to gifted education came in Alberta, Canada, where gifted programs were limited to the top 5 percent of students based on their IQ test results. Our children pursued an accelerated course of study that was facilitated by the common provincial curriculum that all schools followed. Additional funding was provided for social and emotional services for gifted students—for example, to address their sometimes debilitating perfectionism, difficulty in forming authentic peer relationships, and challenges working in cognitively diverse groups.
While there is always room for improvement, Alberta’s gifted education program has produced impressive results. For example, on the 2015 PISA science assessment, 2.8 percent of Alberta fifteen-year-olds scored at the highest level, compared to 1.2 percent in the United States.
When we moved to Colorado and were considering where to live, the gifted education program in Jefferson County, the nation’s thirty-sixth largest school district, initially seemed quite promising. Jeffco had implemented universal gifted screening for second graders before the state mandated it, offered gifted center “school within a school” programs that were housed within seventeen of the district’s 137 schools and featured academic acceleration, and generally seemed supportive of gifted education.
Sadly, we soon learned that the district’s reality fell well short of its rhetoric.
Based on the different ways that students can be qualified as gifted under Colorado’s “Exceptional Children’s Educational Act,” our analysis found that at least 17 percent were potentially eligible based on the “general intellectual ability” or “specific academic aptitude” criteria—before even including the percentages considered gifted in the leadership and creativity categories. While in Alberta “gifted” was a special-ed designation, in Colorado it has too often seemed to be just another competitive parenting prize.
Given the large number of students deemed gifted, we weren’t surprised to find an incoherent mix of academic approaches to serving their needs, even at the “gifted center” schools, including many strategies that research has not shown to be effective (e.g., cluster grouping, assigning extra work, and having kids serve as teaching assistants for their peers).
In contrast to Alberta, acceleration, which researchers have found to be very effective, was inconsistently implemented and produced far weaker results than the research evidence shows is possible. There appear to be many reasons for this, including the lack of a common state, or even district, curriculum, the belief among a surprising number of educators that gifted education is an affront to equity, concerns that acceleration would result in students “running out of classes to take in high school,” and complaints from some parents that acceleration was too challenging for their kids (unsurprising, given the high percentage of students categorized as gifted).
We later discovered that Colorado school districts are only required to pay for dual enrollment in two-year community college courses, and often refuse to pay for courses at four-year universities, which are better aligned with many gifted students’ needs and college plans.
In another contrast to Alberta, special education services that systematically target gifted students’ social and emotional needs were essentially AWOL, except for those gifted students with an IEP or 504 plan. Unfortunately, failure to address these needs early on can have serious consequences when gifted students become adults.
Finn pointedly noted that the existence of shortcomings like those we have encountered reflects an issue that few want to confront: “The problem of leadership in gifted education.”
From what we’ve seen, an important source of this leadership vacuum has been the organizational choices that the gifted community has made (at the national, state, and district levels) to include parents, teachers, and administrators in the same advocacy associations. As a result, most of these organizations are dominated by educators, not parents. But time and again we have seen that this doesn’t work very well in practice. There are limits on how far district employees will go in “advocacy” on gifted education issues—and most of the time those limits fall far short of what is needed to meet the challenges at hand.
Sadly, we’ve also seen that parents rarely push back because too many of them are already intimidated by the challenges of raising a gifted child and don’t want to risk being deemed “uncollaborative” and losing whatever scraps the district is throwing their way. Needless to say, most districts prefer parents to be cheerleaders for those scraps.
There is also an enormous gulf between the way K–12 treats gifted students and the way the business world sees them.
CEOs know from experience what researchers have found in the data: Talent follows a power law, not a normal distribution (see, e.g., “The Best and the Rest” by O’Boyle and Aguinis). Today, CEOs are more obsessed than ever with hiring and retaining top talent. Why? Because in our era of “cognitive capitalism,” top talent has a disproportionate impact on companies’ ability to absorb and apply rapidly improving automation and artificial intelligence technologies, and thus their chances of survival in a world of winner-takes-all competition.
Unfortunately, we’ve learned that a sizable source of America’s failure to fully develop the talents of its most cognitively gifted students lies deep in the structures, processes, and cultures of many school districts and gifted advocacy organizations. After a decade in the trenches, we hold little hope that gifted education will substantially improve on the scale that is required. This is not uplifting news for employers or for parents of gifted children. But it is the hard reality today in far too many school districts.
We also know this: As technological and economic change continues to accelerate, the consequences of failing to meet gifted students’ cognitive, social, and emotional needs are going to be far larger and more severe than many of today’s K–12 leaders understand.