Identification, not Education is the Problem with Gifted Programs

gifted identification

A recent article published in the Seattle Times, (“All Children are Gifted Just in Different Ways,” Feb. 7, 2020, ) lashes out at #giftedprogramming as racist, in fact, author @davidgardner, refers to what he calls “so-called ‘gifted’ education” as “institutional racism and elitism.” Mr. Gardner is incorrect in labeling gifted programming as racist and unfortunately does not understand the true meaning of gifted. Mr. Gardner would do well to reserve his tongue lashing for gifted identification rather than attempting to dismantle gifted programming.

If you read my blogs, you know I’ve advocated time and again for universal screening, for finding the same ratio of gifted to non-gifted children in every cultural demographic, and for training teachers to identify and address giftedness. This is a classic case of “blaming the messenger.” In other words, gifted education is necessary and are a minority themselves. It doesn’t matter your gender, race, ethnicity, economic status, gender identification – gifted crosses all boundaries. (See, Ford, D.Y. (2013). Recruiting and retaining culturally different students in gifted education. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. 2014 NAACP Image Award Nominee for Literature (Instruction). Ford, D.Y. (2011). Multicultural gifted education: Rationale, models, strategies, and resources (2nd ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. Ford, D.Y., Wright, B.L., Sewell, C., Whiting, G.W., & Moore III, J.L. (2018). The Nouveau Talented Tenth: Envisioning W. E. B. Dubois in the context of contemporary gifted and talented education. Journal of Negro Education, 87(3), 294-310 Wright, B.L., Ford, D.Y. & Young, J.L. (2017). Ignorance or indifference? Seeking  equity and excellent for under-represented students of color in gifted education. Global Education Review, 4(1), 45-60. Ford, D.Y., Wright, B.L., Washington, A., & Henfield, M.A. (2016). Access and equity denied: Key theories for school psychologists to consider when assessing Black and Hispanic students for gifted education. School Psychology Forum, 10(3), 265-277Mayes, R. D., Jones, S. G., Hines, E. M. (in press). Diverse gifted students: Intersectionality of cultures. In S. M. Wood & J. S. Peterson (Eds.), Counseling Gifted Students: A Guide for School Counselors. (pp. 47-64). New York, NY: Springer. Mayes, R. D., Hines, E. M., & Moore, J. L., III. (2018). When the rubber meets the road: Educating and supporting twice exceptional African American students. In S. B. Kaufman (Ed.), Supporting and Educating Bright and Creative Students with Learning Difficulties. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Mayes, R. D. & Moore, J. L., III. (2016). The intersection of race, disability, and giftedness: Understanding the education needs of twice-exceptional, African American students. Gifted Child Today,39(2), 98-104.Mayes, R. D., Hines, E. M., & Harris, P. C. (2014, Summer). Working with twice-exceptional African American students: Information for school counselors [Special Issue].  Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 4(2), 125-139.)

The problem is three-fold; 1. People arguing against gifted programming do not understand what gifted means. 2. Identification of gifted students is archaic and often times does not take into account cultural and economic differences in determining who is gifted. 3. Most teachers are not trained to identify and address giftedness.

What Does Gifted Mean?

Mr. Gardner asks the question, “What makes for a gifted child?” and then incorrectly answers himself, “A gifted child has strong reading, writing and math skills, is analytical and a good inductive learner.” I don’t know where he got that definition, there is no citation, but that is not gifted. Unfortunately, gifted is misunderstood and just as Mr. Gardner asks that assumptions not be made based on race, I ask that assumptions not be made based on outdated information and stereotypes about gifted.

If you are in the gifted field and you care about the social and emotional needs of gifted children, you are likely familiar with the Columbus Group Definition of Gifted which states that giftedness is:

Asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.  This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity.  The uniqueness of the gifted renders them vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally” (The Columbus group, 1991) as found in (Off the Charts Asynchrony and the Gifted Child, Neville, Christine S., Piechowski, Michael M. and Tolan, Stephanie S., eds., Royal Fireworks Press, 2013, p. 14).

As I write this blog, coincidentally I’m heading to Florida to train teachers attending a Yachad conference. Yachad, The National Jewish Council for Disabilities, is a thriving global organization dedicated to addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities. The first time twice exceptionality, gifted with a learning difference, appeared in their global conferences, was a few months ago when I presented in Baltimore, MD on the topic. It was so well received that they requested that I present three separate sessions at their Florida conference. Why would they include twice exceptional in the content unless they recognized the importance of understanding gifted as a special need?

When I teach about gifted, I take the Columbus Group Definition and expand it to my “three-layer-cake” definition. The usual assumption; bright, talented, potential, ability, that’s the frosting on my three-layer-cake. Then we have three layers or characteristics; asynchronous development, perfectionism/anxiety and intensities or what’s known as overexcitabilities in gifted parlance. In order to create an environment suited to a gifted learner, one must take into account all of these characteristics. The gifted learner is existentially plugged in; considering issues on a deeper and grander scale. They are affected by the world around them in a profound way and their ability to learn and attend is wholly integral to their ability to feel safe, heard, and understood. This is why honors and AP courses are not gifted, but unfortunately are often deemed so.

Identification

While the dearth of students identified as gifted in various racial, cultural and economic demographics is disappointingly and harmfully low, this does not mean that gifted education is discriminatory. Calls for universal screening, where every child is screened for giftedness, are becoming louder, as they should (see, Islas, Rene, “Is There a Gifted Gap? New Report Makes Clear the Need for Universal Screening of Gifted Children,” NAGC.org, Jan. 31, 2018, Lawson Davis, Joy, “Addressing the Gifted Gap, Three Strategies”, NAGC.org, Nov. 29, 2018; Ferguson, Ronald F., Aiming Higher Together, Strategizing Better Educational Outcomes for Boys and Young Men of Color, May 10, 2016). Furthermore, arguments for using “local norms” in gifted assessment are considered best practices by many. Using local norms for assessing children means that “gifted students don’t have to be in a high-performing school, they need to be high performing in their school.” Several studies indicate that using local norms makes a big difference in identifying more gifted students from diverse demographics.  (Peters, S., et al., “Effect of Local Norms on Racial and Ethnic Representation in Gifted Education” Sage Journals, May 14, 2019; for a summary of this article, see, see, Peters, S., et al. “Local norms improve equity in gifted identification,” NAGC.org, May 14, 2019).

Teacher Training

There are just a few education programs that deliver a degree specifically in gifted education. If an educator is not enrolled in one of those programs they typically get very little education on what it means to be gifted, let alone, best practices for teaching gifted learners. If teachers are educated about the true meaning of gifted, they are better positioned to help identify potential gifted learners. Unfortunately, and particularly for twice exceptional children or profoundly gifted children (four or more standard deviations away from norm on the intelligence bell curve), behavior in response to an inappropriate environment induces undesirable behavior an the system focuses on the behavior rather than what underlies the behavior or the intelligence needs of the child. In a classroom of thirty-five children, if one or more are disrupting and distracting, it is not human nature to assume that child needs more intellectually stimulating work or needs to engage in meaningful and existential conversations. The assumption is that the behavior needs to go away first, when in fact, if the intellectual needs of that child is adequately addressed, most likely the behavior will melt away.

The current climate we see, attempts at disbanding gifted programming and classrooms is deeply saddening. Rather than address needs of all gifted children, folks like Mr. Gardner advocate for getting rid of gifted programming for all. Doing so is discriminating against an entire (granted, small) percentage of the population that we know actually crosses all race, class and cultural divides. Wouldn’t it be better to find and educate all gifted children according to their needs?

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Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

13 Responses

  1. Thanks for a very astute and thoughtful piece, Julie. Sometimes I think that I would trade some IQ points for improved social skills, executive function, or mood regulation in my three 2e kids. The assumption that gifted = smart is a clear misunderstanding of what gifted means. There is always a trade off. Underchallenged students can be disruptive, frustrating, and need a learning environment that works for them, just like kids with “regular learning differences.”

    1. Thanks Heidi! We have got to keep spreading the word. It’s such a misunderstanding and injustice to gifted and twice exceptional kids.

  2. Thank you for this well researched and articulated article about defining what it means to be gifted and gifted children. I trained at the graduate level in Education for the gifted and taught in a gifted resource pull-out program for 12 years, and I had children of my own who were gifted. I found that the twice exceptional had the most struggles in the regular classroom, as they were not understood by their teachers and often punished because they failed to meet the teacher’s expectations. Thank you for your efforts to educate parents and educators about the real issues here which certainly are not to do away with gifted Ed but to identify the gifted across socio-economic divides, ethnicities, and genders.

    1. Thank you Judith for taking the time to share your thoughts. Yes, as I often say, “behavior is communication, but in the case of a 2e child, the behavior neither indicates the trigger nor the need.”

  3. I want to send this to the IEP team at my son’s school! And if more parents knew that gifted doesn’t mean independent, self-motivated, or even high achieving, they’d stop wishing their kids were gifted. 2e kids are a full-time job with no employee manual. They are exhausting and frustrating and draining. But they’re also amazing. Those parents and educators want their icing without the cake, but the cake is life.

    1. Thanks CJ for your comments! Please feel free to share widely, sometimes I feel like I’m trying to shout from the rooftops about the complexity of giftedness and 2e. We must spread the truth widely. Another option is to look at our virtual conference, 2 Days of 2e (2daysof2e.com) and suggest to your principal that teachers attend (VIRTUAL – NO TRAVEL, MISSED WORK, ETC). I also have my keynote from 2018 which is a great introductory talk about what it means to be 2e and gives strategies for home and the classroom. You can find that keynote, “Cycle for Success: Parenting and Teaching 2e” at https://www.withunderstandingcomescalm.com/product/cycle-for-success-parenting-and-teaching-2e-with-julie-skolnick-m-a-j-d/

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