Should there be special programs for gifted students?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday announced a plan to gradually eliminate his city’s program for gifted and talented students in K-12 schools. Starting next fall, the nation’s largest school district will no longer admit incoming kindergartners into special gifted classes or schools. Instead, accelerated learning will be made accessible to all students in their own schools.

The impending change comes after years of criticism of the racial makeup of students in the city’s gifted and talented program. About 75 percent of the 16,000 students in New York’s gifted program are white or Asian, but those groups make up only about 25 percent of the total student body, according to the New York Times.

Programs that provide advanced academic instruction to high-performing students are offered in nearly every state. There are no national standards for how they should be carried out, so the specifics vary substantially based on state and city standards. Depending on the district, gifted students may attend a separate school, be placed in a different class or have a certain number of hours of specialized instruction a week.

Like New York, a number of school districts in across the country have also begun to reconsider the value of placing high-performing students on a separate educational track from their peers.

Why there’s debate

Conventional wisdom frames gifted programs as a benefit for all children because they provide exceptional students more room to flourish while at the same time giving teachers in typical classrooms more time to focus on students who need the most help. Supporters often argue that it’s unfair to ask advanced students to stunt their own education because some of their classmates aren’t learning at the same pace. Others say the way to address racial disparities in gifted education is to expand, not get rid of, the programs.

Critics say that, in practice, gifted programs largely serve to give an extra leg up to children who already enjoy significant advantages. Many experts also say there is very little research to back up claims that separating advanced students from their peers helps either group. In fact, they argue that doing so causes harm to both groups. Others reject the idea that it’s possible to even identify gifted children, since learning manifests itself in so many unquantifiable ways.

What’s next

A major question hanging over de Blasio’s move to end New York’s gifted and talented program is whether the city’s next mayor will follow through with the decision. Democratic nominee Eric Adams, the overwhelming favorite to be the next mayor when de Blasio’s term ends at the end of the year, has in the past defended gifted programs. Adams's spokesman said he will “assess” the de Blasio plan.


Gifted program supporters

All students benefit from gifted programs

“When students of all abilities are grouped together, the teacher is stretched to help the regular students while also challenging the advanced students. Time is limited, and it is usually the advanced who get neglected. In this way, both the regular and the advanced benefit when there are different academic streams.” — John Barsby, Globe and Mail

Gifted programs give underprivileged children a chance to outcompete rich kids

“For those underprivileged children dreaming of becoming surgeons, nurses, computer scientists, or climate scientists, they need the public school system to offer gifted options. They just cannot compete with the private school children without them.” — Tiana Lowe, Washington Examiner

Many of the problems can be solved with better selection criteria

“Instead of seeing the racial and economic imbalance in gifted programs as a cry to expand methods of identifying giftedness in populations of children who are underserved by them, the solution is to toss out what works for some children because it doesn’t work for all children.” — James R. Delisle, Education Week

Racial representation isn’t the only measure of gifted programs’ success

“The idea that because students don’t represent the right racial mix, programs need to be scrapped is noxious. What message does that send black or Hispanic kids in advanced classes? That there aren’t enough people who look like you taking these classes, so you don’t deserve curriculum appropriate for your level?” — Karol Markowicz, New York Post

It’s unfair to deny students the chance to excel just because they’re ahead of their peers

“Education is not a zero-sum game. The fact that some kids get ahead through discipline and hard work does not deny that opportunity to others who face the same choices. But taking opportunities from kids because they are too successful is a backward approach that will erode America’s competitive advantage in global science and technology.” — James S. Robbins, USA Today

Gifted programs should be expanded, not eliminated

“The best way to improve educational outcomes for all individuals is not to close down avenues enjoyed by a select few, but to give everyone potential access to the maximum number of quality options. Easier said than done, but never accomplished by a system of one-size-fits-all.” — Matt Welch, Reason

Society benefits when exceptional children are given the chance to meet their potential

“When schools don’t foster the growth of the highest-potential young people, the public loses something. Beneficial technologies might not be invented, and profound works of art might not be created. Boys and girls who know they are able to do more can become frustrated, and their parents can feel powerless to help.” — Andy Smarick, Atlantic

Gifted program critics

All students suffer when they are segregated based on academic achievement

“I think the minute you start pulling kids out of the population and separating them out, you are weakening instruction for everyone else. Pulling out smart kids and dollars to plug into schools for smart kids is a bad strategy if you believe it’s possible to make all public schools good.” — Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education, to New York Times

A diverse classroom provides benefits that go far beyond academics

“The research on special education focuses on giving students the most inclusive educational environment, keeping them in regular classrooms as much as possible. Gifted education should be no different. All kids — including those with learning differences, whether disabilities, talents or both — build empathy and critical thinking skills by interacting with peers from other walks of life.” — Halley Potter, Daily News

Kids left out of gifted education learn that there are limits to what they can achieve

“Teaching children to believe they are capable of learning at a high level encourages academic excellence and improves outcomes for all students.” — Rachel Coleman, Gainesville Sun

There’s no evidence that gifted programs offer much of a benefit to any students

“The vagueness and confusion over what is going on in gifted programs raises the possibility that the varied approaches are not worth the time spent on them.” — Jay Mathews, Washington Post

Whatever the intention, gifted programs perpetuate inequality in practice

“Whether this racism is intended or incidental is irrelevant. The outcome is the same: One group of children (privileged and mostly white) gets their special program while the rest of the children (too often poor and of color) are sent to the back of the budget bus.” — David Gardner, Seattle Times

Identifying what makes kids gifted may be impossible

“Despite a century of research, definitions of giftedness are fuzzy. People disagree over whether it should be measured in absolute or relative terms; whether there is a limit to the proportion of humanity that is gifted; whether giftedness can be cultivated; whether it must be backed up by achievement; and whether it should include athletic abilities.” — Danielle Dreilinger, Hechinger Report

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