The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
The big idea
Participating in a gifted and talented program improved high-ability students’ reading and math achievement, on average, nationwide, I found in a new study. However, in reading, these achievement gains were not universal. Black students benefited less from participating in gifted education programs than white students, my research found. And affluent students gained more from gifted education programs than did students from families with lower incomes.
These findings emerged from an April 2021 peer-reviewed study that I conducted with education professor Jason Grissom. We analyzed data for 1,340 students who participated in gifted education programs in elementary school. Specifically, we examined how much gifted education programs improved achievement and other outcomes for elementary school students, such as attendance and engagement with school, as measured by student reports of working hard, participating and paying attention in class.
On average, students receiving gifted services saw slight improvements in test scores. The average student who had ever received gifted services saw reading achievement scores increase from the 78th to 80th percentile, irrespective of race or income. The increase was about one-third as large in math as it was in reading.
Low-income students participating in gifted programs did not have net achievement gains in reading, nor did Black students. No evidence was found of a relationship between gifted education program participation with student absences or student engagement.
Why it matters
Some scholars of gifted education have criticized gifted programs as being elitist. These criticisms are based on the fact that students from lower-income families are not admitted to gifted programs at the same rate as their peers from higher-income families.
Advocates for gifted education programs have worked to improve access to the programs in recent years. The National Association for Gifted Children, for instance, has pushed for schools to look at students in a more holistic way by gathering information from students, teachers and students when screening for giftedness.
Our findings suggest that access to gifted education programs is not the only issue. For Black and low-income students who aren’t experiencing the same gains as other students, it may not just be about getting into gifted programs, but how well the programs serve those students once they are admitted. These findings should not be taken to suggest that gifted programs are not capable of supporting high-ability students from historically marginalized student populations. Case studies from school districts show that there are programs with evidence of success.
What still isn’t known
Our study was unable to identify whether particular approaches to gifted education were more beneficial than others. Gifted education might include enrichment provided within the general education setting, moving to a gifted education teacher’s classroom for specialized instruction, after-school programs or even gifted education academies. It may be that the small relationships observed in this paper are due to the fact that the gifted services provided in many elementary schools may not be very intensive. Research that links gifted education programs with student outcomes will help educators understand how best to design gifted educational services.
An important topic for future research is better understanding why Black and low-income students do not appear to realize the same achievement benefits as their white peers. It could be that the gifted education curriculum is not inclusive of the experiences and backgrounds of these students. Or it may be that resource constraints in the schools Black and low-income students attend result in limited intensity of gifted services.
The differences in achievement among students in gifted education suggest that educators should examine their programming to assess whether they are adequate for serving the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Complicating such efforts, however, is the lack of comprehensive evidence on how to support high-ability, low-income students and students of color.
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Christopher Redding does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.