The efficacy and equity of gifted programs came under fire in 2021 when New York City mayor Bill De Blasio rolled out a plan to phase out the city’s gifted program completely—a plan that was later quietly shelved.
Parents who perhaps were in gifted programs themselves as kids and whose own kids do or do not qualify are confused and sometimes outraged at the inconsistent policies about who gets to be called “gifted” and what privileges this “status symbol” can afford someone given this label. But what does it mean to be “gifted”? Should you get your kid tested, and, if they qualify, should you accept services? And will your kid be “better off” in the long run if they’re in a gifted program or identified as gifted when they’re young?
Signs your child may be gifted
In many districts around the country, gifted education is part of the special education program, which doesn’t make it seem like a “status symbol,” but more of an accommodation that needs to be made for students who don’t fit into the average mold of their peers.
Intellectually gifted student criteria vary by state or district, but the gifted population often makes up 10, 5, or even 1% of the student population based on some kind of assessment. Sometimes the entire student population is tested at once, such as on state testing in the second grade, or students will be “nominated” by teachers or parents and tested by school psychologists or gifted specialists. Occasionally, schools will accept private evaluations. Often individual or private tests include kind of IQ test (the test that determines if someone is a genius), but in recent years, other tests, like the Raven, aimed at being more inclusive and equitable, have been used to identify gifted students.
Often a child is nominated for a gifted program if they are ahead of their peers in one or more subject areas. I worked as a gifted education specialist for several years, and we had teachers fill out checklists to nominate or to help us identify gifted students. Similar lists are available at all schools.
- Boredom in school
- Perceptiveness or intuitiveness
- Relating better to adults than peers, is interested in adult problems
- Able to live in chaos, (aka, the “messy genius”)
- Prefers to work independently
- Keen sense of humor
- Large storehouse of information on one or many subjects, including having an unusually large vocabulary or amount of facts about things outside of the usual realm of their schooling
- Highly sensitive
- Able to grasp the deeper meaning
- Sensitive to beauty, arts, and aesthetics
- Asks many questions
- Major criticism of gifted programs
Often gifted programs are composed of less people of color than their representative school populations and are disproportionately made up of higher-income students. This is often because of systemic bias in the school. Students of color and from lower-income families are nominated less often. Also, the tests are not tailored to students who speak English as a second language and make no accommodations for students with any neurodivergence or other considerations that might impact their learning.
Gifted programs sometimes merely accelerate students without addressing the individual needs of the student, including their unique social-emotional challenges. Gifted students are more likely to have anxiety and depression, and a gifted student is also not necessarily gifted in all subject areas.
Often gifted programs “pull out” students from other classes, which make gifted students feel othered and students not in the program feel left out. Gifted students have to choose between being in the gifted program or being with their peers. Critics of gifted programs don’t like that gifted students are seen as “better” than non-gifted students and that they get special treatment, such as field trips or funding.
If your child is identified as gifted either by their school testing, or by the nomination process, you can absolutely choose whether or not to keep them in the program. You can “opt out” of services.
Most districts or communities have gifted parent groups that meet periodically and allow parents to be part of the community to discuss the program. This would be a good place to learn about your program and what it offers before you decide if it’s a good fit. Your school should also have a staff member who is the “gifted coordinator” for the school or district. Sometimes this is a separate person, and sometimes it’s the principal or a teacher who is assigned the gifted cases. They can help answer questions.
If you do decide to receive gifted services, your child may get an individual gifted plan, or may be enrolled in a separate class or program. Some districts, like Portland Public Schools where I live, have gifted programs in each school but also a separate school for students who would thrive in an environment where all the students are gifted.
I am, admittedly, biased. I was in a gifted program as a child and taught gifted kids. Research shows that gifted students thrive in environments where they work together, have community, and build off each others’ skills. But, whether or not you opt into gifted services is a decision you should make as a family.
Gifted kids aren’t necessarily more likely to succeed, and being in a gifted program isn’t a guarantee of life success. Some very successful people aren’t “smart” at all.
In fact, being identified as gifted is more than being a “good student.” Gifted students are not necessarily the best students, though they often do well in school. Sometimes, they fail spectacularly, either because they do not see the point in doing the assignment the way the teacher wants them to, or the teacher does not understand their unique ways of thinking. Good students are hard workers. Sometimes gifted students fail because they don’t know how to ask for help, having always been told they were “smart,” so they never learned how to work hard.
However, if you think of being gifted the way the state of Pennsylvania does, where each gifted student receives and Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the philosophy is that gifted students need accommodations in the classroom the same way a student with dyslexia might need different text fonts or more time on a test, or the way a child with ADHD might need to take more frequent breaks or be allowed to bring a fidget tool from home. A gifted student might need alternate assignments, advanced class placement, or to be in a classroom with gifted peers.
So, while there isn’t a black and white answer as to whether or not a gifted program is the right fit for your child, getting them tested probably won’t hurt anyone, and you can go from there.O