Problematizing Gifted Education, Part I:  Why Problematize?



Gifted education, as it exists in this country today, is fundamentally and fatally flawed in conception and in practice.

Programs for gifted students are a familiar aspect of American education, and they have been, off and on, for nearly a century.  Such programs are mandated in a majority of the states (although many of the mandates are unfunded).  In states where they are not mandated, such as the states in which I live and work, Connecticut and New York, gifted programs are nonetheless quite common.  Although they have their critics (see especially the work of Mara Sapon-Shevin, e.g., 1994), by and large these programs are accepted as desirable, or at least inevitable, by parents, teachers, and administrators alike.

Gifted education, as it is practiced in this country today, is predicated on a number of fundamental beliefs that constitute the axiomatic basis for the field.  Among these beliefs are the following:

  • There exists in our school-age population a distinct group of students known as “gifted students” who differ in significant ways from the rest of the student population
  • Determining the ways in which these students differ from the norm leads to definitions or conceptions of giftedness, some of which are better approximations of the “true” nature of giftedness than others.
  • These students have certain specific needs, none of which is more important in the educational context than the need for differentiated curriculum.
  • Differentiated curriculum requires the creation of at least semi-segregated gifted programs labeled, if only implicitly, as such.
  • Accurate identification of gifted students for placement in gifted programs is necessary in order to allocate differentiated curriculum efficiently and appropriately.
  • The field of gifted education exists primarily to insure the creation and continuation of special programs for gifted students.

I suspect that this list of beliefs about gifted students, gifted programs, and the field of gifted education would strike most readers as unexceptionable.  Who could argue with the assertions that gifted students exist, that they need special programs, and that the field of gifted education exists to make sure these students have such programs?  Well, I could, and I do.

I believe that gifted education, as it exists in this country today, is fundamentally and fatally flawed in conception and in practice.  I believe that, as a field, we have lost sight of our true purpose.  As a corrective, I believe that we need to problematize gifted education.  What does it mean to problematize?

According to Suzanne Gallagher, “problematizing [is] the process of grasping an assumption, that is, a taken-for-granted way of thinking, and turning it into a question” (1999, p. 70).  It involves surfacing and identifying certain, often implicit, assumptions and beliefs and asking whether they really make sense and whether they admit of alternatives.  I think we in the field of gifted education would benefit from problematizing many of our beliefs and practices because we have grown too comfortable with certain taken-for-granted ways of thinking, and this has limited our vision and hampered our effectiveness as educators. There is, I believe, considerable benefit to be gained by stepping back and thinking radically—in the original sense of radical, meaning going to the root or origin—about what we ought to be doing and how we ought to be doing it.

Lest my intentions be misunderstood, let me clarify my positionality with respect to the field and the needs of students traditionally identified as gifted.  I have been in this field for nearly four decades, and what first motivated me to enter the field is what motivates me to remain in it (and to problematize it).  That is my belief that all students are entitled to a humane, appropriate, effective, and life-affirming education and that the students whom one tends to find in gifted programs often do not receive such an education. 

Too frequently, especially in this era of high-stakes testing and teacher accountability reduced to value-added metrics, these students are ignored and taken for granted.  Since they typically (but not invariably) receive high grades and are assured of scoring well on standardized tests, it is assumed that they are doing fine without any special attention.  Indeed, since there are other students whose fate with respect to high-stakes tests is questionable but who might be nudged over the line with intensive teaching-to-the-test, paying attention to capable students could seem to teachers to be counter-productive in light of our debased system of accountability.

So, I am not arguing in these posts that gifted education is not needed and therefore should not exist.  On the contrary, in light of current trends in American education, the need for gifted education may be more acute than ever.  I am as committed to the educational welfare of capable students today as I was when I entered the field and uncritically accepted the beliefs and practices I now view with skepticism.  I want to problematize gifted education not to argue for its elimination but, rather, to advocate for what I view as its reformation.

In his book, The Mismeasure of Man (1996), Stephen Jay Gould wrote about “debunking as positive science.”  He argued that tearing down that which is misconceived and plain wrong should not be viewed as negative or retrograde.  Quite the opposite.  Just as demolishing an unsafe and unsightly structure or removing a diseased organ can lead to positive outcomes, so too can debunking, problematizing, and rooting out misguided ways of thinking and doing be the first, and necessary, step on the road to progress. 

In the posts that will follow this one, I will critically examine the core beliefs and traditional practices that constitute the current state of the field of gifted education.  I will take issue with some of the articles of faith in the field, the received wisdom that has accumulated over the decades.  I will ask what we are, or ought to be, about as a field.  I will argue that we have confused means with ends and that this has led to a dead end with respect to our practice.  I will suggest that we could, and should have gifted education without gifted programs.  Finally, and most radically, I will urge us to envision a world of gifted education without gifted students.



Gallagher, S. (1999).  An exchange of gazes.  In J. L. Kinchloe, S. R. Steinberg, & L. E. Villeverde (Eds.).  Rethinking intelligence (pp. 69-84).  New York:  Routledge.

Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man. New York: Norton.

Sapon-Shevin, M.  (1994).  Playing favorites:  Gifted education and the disruption of community.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Tags: educational reform, gifted education, gifted programs, gifted students

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