Problematizing Gifted Education, Part III: Gifted Education without Gifted Programs



Gifted education does not necessarily require, and its effectiveness may be hindered by, gifted programs, especially part-time pull-out enrichment programs.

In Part II of this series, I argued that the reason the field of gifted education exists is not to create and maintain gifted programs.  This is simply a means to a larger end.  It is the proper education of gifted students, not the creation of gifted programs, that is, or should be, our field’s ultimate goal.  If this is the case, and if implementing gifted programs is just a means to that end, it makes sense to examine whether gifted programs are an effective means and, if not, whether we ought to explore alternatives to such programs.

Since I am going to develop a critique of gifted programs in this post, I think it is fair to acknowledge that worthy educational provisions for gifted students do, indeed, exist.  The governors’ schools found in certain states; special schools, such as the Hunter College Campus Schools; the programs operated by, among others, the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and the Duke University Talent Identification Program; even the occasional public school program with substance, academic rigor, and a logical curricular sequence, all are examples of excellent educational provisions that do great things for gifted students year after year. 

However, these are not typical programs.  Relatively few gifted students attend special schools for gifted students or self-contained classes.  Most students identified as gifted in the public schools attend part-time pull-out enrichment programs.  In fact, if there is a type of gifted program that, owing to its near ubiquity, stands synecdochically for the entire field of practice, it would be a pull-out enrichment program for students in grades three through five (because, of course, these are the three years in which students are gifted).  Most gifted education, qua gifted education, takes place at the elementary level.  That is where the great majority of gifted programs labeled as such are found.  And it is programs such as these, the ones that serve the great majority of students identified as gifted, that I find problematic.

Quite a few students are enrolled in these programs.  The National Association for Gifted Children ( estimates that there are about three million gifted students in the United States.  Data from The National Center for Education Statistics suggest that about that many students are actually enrolled in gifted programs.  That agency reports that, in 2004, 6.7 percent of American public schools students were in gifted programs ( programs/digest/d07/tables/ dt07_051.asp), and that is probably close to the percentage that obtains today.  The National Center also reports that, in 2011, there were 49.4 million students in this country’s public schools ( fastfacts/display.asp? id=372).  Some simple math leads to a total of about 3.3 million students enrolled in gifted programs.  If pull-out programs are as common as I believe them to be, and other program formats (e.g., special schools, self-contained classes, schools-within-a-school, push-in programs) relatively rare, then somewhere between two and three million students in this country attend pull-out programs for gifted students.

I assume that most readers of this post know what a pull-out program is.  This approach to gifted education involves students identified as gifted spending most of their time in a regular heterogeneous, mixed-ability classroom from which they are “pulled out” for a period of time, a half day per week being common, so they can meet with a gifted-education teacher to receive enrichment. 

Why do I find this approach so unsatisfactory?  One serious problem with enrichment programs is that there is little evidence that they are effective.  What Slavin (1990) wrote some time ago is still true: “well-designed studies of programs for the gifted generally find few effects of separate programs for high achievers unless the programs include acceleration.” 

Acceleration is any scheme whereby students meet curricular goals at an earlier than typical age or a faster than typical pace.  Examples include grade skipping, early admission to college, and self-paced learning.  There is ample evidence that acceleration, as a means of differentiating instruction for high-ability students, does what it is intended to do: match content to the instructional needs of advanced students (see, for example, Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004).  Similar evidence that enrichment is an effective means of meeting goals, other than the goal of providing enrichment, is exiguous at best. 

Unfortunately, despite overwhelming support for acceleration in the research literature, there is a widespread misconception among educators that it is somehow harmful to students.  As a result, enrichment predominates in gifted programs in this country, and opportunities for acceleration are not that common.

Over 20 years ago, Shore, Cornell, Robinson, and Ward, in their landmark Recommended Practices in Gifted Education (1991), wrote that, because of an absence of empirical support, the frequently recommended practice, “Enrichment should be a program component,” was not among those substantiated, wholly or in part, by research but was instead among the practices “applicable to all children.”  I see no reason to believe that much, if anything, has changed over the past two decades.

Enrichment programs can be criticized on other grounds as well.  For example, based on what I have observed in numerous pull-out programs, what passes for a curriculum too often is a hodge-podge of activities lacking anything resembling a scope and sequence. In most cases, there is little evidence that anyone has given any thought to what skills and concepts able students need that are missing from the regular curriculum and how those skills and concepts should be organized.  We would not tolerate this in any other aspect of public education.  The idea of, say, a mathematics curriculum without a scope and sequence is absurd on the face of it.  Only in gifted education is there widespread acceptance of programs that lack curricular rhyme and reason.  It is as if the existence of the program itself is enough and a real curriculum is not necessary.

In addition, what passes for curriculum in pull-out programs is usually totally divorced from the students’ regular curriculum, leading to two separate but hardly equal experiences: the gifted program and “real” school.  “Real” school consists of important work in the essential subject areas, work that is structured and sequenced and seriously evaluated.  The gifted program, in contrast, is often marginal to real academic work and  seen as nonessential by students, as an option, not a necessity.  Untethered to the academic core, floating in the curricular æther, the gifted program risks becoming trivial and irrelevant.

Finally, there is a curious paradox inherent in most enrichment programs.  Gifted programs purportedly exist to provide gifted students with differentiated curriculum, the need for which justifies the programs’ existences.  However, within these programs, there is typically little, if any, differentiation.  All students in a particular program experience the same enrichment at the same time, irrespective of their abilities, interests, and needs, suggesting that they are all part of a monolithic population of generically gifted students.

Even more fundamentally, the logic undergirding pull-out enrichment programs is difficult to fathom.  What brings these students to our attention in the first place—i.e., the problem we are trying to deal with—is the lack of challenge, stimulation, and real learning afforded to able students in the regular classroom.  Day after day for the better part of the year, these students receive a substandard education that denies them their basic right to a free and appropriate public education. 

What do we do to address this problem?  We remove them from this situation for, say, 10 percent of their school week so they can engage in what are too often trivial and meaningless enrichment activities with no apparent scope and sequence while consigning them to the inappropriate setting that is the root of the problem 90 percent of the time. This is analogous to trying to help a man whose house is a vermin-infested eye sore that lacks heat and water by allowing him to spend half a day per week in adequate housing and then sending the unfortunate soul back to his wretched hovel for the rest of the week.

So what should we be doing as a field?  A number of years ago (Borland, 1996), I suggested “thinking the unthinkable,” envisioning gifted education without gifted programs.  What might that entail?

There are two alternatives to part-time gifted programs.  One is full-time homogeneously grouped gifted classes or special schools, which are uncommon outside large metropolitan areas, such as New York City, where they do predominate.  However, this is not a real alternative for most highly able students because there is strong sentiment against such provisions deriving from a perception that, because they group students homogeneously on a full-time basis, such provisions are elitist.  They remind some of tracking, and, truth be told, otherwise heterogeneous schools that house self-contained gifted classes resemble tracked schools with only the top track in place and the other tracks merged.

The other alternative is to focus on where gifted students spend the great majority of their time: the mixed-ability regular classroom.  The only way gifted students can hope to receive an appropriate education in a heterogeneous classroom is for that classroom to be differentiated, as Tomlinson (e.g., 2004) and others have advocated.  Nothing would bring about excellent education for gifted students (and other students as well) as effectively as true differentiation.

Differentiation involves teachers acknowledging that different students have different educational needs at different times and, more important, responding to those needs.  It requires abandoning the notion of a one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum and instruction and, instead, varying student activities, teaching methods, student products, and assessment so that education is tailored to the diversity of student needs found in all classrooms.

Having worked with school districts that have undertaken efforts to create differentiated classrooms, I understand how difficult this goal is to achieve.  It is not enough for administrators to declare that differentiation is policy; they must provide the resources and possess the patience required for differentiation to become practice.  Convincing some teachers not to teach to the whole class all of the time or not to “teach to the middle” can be extremely difficult.  In even the most successful situations, progress toward differentiation will inevitably be slow and incremental. Differentiation is difficult, but it is more difficult to conceive of effective education, education with professional integrity, without it.

Compared with creating a truly differentiated school district, implementing a gifted program is relatively easy.  But, for me, this is a choice between an easier course of action with minimal, at best part-time, results and an admittedly long, hard road with significant, comprehensive benefits for gifted students and, not coincidentally, other students as well.

I am reminded of the story of the man who one night comes upon a friend, obviously drunk, on his hands and knees on the sidewalk under a street lamp.  He asks the drunken man what he is doing and learns that he is looking for his lost car keys.  Thinking he would help his inebriated friend find his keys, the man asks his friend where he last remembers having them.  “Over there, in that dark field,” is the reply.  “Then why are you looking for them here,” the puzzled man asks.  “Because,” his friend answers, “this is where the light is.”

When we rely on part-time gifted programs to meet the needs of gifted students, we are like the man looking in the wrong place because that is where the light is.  It is clear what we are doing, but success will continue to elude us.  Striving for differentiated classrooms to meet the needs of students all day, every day is like looking in the dark field.  It is much more difficult, but it holds the only hope for real success.



Borland, J. H.  (1996).  Gifted education and the threat of irrelevance.  Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 19, 129-147.

Colangelo, N, Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. M.  (2004).  A nation deceived.  How schools hold back America’s brightest students.  Iowa City, Iowa: Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, University of Iowa.

National Association for Gifted Children Web site. aspx?id=548.  Accessed March 29, 2012.

National Center for Educational Statistics Web site. display.asp?id=372.  Accessed March 29, 2012.

National Center for Educational Statistics Web site. digest/d07/tables/dt07_051.asp.  Accessed March 29, 2012.

Shore, B. M., Cornell, D. G., Robinson, A., & Ward, V. S.  (1991).  Recommended practices in gifted education:  A critical analysis.  New York:  Teachers College Press.

Slavin, R. E.  (1990).  Achievement effects of ability grouping in secondary schools: A best-evidence synthesis.  Review of Educational Research, 60, 471-499.

Tomlinson, C. A. (Ed.)  (2004).  Differentiation for gifted and talented students.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.


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

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