When you hear the word gifted, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Exclusive? Discriminatory? Subjective? You’re right. Historically, gifted and talented education has left behind many more students than it has lifted up. But the future doesn’t have to be this way. Supporters and opponents want the same thing. To help every child become the best version of themselves. To share all they have to give.
We are NOT doing that now. But we can.
Making a Mess
Gifted is a dirty word. It instantly puts a line in the sand; it alludes to greater value; it is embarrassing. I wish we had a word that better represented the students it labels. Students developing far from the norm of their peer group. They are outliers in development, even within their own bodies. Often with emotions too big for their brains, or brains too big for their emotions, they struggle to understand themselves and the world around them. Does that sound like a gift? We can’t let our language keep children from the support they need. These students are at-risk, too.
The vast differences between gifted programs also makes communication muddy. Some districts offer separate schools, or mini-schools within schools. Others cluster gifted students into general education classrooms. Some divide them up as much as possible, offering gifted students as role models. Other districts pull them out of class weekly for an hour, or a day, while others provide no support at all. It is hard to speak clearly about the issue when our undertandings start in such different places.
The selection process for gifted programs is even dirtier. In Washington, each district chooses its own criteria for anointing students as “Highly Capable” (our attempt to clean up the dirty word). This flexibility, in theory, is a good thing. It allows us to compare students of similar experience, and some districts have used this freedom well. However, most do not. They set arbitrary cut scores and call it fair. Many rely on parents to recommend students. Or teachers, untrained to understand the many dimensions of giftedness. These methods set the stage for the Big Problem, inequity.
Equity is hands-down the dirtiest word in gifted education. Almost all subgroups of students are WAY, WAY, WAY underrepresented. Everyone knows it, and almost no one talks about it. If you think it’s coincidence, spend five minutes in my classroom. My enrichment classes are full of kids typically left out of gifted programs. Low income, English learning, students of color. They will amaze you with their insight, perspective, and talent. Students like mine are in every school, waiting for someone to give them a chance. If we’re serious about equity, we must have it in our most elite opportunities.
I believe in the cleaner side of gifted; I have seen it. The field is full of research offering us a better way to support not only “gifted” students, but all students. We only need to put aside our judgments and listen, to voices like these:
To summarize these articles, I’ll say this. Schools need to stop seeing students only as they are, but instead, as they could be. We must support the strengths of all kids, early.
My district models this philosophy by embedding our Highly Capable Program inside a Schoolwide Enrichment Program. It starts in Kindergarten. As an enrichment teacher, I get to seek out and support the abilities of every student in my school. Every time they rise to my challenges, I push them to do more. As a result, students often surprise themselves, and me, by what they achieve.
Raul’s story is a perfect example. Frankly, he drove me nuts. He caught my attention often during class, usually by painting the chairs or shouting at students across the room. I had no idea what he was capable of—until the screening. We screen all third grade students for our Highly Capable program. For Raul, it was the first place we saw a glimpse of his potential. He shocked us all when his score surpassed the 90th percentile on the numeric and spatial reasoning sections of the assessment.
We pulled him into my advanced math class the very next day. Still not learning my lesson, I ignored his flailing hand for most of the period. I “knew” he was going to say something “smart”. When I finally called on him, he did say something smart. Really smart. He taught me a new way to do multi-digit division. Mentally.
A few weeks later, Raul’s team scored first place at a third grade math competition. Later that spring, he qualified for our Highly Capable Program.
But that’s not the point.
The point is, today, he’s in fourth grade and seeks out opportunities to challenge himself. He walks through the school, at peace with the world, a happy smile on his face. Raul is a completely different kid than the one I thought I knew. His life changed because we were looking. We gave him a chance.
Gifted doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Or if it does, let’s pick a new one. That is not what matters. Kids matter. Raul matters. We have to believe in, find, and grow student potential. Whether they are “gifted” or not, we have no right to limit what students can achieve.