Let’s all talk about gifted and talented programs for a few minutes

This is an interesting topic, and a lot has been written about it recently because of a new study in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy that essentially says studying with other high-achieving peers has no real benefit. After 1.5 years of gifted and talented classes, those students were testing at about the same level as “marginal” students from regular classes. There was, ostensibly, no difference in the two populations. Here’s the basic theory on why, as summarized in The Atlantic: 

The study offers one theory: that the marginal students may have different “self concepts” depending on which type of classes they take. Students at the bottom of the heap in gifted and talented classes may feel discouraged by the fact that they don’t do as well as some of their peers. And this discouragement could cause them to tune out and learn less—which would counteract the higher-quality instruction they receive in the gifted classes. Students at the top of the heap in regular classes, on the other hand, do better than their peers and might get a confidence boost that helps with learning.

This is a deeper issue in that it ties to “tracking,” which a lot of parents hate (as it necessarily implies that one group of children is better than another group in some way, and parents typically don’t believe that about their own children, provided their own children are in the latter group), and it ties to socio-economic level (depending on where the school is, etc. — it’s more common to see whites in G/T classes than otherwise). Slate did a podcast with some giftedness researchers that addresses a few of these topics, and The Washington Post has a good article too. In The Post, the argument is essentially that the function of the American public school, at present, is to take the low-to-middle kids and bring them up towards fully-functioning adulthood. Geniuses, it claims, will find their own path based on their innate curiosity about the world. It cites people like Warren Buffet, Brian Wilson and Jeff Bezos, all of whom went to standard public high schools, weren’t in gifted classes, and turned out just fine.

I was in gifted and talented programs from probably 4th grade t0 9th grade or so. In the summer between 6th and 7th, I went to one of those “gifted summer camp” deals. I don’t honestly think any of it made much difference. (Certainly not in any type of broader sense, as I’m currently unemployed and writing a blog that maybe 150 people read on a good day.) I think I had a basic-to-high sense that we were “a special group,” but mostly we did what the other groups did: we read books or did math problems or whatever, and then we discussed them. Being curious — which I like to think I am — I was actually always wondering what the other groups were doing, because frequently we’d be the group pulled out, and we’d return to the main room and it would look like they had just done something super cool. So that was frustrating. I felt like from 4th t0 9th I was probably high-high (top 2 or 3 of the high group) and I did see some of the article summary happen in there — kids that were marginal high group students would kind of get disengaged and fall behind after a brief period of trying really hard. (It’s like how, if you observe a wedding, you can almost always figure out who the last three invites were just based on the actions of those attending.) I do think that if you’re 12-13 and nerdy and haven’t really figured out the opposite sex at all and like reading, well… then I think there’s some benefits because you get to spend some portion of your day/summer with like-minded people, and middle school can be a terrifying place otherwise. But does the actual program do a ton? No, I don’t think so.

Resources are stretched pretty thin in public (and in some cases, private) schools right now, so my idea probably isn’t feasible, but I’ve thought for a long time that it’s possible to keep kids “on-task” and focused if you’re giving them actual things to do that have a connection to their lives. I think kids get bored and disruptive when they have to read books, or solve problems, that have no bearing on their lives whatsoever. In that vein, I almost think public school should kind of become like a tech accelerator/incubator after 8th grade. Kids should be put in teams — the teams flip and rotate, and sometimes have a G/T and sometimes don’t — and work on projects about their neighborhood or their community or designing something or whatever. The focus should be on teams, because no matter what you do — or if you end up just chilling on the corner — you need to know how to work and interact around others; and then projects, because ultimately that’s all a job is these days — a series of projects/problems to solve, some interconnected and some not. Of course, there are base limitations here — some kids may get to 8th grade and still not really be reading, which would hinder things. But if you recirculate G/T students in the “normal” or “marginal” classrooms, perhaps you can empower them to be leaders through the same process. It’s likely a pipe dream, but I think that would be a more legit focus for American education than the same way we’ve been doing it for 100 years. If that’s not working — doesn’t seem like it is — then maybe we should fix it, no?

There’s about 151K Google Scholar results on gifted and talented students, to boot.

Ted Bauer