Since the turn of the 20th century, educators and policymakers have made intermittent progress on creating and implementing effective initiatives to support gifted students, yet little systemic change has taken hold across the country. In 2015, the Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA), a non-profit organization dedicated to the intellectual, creative and personal growth of our nations gifted youth, asked the question, Why? Before a real impact on educational policy relating to gifted education could occur it was important to take a fresh look at why little has changed over the years. IEA engaged a group of eleven individuals with backgrounds in business, technology, education, politics, and innovation to come together to consider possible action, which led to the question, “What does America think?”
With the support from The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, IEA undertook a national public opinion poll to assess the general public’s understanding of and attitudes towards gifted education. IEA engaged the Benenson Strategy Group and The Winston Group to collaborate with the IEA policy consortium to create a 76-item poll, which was completed by a random sample of 1414 registered voters, including oversamples of Opinion Elites, Blacks, and Hispanics, between December 19, 2016, and January 6, 2017.
Findings from the poll present an optimistic landscape and directions for action to improve services for gifted young people in our country. Data in this report presents detail around six major findings:
1. Americans can Define “Gifted” and Distinguish Between “Gifted” and “High-Ability” Students
Results of an open-ended question eliciting descriptions from respondents revealed consistent interpretations around the meaning of the term “gifted.” The public thinks of students who are “gifted,” “gifted and talented,” “genius,” or “advanced” as having advanced cognitive ability, primarily defined by a high IQ or a capacity to learn quickly. None of the descriptors suggested that the word “gifted” was tainted by negative connotation. While most descriptors of “gifted” students were cognitive, most descriptors of “high-achieving” or “highly-able” evoked the behaviors of successful school achievers: they were described as hardworking, motivated, and determined.
The public also rejected many of the “myths” believed to be associated with gifted students: nearly 70% reported that giftedness is rare, that gifted students require specialized programs, and that gifted students come from all economic backgrounds. The only “myth” believed by a majority was that gifted students tend to be at the top of their class.
2. America Is Not Aware of the Status of Gifted Education Programming Across the Nation
The public seems mostly unaware of both the disparity in gifted education policies across states and the inadequate funding for gifted education nationwide. Over half of the public, 56%, awarded public schools an A or a B for addressing the needs of gifted children, but only 22% awarded similar grades for addressing the needs of all students, 17% for addressing the needs of low-income students, and 24% for addressing the needs of students with learning disabilities.
Similarly, only 56% of respondents indicated concern about resources provided to gifted students, as compared to over 70% who expressed concern over funding for high-quality teachers, STEM education, low-income schools and students with learning disabilities. Repondents seemed unaware that federal funding, and often state funding, per capita, for gifted students is lower than for any of these groups.
3. America Supports Gifted Education
A majority of respondents answered in favor of gifted education on all but two poll questions, despite their seemingly inflated sense of programs and services currently available for gifted children. The number of respondents who supported gifted education exceeded the number of parents of gifted students, the number of parents of school-aged children, the number of Opinion Elites, or the number of college graduates in the poll. High proportions of Hispanic, Black, and low-income respondents were in support of gifted education throughout the poll.
- 56% of Americans believe that inadequate resources for gifted students represents a problem for public schools, and 57% think remedying this problem is one of the most important priorities for education to address.
- 70% of respondents indicated concern for many common problems challenging gifted education, including identifying low-income and minority gifted students, the disproportionate availability of gifted programs in high-income areas, inadequate preparation for teachers to work with gifted students, and the absence of acceleration and ability grouping. Poll respondents want gifted programs expanded and improved.
- Over 70% of respondents indicated support for program provisions commonly recommended for gifted students, including allowing gifted students to accelerate, mandating teacher education for teachers of gifted students, and providing for the identification of and education for gifted students in underserved areas.
4. America Supports Specific Initiatives to Improve Gifted Education
The current assessment of public attitudes towards gifted education exists in a broader context defined by a general dissatisfaction with public education. The public’s concern and support for gifted education were highest where gifted education intersected with areas of dissatisfaction in general education, including (1) improving low-income schools, (2) increasing the availability of high-quality teachers, and (3) allowing acceleration and ability grouping for gifted students.
Providing Gifted Education Programs in Underserved Areas. Far from condemning gifted education as elitist, or calling for gifted education to end, the public was clear about its aspirations for gifted education to be both accessible and equitable so that all advanced learners can benefit.
- Among all IEA-P respondents, 84% expressed concern that low-income and minority gifted students go unnoticed, and 81% were concerned that gifted programs were more frequently limited to high-income areas.
- 86% of respondents favored providing funding for gifted education programs in underserved areas.
Requiring Teacher Education for Any Instructor Working with Gifted Students. The American public consistently expressed their desire for high-quality teachers in public school classrooms, including classrooms with gifted students.
- 80% of respondents reported that funding for high-quality teachers was a problem for public education, suggesting a crisis of confidence in the very foundation of education.
- 82% of respondents reported concern that teachers are not adequately trained to meet the needs of gifted students.
- 86% of respondents supported requiring teacher education for any instructor working with gifted students.
Allowing Acceleration and Ability Grouping for Gifted Students. The American public understands the benefits of allowing all students to learn at their own pace, including overwhelming endorsement of both acceleration and ability grouping.
- Over 80% of the respondent group supported acceleration for gifted students, including over 80% of each analysis subgroup.
- 77% of the respondent group expressed concern that students were grouped by age instead of ability.
5. America Supports Increased Funding for Gifted Education
Establishing and maintaining quality programs for gifted students hinges on public funds and, contrary to expectations, the public seems ready for increased funding for gifted education. Support for increased state and federal funding for gifted education increased nearly 20 percentage points between the start and the end of the poll.
- Early in the poll, 63% of respondents supported increases in federal funding for gifted students, and 64% supported increases in state funding.
- Substantial increases in support emerged when the questions were asked again at the end of the poll: 81% supported an increase in federal funding, and 80% supported an increase in state funding for gifted education.
- Over 80% of each analysis subgroup endorsed an increase in state or federal funding at the end of the poll, including 88% of influential Opinion Elites. The degree of support also changed, with 13-22% of each analysis subgroup thinking funding for gifted education should increase “A Lot.”
- Respondents supported funding for gifted students at the same level as for students with learning disabilities, marking a change in attitude from the 1980s and 1990s. However, while the public favors increased spending for gifted education, they do not want those funds re- allocated from other public school programs.
6. America is Persuaded by Advocacy Messages that Either Emphasize the Societal Benefits of Educating Gifted Youth or Address Broken Systems that Prevent Gifted Students from Receiving the Services they Need.
Advocacy messages are designed to open the door to conversation about an issue; effective messages immediately capture sympathy for a cause. The poll tested numerous advocacy messages to distinguish between those that work and those that don’t, either on their own or when paired with a counterargument.
- Money for Prisons, Not for Gifted was the only message that was highly effective with the entire respondent group and with every analysis subgroup. Two others were highly effective with most poll respondents: International Competitiveness and Disadvantaged by ZIP Code.
- Three advocacy messages represented commonly used arguments in favor of gifted education. These messages, Falling Achievement, Right to Fulfill Potential, and Disadvantaged Gifted Overlooked, were either ineffective or modestly effective as phrased for the poll.
- Messages which focused exclusively on gifted students—their social-emotional needs, their right to fulfill their potential, or their capacity to innovate—were ineffective or only modestly effective, often failing to convince even half of a supportive public.
- When presented with contrasting advocacy messages for or against gifted education, respondents consistently preferred messages supporting gifted education. The public rejected claims that gifted students are already equipped for success, and that funding gifted education would put an undue burden on the federal government.
The overwhelming support for gifted education among the American public suggests that the time is right for a change. The public seems particularly invested in a stronger infrastructure for gifted education nationwide, especially: (1) to ensure that programs are available to all qualified students, regardless of their ZIP code, (2) to require that any teacher who works with gifted students receives appropriate training, and (3) to guarantee that programs include provisions which allow gifted students to learn at their own pace with like-ability peers. The public is ready for states and the nation to allocate resources to this end. America agrees: what benefits gifted youth benefits the nation.