From Support to Action: Establishing A Lasting Foundation for Gifted Education
Society may have had a love-hate relationship with the gifted when Gallagher first made the claim 30 years ago, but today there is no evidence of “hate” towards gifted students—just the opposite. Results of this comprehensive public opinion poll suggests that the public is fully in favor of providing gifted students the support they need to flourish academically. The assembled insights from the poll: (1) demonstrate that the public has a straightforward understanding of giftedness; (2) direct the field towards issues the public is likely to support; and (3) identify advocacy messages to help expand the field’s base of support.
The Public Understands the Term “Gifted” and Sees Through the Myths
The first objective of the IEA-P was to discern how the public defines the term “gifted” and alternative terms used as proxies. After all, if the public did not define the word “gifted” the same way as experts, answers to the other poll questions would be meaningless. Results of the open-ended question eliciting descriptions from respondents reveal an accurate, if narrow, interpretation of the term “gifted,” and also some perceptive distinctions between two sets of terms.
Respondents associated the terms “gifted,” “gifted and talented,” “genius,” and “advanced learner” with advanced cognition, such as having a high IQ or having the capacity to learn quickly. Few, though not many, thought that “gifted and talented” students were also creative. This relatively straightforward view of giftedness did not extend into psychosocial characteristics. None of the descriptors suggested that the word “gifted” was tainted with negative connotations. While most descriptors for the “gifted” set were cognitive, the terms “high-achieving,” “high-potential,” “highly-able,” or “high-performing” invoked the behaviors of successful school achievers.
This is the starting point when communicating to the public about gifted education: it is best to use the terms “gifted” or “gifted and talented” when referring to students with inherent advanced ability, and “high- ability” or “high-potential” when referring to hard- working high-achievers. The public does not think that “gifted” and “high-ability” are synonymous.
The public also rejected many of the “myths” believed to be associated with gifted students. Nearly 70% of the respondent group rejected four out of five of the myths tested in the poll.
- A total of 74% of respondents agreed that giftedness is a rare phenomenon, dispelling the notion that the public believes “all students are gifted.”
- Nearly 70% of respondents disagreed that gifted students would be fine without special programs. Moreover, 73% of respondents thought that gifted students should receive funding at the same level as students with learning disabilities–a decided shift in favor of gifted education compared to attitudes in the 1980s (Larsen, Griffin, & Larsen, 1994).
- Over 70% of poll respondents disagreed with the myth that gifted students come from affluent families. Over 60% of each analysis group disagreed, ranging from 61% of Opinion Elites to 80% of higher-income Hispanics.
- Over half of poll respondents, 55%, agreed that gifted students are always at the top of their class. This was the only myth accepted by more than half of the respondent group. Interestingly, a higher proportion of respondents, 68%, thought that gifted students needed specialized programs, and even more supported gifted program provisions like acceleration and ability grouping. Either the public’s conviction with regards to this myth isn’t strong or the public understands that even children at the top of their class may need something more in order to continue their intellectual growth.
Altogether, the public presents a portrait of a gifted student as someone in possession of an advanced capacity to learn—a rare attribute. The public believes this gifted child, who may come from any income group, requires special programming (with resources equal to students with learning disabilities), even if she is already at the top of her class. Using these broad brushstrokes, the American public’s definition of giftedness matches that of the gifted education community. With the assurance that IEA-P respondents had a clear understanding of the children under consideration, the results of this poll provide compelling evidence that the American public unequivocally supports gifted education.
Public Perception of 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 gave poor grades to public schools for addressing the needs of average students, low-income students, and students with learning disabilities. Public schools were just as likely to get a D or an F than an A or a B for addressing the needs of these students. IEA-P respondents were twice as likely to award public schools an A or a B for addressing the needs of gifted children relative to the other three groups of students. These grades reveal a broadly held misconception that a majority of K-12 public schools are doing an above-average job providing an appropriate education for America’s best and brightest.
The pattern was repeated when IEA-P respondents were asked about potential problem areas in public education, including gifted education. A minimum of 75% of the respondent group reported that funding for high-quality teachers, STEM education, funding for low-income schools, and funding for students with learning disabilities were problems for public schools, but only 56% thought that schools had problems providing adequate resources for gifted students. The 56% is both small in comparison to STEM and low-income schools, and large relative to expected public concern over gifted education— especially since the inconsistent, sometimes non-existent, level of support provided for gifted education is rarely addressed in the public media. It was also clear as the poll progressed that gifted education suffered from the juxtaposition of issues in this question—concern about gifted education was consistently expressed by more respondents when it was presented in isolation from other areas of education.
The public seems unaware of the disparity in gifted education policies among states, or the inadequate levels of funding for gifted education nationwide. Making the general public fully aware of the current state of gifted education should become an integral part of gifted education advocacy.
Issues in Gifted Education with Broad Public Support
Support for gifted education was highest in contexts where gifted education intersected with areas of heightened concern for public education in general: improving low-income schools, increasing the availability of high-quality teachers, and allowing students to be grouped by ability. Four issues repeatedly emerged as areas of substantial concern and consistent support among the public, and a fifth surfaced as a consequence of advocacy message testing.
Issue 1: Programs for Gifted Students in Low-Income Schools.
Far from condemning gifted education as elitist, the public clearly desires gifted programs to be widely available and equitable: 84% expressed concern that low-income and minority gifted students often go unnoticed, and 81% were concerned that gifted programs were frequently limited to high-income areas. Fully 86% of respondents favored providing funding for gifted education programs in underserved areas. This included 92% of higher-income Hispanic and Black respondents and 92% of Parents. The desire for programs in underserved regions came from all racial/ethnic groups and income levels and was substantially higher than the general concern expressed over funding for low-income schools. Fortunately, gifted education has the benefit of decades of research which introduced innovative ideas and validated traditional practices to improve identification and services for the most neglected gifted students.
The problem is multidimensional and will not be solved with a single solution; issues facing low- income gifted students are often different from issues facing gifted minority students, and problems facing one minority group are different from those facing another. Given the magnitude of the problem, district personnel must also embrace the problem and help work towards solutions. Partnerships outside of education can help promote change and increase accountability. Effective first steps should include:
- Raising awareness among groups who advocate for low-income and minority communities, including the media, faith organizations, and advocacy agencies, to support efforts to ensure gifted education and advanced courses are available across school districts.
- Developing within-district partnerships, especially with Title 1, English language learning, early childhood education departments, and professional development.
- Promoting early childhood gifted identification. One of the challenges in identifying low-income students is the early onset of the achievement gap. Formal identification of giftedness during primary years has been controversial yet is essential for this group of students.
- Enhancing requirements for teacher preparation and professional development in gifted education. Some advocates for minority students think that pre-service preparation may be a more accessible route to sustained change than efforts to change district identification policies (see below). Recruiting and retaining teachers of color to gifted education is an essential part of this part of the agenda for change.Sharing information within district about the many benefits of ability grouping.
“While the number of African American children identified for gifted and advanced programs is deplorable and the task of remedying this situation daunting, developing teachers with a commitment to social justice and culturally responsive teaching is a step in the right direction. My colleagues and I, as teacher educators, have little influence on the identification process for gifted programs and advanced classes in the neighboring school systems. We can, however, educate our pre-service teachers about this inequity and help them develop the skills necessary to identify gifted African American students with measure other than culturally biased tests. Additionally, we can teach pre-service teacher the importance of supporting and mentoring these students as they develop their academic identities.”
Frye & Vogt (p. 12)
Issue 2: Required Teacher Preparation in Gifted Education
Time and again, the American public expressed their desire for high-quality teachers in public school classrooms. Four out of five respondents reported that the absence of funding for high quality teachers was a problem, suggesting a crisis of confidence in the very foundation of education. Even more respondents were concerned about teachers of gifted students: 82% reported concern that teachers are not adequately trained to meet the needs of gifted students, and 86% support requiring training for any teachers working with gifted students.
Given the overwhelming concern over teacher quality generally and the equally overwhelming support for teacher preparation in gifted education, it may be that a portion of respondents hope that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” presuming that teachers who learn instructional strategies for gifted students will be better teachers for all their students. Evidence suggests that this is true; achievement levels of all students can increase in classrooms with teachers who completed coursework in gifted education (Blumen-Pardo, 2002). Beyond this, providing teachers with coursework and professional development in gifted education has the potential to solve a multitude of problems that plague the field. Teachers who complete gifted education coursework which follow guidelines from the National Gifted Education Standards for Teacher Preparation (National Association for Gifted Children and Council for Exceptional Children, 2013):
- Understand how and when to accelerate or ability group;
- Learn how to instruct students in the use of higher-level thinking skills;
- Acquire correct conceptions about gifted students, including low-income and culturally diverse gifted students, before misconceptions can form;
- Make more accurate referrals to gifted education programs.
Currently, most pre-service teachers are required to learn how to teach typically developing students and students with disabilities, but they are not required to learn how to teach gifted students. This is aglaring omission in teacher preparation that requires a remedy. Students in both gifted and general education would benefit from a system where (1) all pre-service teachers learn the fundamentals of gifted education, (2) motivated teachers pursue specialist degrees in preparation for more intensive settings (honors classes, self-contained classrooms), and (3) in-service professional development provides ongoing opportunities for teachers to enhance their skills. Pre-service or in-service education for district and school administrators is also essential, as administrators are often the gatekeepers for programmatic change.
Requirements for pre-service and graduate level coursework are in the hands of state boards of education. Building advocacy groups to present the benefits of this coursework should include personnel beyond higher education and include concerned parents, students, and classroom teachers who desire change.
Issue 3: Promoting Acceleration and Ability Grouping
Although 56% of IEA-P respondents awarded schools an A or a B for addressing the needs of gifted students, 78% reported concern that students were grouped by age instead of ability, and 76% were concerned that gifted students could not accelerate. Among their numbers were 87% of Black respondents, 87% of Parents, 89% of higher- income Hispanic respondents, and 92% of Opinion Elites. Professionals from gifted education have long advocated for gifted students to have access to these opportunities; the barriers, then, seem to exist primarily from those within the professional education community who call for heterogeneous classrooms in the name of educational equity. Results from the IEA-P provide resounding evidence that the low-income and minority populations who these educators purport to represent do not want to abolish ability grouping, acceleration, or any form of gifted education; instead, they want all gifted students to have an equal opportunity to accelerated or advanced courses.
Copious evidence supports ability grouping and acceleration for gifted students; this evidence has failed to convince many in general education. However, new research may help change attitudes in the wider education community by demonstrating the benefits of acceleration and ability grouping for all students. Studies from outside of gifted education suggest that carefully structured within-class ability grouping (cluster grouping in the primary years) can be beneficial to many students, including English language learners and that the benefits increase when ability grouping occurs across successive grades (Hong, Corter, Hong, & Pelletier, 2012; Robinson, 2008). Investigations of ability grouping in secondary school suggests that “detracking” may have done more harm than good (Figlio & Page, 2002).
“We find that tracking [ability grouping] programs are associated with test score gains for students in the bottom third of the initial test score distribution. We conclude that the move to end tracking may harm the very students that it is intended to help…. We can find no evidence that detracking American schools, as is currently in vogue, will improve outcomes among disadvantaged students. This trend may instead hurt the very students detracking is intended to help.”
Figlio & Page (In Yecke, 2002, p. 101)
Others have also found that strategically implemented ability grouping can benefit many students. For instance, creating advanced classes for identified gifted students, and then filling open seats with high-achieving but unidentified students, can create a desirable setting benefitting many (Card & Giuliano, 2015). Loveless (2016) also makes a strong case that dismantling ability grouping has disproportionately disadvantaged low-income students. He suggests that Advanced Placement should not be open-enrollment, but rather that ability grouping should be implemented in low-income middle schools so gifted students in those schools are prepared to qualify for and succeed in Advanced Placement courses when they reach high school.
Given the public’s support and the growing evidence of success, the conditions are right to advocate for school districts to reconsider ability grouping and acceleration, with an emphasis on ensuring best practice in implementation so that all students benefit.
Issue 4: Acquiring Funding for Gifted Education Programs
Establishing long-term, quality programs for gifted students hinges on public funds. Results from the IEA-P strongly suggest the public is ready for increased funding for numerous areas of education, including gifted education. The public is concerned about inadequate monies for quality teachers, STEM, low-income schools, and students with learning disabilities. Over half are concerned about funding for the arts and resources for gifted education. The importance of raising public awareness about the condition of gifted education in the US became clear through the assessment of public attitudes toward funding gifted education at the beginning and end of the poll.
Even at the outset, a majority of the public supported an increase in funds for gifted education. When asked explicitly early in the poll, 63% of respondents supported increases in federal funding for gifted students, and 64% supported increases in state funding. This level of support was consistent with answers to other questions where 56% indicated that resources for gifted students were inadequate, and 57% reported that providing resources for gifted students was a priority, compared to other priorities in education. For the first time since polling started on this question in the 1980s, respondents indicated that gifted students should receive the same level of funding as students with learning disabilities. Support among Opinion Elites was especially strong, with 74% supporting a state increase and 75% supporting a federal increase early in the poll.
After answering IEA-P questions, an additional 18% of respondents supported an increase in federal funding and an additional 16% supported an increase in state funding. Over 80% of each analysis subgroup endorsed an increase in state or federal funding for gifted education at the end of the survey, including 88% of the influential Opinion Elites. The degree of support also changed; an additional 13-22% of each analysis subgroup believed that funding for gifted education should increase “A Lot.” By the end of the poll, the proportion of respondents supporting an increase in gifted education matched the level of concern expressed by respondents over funding for high-quality teachers, STEM education, low-income schools, and students with learning disabilities. The public’s support for funding gifted students only faltered when faced with funding trade-offs within education.
The twenty-five minute exposure to issues raised in the IEA-P resulted in a sizable increase in support of additional funding, with no preference for whether the funds came from state or federal governments. Public awareness is pivotal to advocacy efforts; the results here suggest that, once they are informed, people who are initially hesitant are willing to support gifted education.
Issue 5: Develop Advocacy Messages and other Tools to Enhance Public Awareness
Advocates attempting to persuade an audience often have only moments to start a conversation. Advocacy messages are designed to open the door; effective messages immediately capture sympathy for a cause. The IEA-P 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.
- Among the stand-alone messages, 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. These three messages share an emphasis on the societal benefits of educating gifted youth, and on addressing the broken or misaligned systems that prevent gifted students from receiving the services they need.
- 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 half of a generally supportive public.
- Three messages in the poll 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 presented in the poll.
- In general, messages tended to be more effective when they included one or more elements of successful advocacy messages: (1) state a problem, (2) provide specific examples, (3) unite the audience, (4) emphasize societal benefits, (5) focus on flaws in systems, not people, and (6) use data judiciously.
- When presented with messages for or against gifted education, respondents consistently preferred messages supporting gifted education. It is impossible to determine whether this is because the gifted education messages succeeded or because the counterarguments failed; however, it is clear that the public rejects the notions that gifted students are already equipped for success, or that funding gifted education would put an undue burden on the federal government.
Answers provided by respondents throughout the poll suggest additional guidelines to follow when communicating with the public about gifted students.
- The public dislikes funding tradeoffs in public education. Consequently, advocacy messages should focus on the potential for “win-win” outcomes where gifted education brings benefits to other students as well. Building teacher capacity and providing programs for gifted students from traditionally underserved groups are two areas with a high likelihood for success.
- Respondents gave straightforward definitions of “gifted” students which excluded ancillary characteristics. Design advocacy messages around this simple definition and save more complex conceptions of giftedness for public education campaigns.
- Gifted education evoked more concern from the public when presented in isolation from other education issues. Unless the advocacy message offers a win-win scenario where two problems are solved together, present gifted education issues on their own.
- Gifted education evoked more concern when presented as program components instead of a global “gifted program.” Focus messages on the need for specific elements of gifted programs such as acceleration policies, ability grouping, mentorship programs, or an online school.
- More than once, Black and Hispanic respondents offered substantially more support when questions focused on children instead of programs. Especially with these groups, tailor messages to emphasize meeting the needs of gifted children instead of describing services or programs.
Unanswered Questions and Ongoing Opportunities
While the IEA-P answered many questions, no single poll can answer everything, and there is much left to learn. This area is replete with opportunities for further research; a few of the opportunities areoutlined below.
Depth of understanding. Perhaps most importantly, the poll established what the American public thinks about gifted education, but it does not reveal why. A new poll with more open-ended or follow up questions would help clarify why, for example, brick-and-mortar schools were so much less popular than every other program option. Also, although it is clear that the American public is dissatisfied with public education, it is impossible to tell whether their support for gifted education was a consequence of their discontent, a belief that educating gifted students is a pathway to national well-being, a hope that provisions offered gifted students will help all students, or something else altogether.
Assessing Understanding of the Status Quo. This poll focused more on what the public wants than on its knowledge of the status quo. It may well be that the public was offering support for services and programs it believes already exist when in fact they do not.
Expanding the Scope of the Poll. Given the scope of the project, including all segments of the population was impossible. Subsequent polls that include representative samples of different subgroups of the public, particularly Asian Americans, would add extra dimension to the current findings.
Results from the IEA-P provide a timely reminder that keeping a finger on the pulse of national attitudes is crucial to advancing the aims of gifted education. Today, the American public is more inclined than ever to support gifted education. The public’s responses to poll questions suggest that even with brief exposure to the issues, support grows.
All evidence suggests that this is an ideal moment to establish a strong infrastructure for gifted education at national, state, and local levels, thus ending the history of discontinuity and vulnerability that gifted education has faced. The American public wants gifted education programs expanded so that they reach children in every ZIP code, they want teachers who are highly qualified to teach those students, and they want program provisions that allow all children to advance through school at their own pace and level of learning. Accomplishing these goals will require gifted education to build strong state and national systems; at the local level it will require individual programs become a integral parts of school systems. An overwhelming majority of the public voiced strong support for all teachers who work with gifted students —virtually all teachers—to receive training in gifted education, which presents an opportunity to expand pre-service and in-service preparation.
The challenge is less about persuading the public as to the benefits of specialized education for gifted students, and more about finding ways to access existing support, expanding its base, and transforming it into action. America agrees, we must educate our most gifted youth so they can carve a path through the complex problems of the 21st century.
Blumen-Pardo, S. (2002). Effects of a teacher training workshop on creativity, cognition, and school achievement in gifted and non-gifted second- grade students in Lima, Peru. High Ability Studies, 13, 47-58.
Card, D., & Giuliano, L. (2016). Can tracking raise the test scores of high-ability minority students? American Economic Review, 106 , 2783-2816.
Figlio, D. N., & Page, M. E. (2000). School choice and the distributional effects of ability tracking: Does separation increase equality. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper no. 8055.
Frye, B. J., & Vogt, H. A. (2010). The causes of underrepresentation of African-American children in gifted programs and the need to address this problem through more culturally responsive teaching practices in teacher education programs. Black History Bulletin, 73, 11–17.
Hong, G., Corter, C., Hong, Y., & Pelletier, J. (2012). Differential effects of literacy instruction time and homogeneous ability grouping in kindergarten classrooms: Who will benefit? Who will suffer? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34, 69-88.
Loveless, T. (2016). How well are American students learning? With sections on reading and math in the Common Core era, tracking and Advanced Placement (AP), and principals as instructional leaders. The 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education. Washington, DC: Brooking Institution Brown Center on Education Policy. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Brown-Center- Report-2016.pdf.
National Association for Gifted Children and Council for Exceptional Children, 2013. National gifted education standards for teacher preparation. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/national-standards-gifted-and-talented-education/nagc-cec-teacher.
Robinson, J. P. (2008). Evidence of a differential effect of ability grouping on the reading achievement growth of language-minority Hispanics. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30, 141-180.
Elizabeth D. Jones
Ms. Jones has been an educator, researcher and administrator of educational programs for over 30 years. She holds a Master’s degree in special education from the University of Southern California and has completed doctoral work in the field of educational policy and learning theory. Ms. Jones served as the Associate Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and the Director of the Western Region for ten years prior to founding the Institute for Educational Advancement in 1998. While at CTY, Elizabeth served as Co-Principal Investigator with Dr. Sally Ride and Dr. JoBea Way for a NASA and National Science Foundation sponsored educational initiative called KidSat. She received recognition from the National Diffusion Network for the creation and implementation of exemplary programs for underserved gifted students and specialized in the intellectual, social and emotional needs of students. She created and implemented the SDB teacher recognition program and expanded the scope of services at CTY. As President of IEA she was contracted to assist in the creation and implementation of the Davidson Young Scholars program. She went on to lead in the creation and implementation of the award-winning Yunasa summer camp for the gifted and the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship program.
Shelagh A. Gallagher, PhD
Dr. Shelagh A. Gallagher is an education consultant with Engaged Education; she has spent her career advocating for gifted students. Previous to her current position, Dr. Gallagher taught and conducted research at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, The College of William and Mary Center for Gifted Education, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, and the Duke Talent Identification Program. For three years, Dr. Gallagher worked with the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, a national longitudinal study of public school students, their parents, and their teachers. Her research addresses diverse topics including predictors of science persistence, personality attributes of gifted students, the efficacy of differentiated curriculum, and in situ identification of disadvantaged gifted students. Dr. Gallagher served two terms on the Board of Directors of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and is a US delegate to the World Council for Gifted Children. Every summer, Dr. Gallagher spends time with gifted youth at Camp Yunasa.