Do Gifted and Talented Programs Work?

Updated: Oct 1, 2019


New York is considering eliminating “gifted and talented” programs and other forms of tracking. And people are not happy about it.


On the face of it, providing gifted and talented programs to gifted and talented students seems like a no-brainer. The logic goes like this: 1) some students achieve at a very high level, and 2) putting them in a class with their low-achieving peers slows gifted students’ progress, so 3) put these students in a special program where they can really be challenged. This logic is especially compelling if your kid is “gifted.”


Attempts to eliminate these programs can sound like a crazed, communist idea straight out of Animal Farm. Like we all have to pretend that students are equal in every way all the time. But there are several reasons why gifted programs — especially gifted programs for young students — just aren’t a good idea.



Few Academic Benefits


The basic logic of gifted programs is at odds with many research findings. Gifted programs and other forms of “tracking”— where students are grouped by their achievement level or perceived ability — are supposed to improve academic outcomes. But there’s little evidence that they do.


Suppose we’re interested in maximizing “mean” academic achievement: the average achievement experienced by all students through an educational system. We might expect (or hope) that gifted or tracking programs increase outcomes for “gifted” students without decreasing learning outcomes for low-achieving students (and perhaps even benefiting both groups). The most straightforward way of doing this is to compare programs that separate students by ability to programs that don’t.


When researchers do this, however, it’s actually mixed-ability classrooms that seem to maximize “mean” achievement. Low-achieving students see big learning gains. But high-achieving students are not “held back” by their low-achieving peers: they tend to do as well, and sometimes better, in de-tracked classes. Yes, really.


Why is this the case? The research on mixed-ability groups provides some insights.


Learning why something is wrong is a big part of understanding why something is right. Often, even high-performing students lack a deep understanding of a concept because they’ve never confronted misconceptions about it. They know enough to match appropriate answers to appropriate questions but have trouble explaining why or effectively illustrating why the alternatives are wrong. Mixed-ability groups provide many opportunities to confront alternative ideas and resolve conflicts arising from them.


Similarly, teaching others is a powerful way of learning. This is true both in the abstract — preparing a lesson for another student can lead to significant gains — and in the small group setting. In peer teaching scenarios, the “teacher” often learns as much as the “student”. Mixed-ability groups provide opportunities for this kind of reciprocal teaching.


The reason that low-ability students improve in mixed-ability classrooms is probably more obvious. Students who understand something can be models for those who don’t. Classroom expectations are certainly higher. And, of course, there’s the peer-learning effects just mentioned.


Another likely reason for these results is that, in classes with all low-achieving students, teachers tend to resort to more didactic teaching methods. They make extensive use of lectures. They emphasize following procedures. The big jump that low-achieving students see in mixed classrooms probably comes in part from simply using more effective teaching methods.


I keep using the terms “high-achieving” and “low-achieving” as if there’s a group of students who have high achievement in everything and a group of students who have low achievement in everything. Of course, this is a vast oversimplification. Yes, in some cases, students are ahead of the curve in a lot of different areas. But all students bring various abilities, habits, proclivities, and experience to the table.


Effectively managed mixed-ability groups can make these differences assets, instead of liabilities. This is particularly true when providing students with problems and situations that have more than one reasonable answer or approach.


There’s not a ton of rigorous research on whether gifted programs specifically (as opposed to other forms of tracking) lift achievement. But it’s not promising. One large-scale study found almost no advantages to “gifted” students from being enrolled in gifted programs. Some research outside of the U.S. setting, however, has found positive results from gifted programs. Much depends on the specifics of the program — how students are selected and what happens in the gifted classrooms.


Often, gifted classes don’t focus on specific academic content. It’s hard to just push kids through the curriculum without creating leveling chaos later. So you have to do something intellectually stimulating with the “gifted” students without learning content that you’re on track to learn next year.


You might argue that the point of these gifted programs is not to maximize achievement on (say) standardized tests— it’s some more amorphous goal of providing vital intellectual “free time.”


I was in gifted programs throughout elementary and middle school. For us, it was like recess: we played games, solved mysteries, worked on logic puzzles. In fourth grade, my teacher gave us a bunch of materials and told us to invent something useful. I took a paper plate, taped it to some styrofoam, and wrapped the whole thing in aluminum foil to (literally) make a tin foil hat. I claimed it cured headaches because the foil would heat up in the presence of sunlight. Remarkably, I wasn’t kicked out of the program after that.


Free intellectual time can be a wonderful thing. But to the extent that it can be, it’s something that all students could likely benefit from.


Don’t get me wrong: teaching mixed ability classes is seriously challenging. It requires innovative teaching techniques, using peer learning effectively, and making nuanced decisions about group composition and learning experiences. But imagine if we diverted the resources we currently use for gifted programs into developing teachers who are experts at these skills. We would still be paying attention to the needs of high-achieving students; we would just be using a more effective model to meet those needs.



Social Costs


In third grade, I got in trouble over an argument about gifted programs. I told my friend (who was not in the program), that kids who were in the program were smarter than those who weren’t. When he complained to the teacher, she had to employ a quick euphemism: “No Ryan, Ben’s wrong. It’s not that kids in the Quest program are smarter than other kids… they just think differently.”


It was a dick thing for me to say that I was smarter than him. Where had I learned it? From the program itself. Most children are keenly aware of social status. It doesn’t matter what euphemism you use for “smart” or how you label the classes: kids can see that students who have good grades get pulled out to do something “special” and those who don’t have good grades…don’t.


This has a couple of consequences. First, this approach reifies ability differences. High-achieving students get labeled “smart” while low-achieving kids get labeled “dumb.” These labels often become self-fulfilling prophecies, encouraging fixed mindsets about learning as children maintain these labels throughout their school careers. And they do so in spite of the roles played by dedication, proper practice, learning strategies, and critical thinking (as opposed to innate ability) in influencing actual achievement and beneficial life outcomes.


Second, the tracking approach emphasizes individual achievement over all else. Call me a communist sympathizer if you want, but I think the purpose of education systems is to (help) produce healthy, productive communities. The separation of students into tracked groups cleaves the community in two. The point of school is not to make students comfortable by being around other people who are like them. There are enough social forces driving people to be around people like themselves. School should be about forging bonds — or at least having conversations — between people who are not like you even if it makes you uncomfortable.


The fact that tracking programs don’t seem to consistently lift individual achievement makes it doubly confounding. If that’s all our educational system cares about, then at least do something that actually works to achieve it.


Moreover, gifted programs are another way that we provide resources to students with advantages instead of providing resources to students with disadvantages. To me, this seems like completely the opposite of what we should be doing. Compare the treatment of gifted students in the U.S. to the treatment of students with learning disabilities: in many cases, students placed in separate special education classes aren’t even provided trained teachers. Yet it’s high-achieving students who typically have higher meta-cognitive knowledge: they can better assess their own skills and more easily learn on their own. Which is probably another reason why tracking doesn’t tend to impact high-achieving students’ outcomes.


Learning is complicated. It’s not like anyone *knows* how best to advance all students’ interests — exactly which tradeoffs should be made when, what kinds of enrichment programs help whom and how for every kind of context, etc. We should care about challenging all students. We should care about enriching student experiences, stoking their passions, and widening their curiosity.


But there’s not much evidence that gifted and talented programs “work” in the way that we think they do. Several of the most admired educational systems in the world (e.g., Finland, Japan) either do not have gifted programs or limit such programs to high grade levels. Perhaps it’s time for us to move beyond this model, too.


*Cover image by Florian Berger from Pixabay.

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