Gifted programs seem to be an endangered species in American schools.
While that sounds like hyperbole, the reality is that in many places, including New York City and the whole state of California, concerns about equity are being cited as reasons to drop gifted programming and accelerated or advanced coursework for all students.
In fact, gifted programs have been inequitable, historically. High-income areas are far more likely to have gifted programs than low-income areas. The demographics within gifted programs often do not reflect those of the local population, with a disproportionately high number of white and Asian students and underrepresented Black and Latinx students.
There has been plenty of research on this topic, including the report System Failure: Access Denied — Laws, access, equity, and missingness across the country by locale, Title I school status, and race, a Purdue University study of state-by-state identification patterns from Marcia Gentry, Gil Whiting, and others. They report that between 2,000,0000-3,600,000 students are “missing” from gifted programs. That means that the demographics of the children actually participating in gifted programs differ substantially from those of the area the school serves and that specific populations of students are significantly underrepresented, including students of color, students living in rural areas, and students in low-income areas. While the data show that most students do have access to gifted programming in their schools, the authors are also frank regarding their findings: “Access does not guarantee equity.”
Equity in education is important; after all, public schools exist so that the nation as a whole can benefit from an educated, informed population. Leaving some groups out of that population only perpetuates historical inequities — whether systemic, intentional, both, or neither — rather than ameliorating them.
Well-intentioned ≠ well-founded
The proposed removal of accelerated programs begs the question that no one seems to answer: what about the children in the gifted program? Proponents of this approach argue that outcomes improve when gifted children are put back into mixed-ability classrooms — but never claim that the gifted children in question also show measurably better outcomes — because they do not.
The arguments for removing gifted programs seem well-intentioned; those who favor this approach say that there is real, measurable inequity in these programs, and we want to fix that.
At its core, however, the argument that equity is restored by removing special programming for gifted children because then everyone will have equal access to it (read: no access at all). While this may be factually true, it is nonsensical: removing educational opportunities from one group does not restore or create opportunities for the other.
You don’t educate groups of children; you educate each child
Many of those citing data about educational outcomes to support this position are understandably trying to support as many students as possible, a goal that cannot be achieved by ignoring the needs of individual students. Education happens in the minds of individual children, each of whom deserves the opportunity to learn in school.
The only way to serve all of our children is to serve each of them.
A child in advanced mathematics because she loves math and learns new mathematical concepts voraciously should not suddenly be put back in grade-level math classes. What has she done to deserve academic demotion? If she has demonstrated mastery of the material, she should be able to proceed to new material; what is the value to her in keeping her with her chronological peers?
Asserting that students who are ready for more advanced math coursework “suffer” from being “rushed” — as California’s proposed mathematics framework does (p. 15-17) — is both willfully ignorant of the different needs of students at all levels and insulting to their parents and their teachers.
Some gifted children insist on taking math books to bed with them in preschool; some gifted children can solve logarithmic equations in kindergarten and do so with zeal and delight, and there are gifted children whose favorite 45 minutes of the day are in math class right from the very beginning of their days at school. None of these children is being “rushed” any more than a sighthound chasing a rabbit is being rushed — it is an inherently enjoyable activity, something their brains do with alacrity, something they actually crave.
Acceleration is a best practice in gifted education because there is a mountain of research supporting its efficacy. In gifted children, in fact, it is what they need to develop properly; without sufficient intellectual stimulation, they may disengage entirely from their educations, understanding — perhaps correctly, in California and Virginia and New York — that their school is less interested in their individual development and self-actualization than in “them” as the source of a collective test score that must continually be pushed upward.`
The best way to teach a child is to meet them where they are and build on their strengths while cultivating development in the areas they need support. That is true for gifted children, for special needs children, and for absolutely average children. And it is a truly equitable educational goal: helping each and every child develop to his or her potential.