Arnold Kling  

Gifts for the Gifted

Appearances... Chapman on Inflation...

Frances Woolley looks at studies that question the effectiveness of "gifted and talented" programs.

here is my take-away: There are great wads of resources thrown at gifted education, and little evidence of positive results for border-line gifted students

The reason that borderline gifted students are important is that this is where you can measure the contribution of the program, as opposed to the ability of the student. Woolley thinks that the problem is fixable. I do not.

G&T programs are one of my pet peeves. I believe the following about them:

1. The main reason we have them is because parents love it when their kids are placed in them. It is a huge status thing for parents. G&T programs could have negative effectiveness and still be enormously popular.

2. Either you believe your bright kids should experience going to class with students who are not so bright, or you don't. If you don't, then pay for private school. G&T allows you to send your kids to private school while claiming they are still in public school.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (36 to date)
J Mann writes:

1) My initial thought on G&T programs is that where practicable, kids should be taught by the method that maximizes their potential. If G&T programs, AP courses, magnet schools, etc., do that, then I'm for it.

2) "Pay for private school?" I already am forced to pay for public school. If I can't have a voucher or even a tax deduction for private school education, is it really offensive for me to ask public schools to give my kid what I believe is the most effective education?

3) Note that (1) and (2) don't say anything about the effectiveness of G&T programs. I agree that if they don't justify their cost, my school shouldn't do them.

Anon writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Frances Woolley writes:

Arnold, thanks for the comments.

I don't know if I agree with your comments about private school, though that may be a Canadian perspective. Our immigrant stream tends to be high-skill, whereas the US immigrant stream tends to be low-skill. The best and the brightest here are as likely to be new immigrants attending public schools as the children-of-the-affluent at private schools. Indeed, university can be a real shock to private school kids, who aren't used to that competition.

But on gifted programs being "A private education within the public school system." Yup. Absolutely. (I'd have used that as a title except that I'd already used it for a rant about French immersion education).

Dave writes:

I have just a few general comments on GT:

1) They put kids in GT way too early. Near me, they are placed after 1st grade, I believe. At that point developmentally, a kid's birthday relative to their classmates can make a significant difference in their test scores.

2) GT is relative by district (at least near me). Near me, in poor districts, some of the kids who qualify as GT would be about average in better districts. On the other hand, they don't go to special schools or even special classrooms, but have some different material within the normal schools.

jc writes:

I still remember attending non-gifted classes in elementary school, mastering the entire semester's worth of curriculum in a few weeks. I was bored out of my mind and the other students hated me.

(Well, they actually liked me, but expressed the opinion, quite strongly, that I should not do that again as it made them look bad and/or feel pressure to work harder and faster. This was the first time I encountered the phrase "toe the line". I did toe the line from that point forward, and got in quite a bit of trouble when the teacher wrote my parents, asking why I had changed. I remember feeling like I couldn't win.)

It seemed to me at the time that having classes that move slowly for slower kids, at a normal pace for normal kids, and faster for faster kids was a good idea. Slow kids could learn rather than become discouraged and be left behind. And fast kids wouldn't be held back, forced to *not* learn, by going at the normal pace or, worse, as was the case in many classes, closer to the pace of the lowest common denominator.

Of course, if all schools were private, you might naturally have even more stratification along these (and other) lines. One thing that naturally then springs to mind is Charles Murray's question of whether that sort of stratification is a good thing or not (and also, what the true goals of schooling actually are and/or should be)...

Chris T writes:

On issue with gifted classes is they often mean more work rather than harder material.

DJC writes:

Most gifted programs just mean more boring worksheets than gen pop gets. If you want to really challenge a gifted student look outside of the school.

Chris writes:

Professor Kling:

Why there are gifted and talented programs in private schools?


J Mann writes:

My daughter's school (which is private) diverts kids into "advanced" math/science/literature classes and general, starting in seventh grade. I don't know all the differences, but the math curriculum is faster, the science class is required to do a science fair project, and I have no idea what the difference is in the literature class.

1) Is this really a bad idea? Should we really get rid of AP classes too, or require all kids to take them?

2) Given that the kids in the general program and the advanced classes are all in the same private school, is it ok to have two classes, or should the parents whose kids are in the advanced classes be going to a different private school?

Jlonsdale writes:

For #2, can't you argue that G&T programs are a more efficient way of generating a private school type of experience for a relatively low price?

You forgot 3 - if a G&T student is surrounded by other students who are also G&T then they will like it more and be less likely to get burnt out. This second effect is probably sometimes countered by G&T programs providing tons of homework to try to prove to parents that there is something special about their classes (I know some private schools use this technique). It is more likely that the problem with most G&T programs is that they don't accelerate the pace of teaching and reduce the busy work enough for the brighter students to really benefit.

Shangwen writes:

As a Canadian, I agree with Frances. From Kindergarten to Grade 12, I was in French Immersion, which is all-French education for children from non-francophone families. Up into the mid-90s, it was most definitely an elite education within the public system. My friends in English schools had run-of-the-mill curricula with locally grown teachers, whereas I had internationally-trained teachers with graduate degrees, new lab equipment, and great facilities. It isn't that way anymore, but when I was there it was most definitely both a richly resourced system and a prestige signal for parents.

Dan K writes:

as Ms Wooley points out, there are more factors at play with the borderline student than the overall effectiveness of GT programs. So I think it is an unsupported reach to say this is where you can judge the effectiveness of the programs. Perhaps it demonstrates that borderline students might be at least as well off being the best of the herd rather than the worst of the elite. But what of the non-borderline gifted and talented? Is it not worthwhile to ask how they fare in gifted programs versus non-segregated classes?

Tracy W writes:

Interestingly, one of my friends at high school, who was proximi assicet (I never get the spelling right but anyway second-best academically), had been going to a private school until her parents decided it had serious behavioural issues and wasn't challenging her enough, so they sent her to a state school (albeit a single-sex girls school).

Bob Montgomery writes:

Regarding (1), who cares? What do you think of school plays, school music programs, school sports? Most of school is a waste of time anyway, I have a hard time worrying about the particular waste of time that at least nominally promotes academics and approves of being smart.

(2) - I can't get worked up about it. Sure, they might only associate with smart kids in elem school, where gifted programs are separate, all-day classes - but when they hit middle school and high school, there is no way they'll be taking a full day of only gifted classes; they'll have plenty of time to associate with dumb kids. I took AP history, calculus, and english...and PE, band, regular ol' chemistry, speech, physics, social studies, etc. etc. And I played on the football team, took after-school drivers' ed, and on and on. Just like in "real" life, there is no way to avoid anti-intellectual people in school.

Andy writes:

Strongly agree that most G&T programs are a waste of time. Strongly disagree that schools should not track and offer different types of classes for students of different academic inclinations. Do you not support honors and AP classes in high school?

Seth writes:

Arnold - Re: #2, do you have suggestions if you want them to spend a little time with both? I guess you could challenge them at home, or put them in a club or something.

Perhaps public schools don't need to throw much resources at them. Maybe they can get some value out of them instead.

For example, train them to tutor other kids. That could be win-win-win. My math tutor training immensely improved my math skills and I think I helped the others that I tutored.

Or put them to work on Eagle Scout like projects in the school or give them intern-ship like opportunities in the different functional departments of the school district. It's not much different than letting the journalism busy bodies work on the yearbook and paper.

Foobarista writes:

Boredom is not a good thing. Smart kids who are bored and not from wealthier families that do "enrichment" on their own often get into trouble, and get into more complicated trouble than less-smart kids. And once they're in "the system", it's hard for them to escape.

Not every G&T kid is from a nice middle-to-upper class family, and the poorer ones are the ones we desperately need to help.

Joshua writes:

I don't think the logic that borderline students are a good measure of a programs effectiveness is necessarily very sound. Rather it might just represent a poorly placed boundary. For instance if you placed the cut-off for remedial programs too high you would expect that borderline students in remedial course to be out preformed by borderline students in the regular track.

Evan writes:

I my school had no G&T program (unless you count its 2 AP courses) and in retrospect, that was probably beneficial for me. It meant I got all my work done early and could learn useful things by reading books and surfing the (mostly empty at that point, but still useful) Internet.

Considering that education is mostly signalling anyway, it seems like G&T is unnecessary extra work for the kids. I did like my AP classes, but taking nothing but classes like that would have become onerous very quickly.

Pandaemoni writes:

As someone who took both gifted and regular classes in my day, I can say that I am glad, in retrospect, for the gifted classes. All of them were boring and led to my engaging in machinations to skip class (with permission or not), but the non-gifted classes were much less engaging and one can see that I acted up all the more in those classes.

I cut so many "regular" physics classes in my sophomore year of high school (around 70, and you could miss no more than 30 without a valid excuse) that under the rules I should have failed for non-attendance even though I had a 98 grade average overall. The only reason I didn't fail was that I confessed to my parents, pointed to my grades as an indication that I really didn't "need" to attend that class, and my parents lied and wrote me a note saying that 50 of my absences were due to ongoing family emergencies.

In senior year, on the other hand, I loved AP Physics. I still cut class a lot, but not more than the 30 days that could have led to my failing.

The difference between the two classes was that the later version included calculus and was far more rigorous and dealt with more engaging concepts, like rudimentary quantum mechanics and relativity. Plus, we were more free to stop the class with our own questions, even if that took us on a tangent (in regular physics, the teacher seemed to only be one chapter ahead of us, and often himself got answers wrong).

College was largely the same, with there being an "Honors" program for the supposedly brighter kids. I was rarely in non-honors courses in the first few years. The opportunity to learn the material in greater depth in a smaller group was a good one.

The solution may be to teach every public school class as if it were the "gifted" version, because the solution had better not be to teach every class as if it were the "regular" version. Assuming that is you understanding as well, though, you can expect the average fellow student (at least in my experience) to be lost half the time and fail unless grades are curved.

BTW, my parents were not wealthy enough to afford private school even with both working, so there would be a problem for me personally. Second, "private school" ≠ "school for smarter kids" and public school is what's left for us dumb-dumbs. As much as you might like to establish the Brave New World of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, I oppose it. A child should ideally be taught at a level that is challenging and engaging for him or her, based on that child's own predilections and talents, not based on whether their parents can afford a more expensive school.

My parents, whom I love dearly, were firmly entrenched in the lower middle class much of my childhood. "Book Learning" was not something they held in high regard in the first place, so picking up a third or fourth job just to make me happier was likely not in the cards.

Book learning has served me quite well — enough, I'd say to change their minds on that — but only because it led to my having a high income years later. If I'd become an Assistant Professor out of college, I'm sure they'd have a low opinion of the quest for knowledge.

My position admittedly arises out of the personal bias of having benefited from the gifted programs. It is entirely possible that my experience is atypical and that, analyzed more dispassionately, gifted programs are not worth their costs, but one would need to convince me to disregard my own personal experiences before I'd buy into that. I certainly wouldn't support such reforms simply based on your personal intuitions.

(We would, of course, also have to agree on how to value the benefits of such programs. Is the measure future income alone? Would that be the average income? Median income? If such a program turned out a relatively high percentage of not-tremendously-wealthy technologists and engineers, shouldn't that earn it points? Also, would you group together all generic "gifted" programs with more targeted "magnet school" programs, which might have more of a focus?)

Bo writes:

I am quite thankful for having been placed in G&T programs throughout my school years. I would have been bored out of my mind without them in high school.

However... I don't think schools really need to be worrying about students like me. My friends in the programs probably would have been quite successful in college academics and beyond anyway.

A better idea would be to let gifted students skip grades and graduate earlier.

MikeDC writes:

This is such a broad topic that my only firm conclusion is that broad statements such as Arnold makes here are probably pretty meaningless.

The right-minded thing, I think, is to say the public vs. private distinction sucks. Everyone should get vouchers. As libertarians, we pretty much all agree this is the "solution" to education.

That being said, I don't expect the vast majority of people, who can't easily afford a private school when they're already paying for a public one, to willingly wear a hair shirt. If they can improve the experience for their kids, good for them.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Smart students in boring classes will be unhappy. That's a bad thing in itself. Argument #2 doesn't work as long as we don't have school vouchers.

Troy Camplin writes:

The smart kids need a chance to not be bored out of their minds for at least some part of the day. My preference would be that we got rid of age-based grading and advanced children entirely according to knowledge/ability. GT is second best.

Tom West writes:

At least around here (Toronto, Ontario), the gifted class was for those who were smart, but unlikely to be able to thrive in a conventional class - informally usually some form of Autistic Spectrum Disorder or the like. I heard teachers talk about "severely gifted", and it wasn't a good thing...

Thus it was not totally unreasonable for grade 1-6.

Of course, because of the name, you constantly had parents trying to inject kids who were merely academically smart but otherwise normal. The class was also overwhelmingly boys (more girls being able to thrive in a conventional class). It didn't get more resources (that I know of).

I remember talking with a teacher about one poor girl who was smart, pretty and popular who was placed in the class by her parents insistence in grade 2 or 3. She was totally appalled at the complete absence of a social hierarchy, and then miserable when she was unable to build one with the materials at hand. Even the girls kept ignoring her commands about who to play with and the boys were simply clueless.

CE writes:

How old are you?!
We put kids in school for 8 hrs a day, and you want the ones that actually know how to read to be bored out of their minds?

I graduated from high school in 2005.

The only reason I got over a B in high school was so that I'd be placed in AP classes, and by my junior year, all my classes with the exception of band and orchestra, were advanced placement.

Due to acting up in excruciatingly boring non-AP history 10th grade, I was briefly placed in "regular" history in 11th grade, where I got points off for COLORING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION in a "color in this map" assignment. I switched to the slightly harder "honors" history, but all I needed to get an A in that class was to spend 30 minutes reading the chapter before the test.

A lot of kids are dumb, and a lot of kids are lazy, and a lot really need to have a job already. But a lot are smart and their over-inflated egos are due to acing exams they nether needed to be awake or in school for.

Don't punish the non-brain-dead students by making all of schooling sink to lowest common denominator.

[Comment edited slightly for minor unnecessary rudeness.--Econlib Ed.]

roystgnr writes:

There's a simple reason why Gifted programs don't often show long term benefits: they're not applied consistently. I remember how excited I was in the 9th grade when I was starting to learn completely new things in English class; that hadn't happened to me since my Gifted classes in the 5th grade (the last year they were offered). The level of the ("Honors"!) classes had finally caught up.

By any measurement that means my 5th grade program was a waste: four years later, I wasn't any farther ahead than I would have been without it. But does that mean that my 5th grade program failed me, or that my 6th through 8th grade programs did?

Thomas Sewell writes:

Except for the one day a week GATE program we were separately bussed to, grades 4-6 were useless to me in any educational sense. In the G&T program I actually had the opportunity to learn something at school. I had the public school rarity of having someone in charge of the GATE program actually be competent.

In the 7th grade transition to junior high I finished every task in the textbooks for my core academic classes in the first week of school and spent the rest of the year reading whatever I felt like.

Finally, instead of doing 8th grade, I manipulated the state system to graduate from H.S. and start college. Later, I learned that the junior high teachers were very relieved because they had no idea what they were going to do with me for 8th grade.

You can blithely say, "send your kids to private school instead", but that sounds more like saying that because the product the government forces you to purchase doesn't meet your needs, you should buy it again from someone else.

I'm ok with the government no longer forcing people to buy education from it, but to say that you shouldn't complain about the lousy quality of the product they force you to buy in order to live in the country is ridiculous.

Do you also think that if someone's fire department doesn't actually serve their neighborhood they should just suck it up and hire a private fire department (paying twice!) without any complaint?

caveat bettor writes:

It's basically assortative learning, which has gotten a pop due to assortative mating (the latter of which I first learned on this blog). I agree that it is a crock to test a 4-year-old and predict their capacity for learning in the next 2 decades, a bit like dumping coffee grounds to look for cues on what stock to buy.

But the OLSAT (used to determine G&T placements in NYC) does test for the ability of kids to listen to teachers, so there is a material acceleration of curricula mastery than can (and sometimes does) takes place. Also, as Bloomberg's pay-for-performance is felt in the public school system more deeply than typical, the statewide test scores for each school does skew positively for those schools with G&T programs.

So while the parents get status free-riding opportunities, so do school administrators and teachers. Testing is not really indicative of a whole lot, but I'm not sure there are better and cost-effective alternatives to it at this point.

tom writes:

Arnold, you may hate Montgomery County's program. But you have to hate it for totally different reasons than those related to this study.

The study was clearly of Houston. Houston's 200,000 students are poor and mainly Hispanic (per Wiki, 62% Hispanic and 27% black). Many students seem to be primarily Spanish-speakers.

The state of Texas requires Houston to have a GT program. The program was revamped in 2007, right before the study took place, because the program had not been consistent across the district and had not been 'academically rigorous'.

On pp 32-3, the authors of the study conclude that the marginal program students did not benefit from the program because they weren't capable of being in the GT program generally and because they suffered from feeling like the dumbest kids in the programs. That conclusion has nothing to do with whether the Houston GT program helps most participants. It looks like the program's (state-required) content was too hard for them. That's an argument against mindless top-down uniformity much more than an argument against GT.

The results of the Houston study tell us nothing about the value of programs in rich suburban disctricts. There, the problem is probably the exact opposite of the one in Houston: the suburban programs probably exclude too many kids who could manage the work and profit from the programs. The over-exclusion happens because of over-selectivity by the districts and because kids don't apply to GT programs since they would have to leave their current friends and schools.

I commented on your January GT post here. Are you really against GT programs because you want to heighten the contradictions of public education for parents who think their kids need special instruction?

Ed Barbar writes:

Somehow I have a hard time believing your actual dislike of GATE programs has anything to do with whether they are effective. The concept, take students that are truly gifted, put them in the right environment of learning, is an obvious way of optimizing the future of promising students. As an example, simply look at the number of Nobel Laureates in the United States instead of Africa. If the GATE program is ineffective, it says more about the educators than the students.

What I think you really dislike is the idea that some people ought to be treated differently. Admit that you hate the elitism associated with accomplishment.

Yet, intelligent, dedicated people can raise the environment for everyone. Think Antibiotics, running water, inexpensive food, the internet. You seem willing to sacrifice all the potential of GATE students on the alter of equal outcomes.

If your number one argument is truly your primary complaint, you should argue for reform of the program. Instead, you argue to push down those who could benefit from it. Fie.

Roger Sweeny writes:

My thoughts as a suburban public high school science teacher:

a. I hate the expression "gifted and talented." It sounds like success in school depends on something innate and unchangeable. Actually, “doing the work,” paying attention, asking questions, and so on will take you an awful long way. Really exerting yourself can have amazing effects.

b. In my school, a quarter to a third of each grade takes “Honors” level subjects. The rest take “College.” A substantial proportion (a half?, more?) of our College level ninth graders cannot read, write, or do math on a high school level. Many aren't even close. Partly because of this, they are not very interested in their courses and do not try very hard. Some of them drop out along the way. Most get through because we hate to fail them, and because the courses don’t ask much of them. Since the town and the school pushes it, most go to college for a while, maybe take some remedial courses, but rarely get a degree.

c. A former teacher used to say, “Half the students in Honors don’t belong there.” They are the top of the great middle, but they lack the combination of motivation, preparation, and smarts that are required to do really advanced work. So the Honors class is College plus. Because many of the Honors kids are trying to be one of a limited number of people admitted to “selective” colleges, they then fill up their time with other things to put on their college applications: sports, activities, arts, community service, etc.

d. Years ago, I read of some soccer leagues that reconfigured themselves every year. The top two teams in each division would move up to the next division, and the bottom two would move down. I would love to see a long-term experiment doing that in education. Rather than having two levels, every class would be a different level. Work hard and do well, and you get moved up to the next level the next year. Screw around and do poorly and you drop down.

Would the kids in the lower levels do better because they weren’t being expected to do more than they were prepared for? One would hope that they had teachers who were good at making up deficits. Or would they all kind of give up? Would the high level kids learn more, or would the perceived need to be “well-rounded” mean that they would still only put a limited amount of time and effort into academics? Would the system settle into a relatively static two or three tier system? So many things we just don’t know, and in the education business, when we don’t know, we seem to go with whatever sounds good at the time (which changes with the times and with who is doing the deciding).

matt mcknight writes:

I think we just end up with classes that move at difference paces. Right now we have fast, normal, and slow. With differentiated instruction, enabled by technology, we can have each student move as fast as they are able...

With the current system, GT classes are a necessity, because if you jump kids ahead a grade, they are still learning at the one year of material per one calendar year pace. With a more open system, you can let the autodidacts run at their own pace.

A meta-goal of education is to make it so you can teach yourself something. The sooner we get kids doing this, the less we need people standing up in front of a room lecturing. If you still want that, just turn on Salman Khan or MIT OCW, etc.

roystgnr writes:

matt mcknight has it exactly right... except perhaps for the timing.

I got a huge (huge meaning that even after many later years of "one year per one calendar year" hobbling it was still noticeable) head start in mathematics due in part to some computer-instructed math classes in elementary school... *two decades ago*. And even those were just more effective followups to self-directed workbook-based programs. The technology has been there for longer than any current grade school student has been alive, so where is the open system?

I suspect this "less we need people standing up in front of a room lecturing" realization is part of the explanation. Half the country doesn't want to hear that some teachers are worse than others; how receptive is everyone going to be to the idea that some teachers are worse than software?

scienceguy writes:

The point is not to make kids smarter by harder classes. The point is not to accelerate students, since there's no real point to that except to alleviate boredom (a reasonable goal, but not THE goal). The point is to get a critical mass of smart kids so they can teach/influence each other. Gifted kids live to soak in information, and a critical mass of smart kids makes that possible. Teacher = not terribly important. You could get the 10 smartest kids together and send them to the public libary for the day with a $10 for lunch and that would be just as good. Let them know what they need to learn to pass the standardized tests, and leave them alone.

Granite26 writes:

For #2, put me in the camp that wants to keep my kid away from the under achievers. Prior to high school, all G&T really means is 'parents work with kid and make him do his homework.' Why shouldn't I want my kid surrounded by peers in that group?

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