The High Flyer

Christopher Yaluma

Adam Tyner and I recently coauthored a report examining gaps in American schools’ gifted programming. The process made me think about the role of democracy in gifted and talented programs and vice versa. As I learned more about the topic, I became increasingly convinced that the current procedures used to identify high achievers were undermining basic democratic values and principles like individuality, equality, and fairness that functional democracies must observe and preserve. Far too many bright students, especially the country’s most disadvantaged, are denied opportunities to be screened for these offerings. In a school system that should—and often purports to—strive to maximize the education of every child, the treatment of these young boys and girls falls well short of that ideal.

In a great book called On Democracy, the late Yale political scientist Robert A. Dahl asks, “Is equality self-evident?” He argues that, for most of us, it is far from self-evident that all men and women are created equal. Dahl makes an important distinction between inequality in ability and inequality in opportunity, the latter being my main concern. Gifted and talented programs affirm inequality in ability yet fail to provide equality in opportunity by restricting efforts to...


Chris Yaluma’s and my recent Fordham report on gifted education in high-poverty schools shows that the U.S. still has a long ways to go before it closes the “gifted gap,” the disparity in participation in gifted programs among student groups. Even in the earliest grades, black and Hispanic students participate in these programs at much lower rates than their white and Asian peers. But what is the rationale for gifted education in the first place? For those of us who are concerned about persistent inequities in American society and in our schools, “gifted education,” which through its name (somewhat offensively) implies that God or nature has “gifted” a special few, requires a strong justification.

While I would welcome a name change, I believe strongly in gifted education for one main reason: Kids in the same grade are not all at the same level for each subject. This may be intuitive; every child is a snowflake! But the differences within each grade are greater than you might think.

One recent study found a range of more than eleven grade levels in reading fluency and comprehension among fourth graders in a small group of diverse elementary schools. This is...


Fordham’s recent report, Is There a Gifted Gap?, examines income- and race-based differences in gifted programming in American schools and unearths plenty of bad news. Students in low-poverty schools are more than twice as likely to participate in gifted programs than their peers at high-poverty schools, for example, and even when black and Hispanic K–8 students attend schools that offer such programs, they participate at much lower rates than white and Asian children.

The report also offers some welcome-sounding information: Gifted programs exist in 68 percent of U.S. primary and middle schools, and overall they’re equally likely to be offered in low-and high-poverty schools. Yet even this seemingly sunnier news masks the deeply disappointing state of gifted education in America in 2018.

Authors Christopher Yaluma and Adam Tyner used school-reported data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. This is the best source for their purposes, but it also has serious flaws. As Yaluma and Tyner aptly note:

Because of the nature of the data, we use binary classifications of gifted enrollment for students. We do not have data on the quality or characteristics of gifted programming, although this is known to vary considerably...

Jonathan Plucker, Ph.D.

The new Fordham Institute report, Is There a Gifted Gap?, gave me a lot of food for thought this week.

Let’s start with some important positives: Although gifted education research is in many ways thriving, attention to policy research has been woefully underdeveloped, and this study is a major contribution to filling that void. I’ve also been encouraging colleagues to dig into the U.S. Department of Education’s Office For Civil Rights data for a couple years, and it’s nice to see someone do so, and with a substantial payoff. The results also line up with other recent research, providing valid evidence for the findings. For example, the six states with more than 90 percent of high-poverty schools offering gifted programs are similar to those that score highest on an upcoming Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report on state-level policies to close excellence gaps (the first edition is available here). The recommended solutions in this report are also right on the money, which I’ll return to in a bit.

There are, however, some important caveats that readers should consider:

  1. As you work down to the local level, I suspect the results will look different. For example, only two years
  2. ...
M. René Islas

A newly released report, Is There a Gifted Gap?, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute sheds further light on the many challenges gifted students from underserved populations face in being identified and served.

The report confirms our knowledge that students living in poverty, from racial and ethnic minorities, and who are English learners, are often overlooked for gifted programs.

Data taken from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and the Office of Civil Rights shows that high-poverty schools are just as likely as low poverty schools to have gifted programs available. (See figure 1 from the report.) This key point highlights that the underrepresentation of gifted students from poverty backgrounds is not for lack of programs in high-poverty schools.

Figure 1. High-poverty schools are generally just as likely to have a gifted program as low-poverty schools.

The report should sound an alarm for all advocates for social justice and incite action for changes in policy that create supportive learning environments for all learners, especially for well qualified children from poverty and minority backgrounds who are repeatedly overlooked for gifted programming.

NAGC supports recommendations...


The United States wastes an enormous amount of its human capital by failing to cultivate the innate talents of many of its young people, particularly high-ability girls and boys from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds. That failure exacts a great cost from the nation’s economy, widens painful gaps in income, frustrates efforts to spur upward mobility, contributes to civic decay and political division, and worsens the inequalities that plague so many elements of our society.

All of this was reinforced in a widely noted recent study by Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, and colleagues at the Equality of Opportunity Project, which highlighted the inexcusable number of “lost Einsteins” among American students, most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Their team found that, as early as third grade, math scores help to predict who will be awarded patents in later life—that’s the metric they used for “Einsteins”—but also that such scores explain less than one-third of the “innovation gap” between those growing up in high- versus low-income families. Because this gap grows much wider in the later grades, Bell and Chetty suggest that “low-income children start out on relatively even footing with their higher- income peers in terms of innovation ability, but...

Timothy Daly

In many ways, DeAnthony is a remarkable success story. Currently a fourth grader in a traditional public school just outside Orleans Parish, he has strong grades and near-perfect attendance. Last year, the first time he attempted Louisiana’s state tests, he scored in the highest possible category for both math and English language arts. These results placed him in the top 10 percent of students statewide for each subject. In a city where academic and social results for young African American men like DeAnthony are unacceptably poor, he has a foundation that positions him for an exceptional future.

DeAnthony is fortunate in other respects as well. He comes from a highly engaged family where both parents attend every important school meeting together. He qualifies for free lunch but lives in a safe neighborhood and plays several sports. DeAnthony’s parents are proud of his performance and thrilled that school has come easily to him.

Unfortunately, it is already possible to see barriers that may limit DeAnthony’s long-term potential. Teachers report that he can be bored or distracted. This year, for the first time, his parents began receiving calls about him talking back to adults. And he earned a C in English language...

Alicia Cotabish

Science is just cool. Plain and simple. You can find science at play in all our surroundings. Whether one recognizes it or not, science can explain everyday encounters like music being heard from an instrument to more obvious interactions like combustion of materials. Because of these natural occurrences, classroom teachers have the opportunity to demonstrate science in action through everyday examples. Historically, science was taught in isolation using traditional pedagogical practices. Over the last twenty-five years, teachers of science have embraced hands-on types of science activities, and integrated forms of technology (e.g., graphing calculator, probes, and the like) to increase engagement and bring relevant experiences to the science classroom. More recently, the Next Generation Science Standards have influenced how we approach the teaching of science; however, students have redefined the definition of engagement.

Today’s generation of students are living in a world of immersive technology. They prefer to receive news and information through Facebook or Instagram, and are highly engaged in self-directed learning using YouTube. Their utilization of these platforms requires teachers to reexamine their own interpretation of student engagement and hands-on learning. These types of self-directed, interest-based student activities are surely a call-to-action for all educators to seek out...

Maryann Woods-Murphy

I am a gifted and talented specialist for a school district in New Jersey. It is my job to make sure that students receive the proper level of acceleration and enrichment in elementary school.

But every single day, I fail at my job.

I pull students out for challenging lessons or guide them through academic competitions and enrichment experiences, but it is not enough.

They seek me out, even in crowded hallways. “I’m studying botany now,” said one fifth-grader as he lugged his backpack to class, making sure to keep in a straight line. “I’ll let you know how it goes.” I remind him that he can check in on our Google classroom to get feedback on his project and I feel confident that his classroom teacher will be interested in listening to his ideas.

The teachers I work with are magicians at differentiating instruction, creating online folders and spaces for students to go when they are finished early with their regularly scheduled work. Still, they too admit that they can never do enough for their gifted, talented, and advanced learners.

In recent years, the need for extreme differentiation has become even greater, as knowledgeable parents load their children’s...


Advocates for gifted and talented education will always face an uphill struggle. Garnering support for policies that, by definition, benefit a small subset of students is hard—and harder when so many people assume that these kids will do fine regardless.

The inevitable—but foreseeable—result is the emaciated condition of programs designed to serve such children in U.S. public schools: scarce, often thin, and frequently staffed by ill-trained educators.

Weakness in gifted education undermines the country’s long-term prosperity. It’s also inequitable and bad for social mobility. The students most harmed are able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, who depend far more than upper-middle-class students on the public education system to support them.

One partial remedy for this neglect is to ensure that policies that focus on all students truly benefit high achievers, too. Properly crafted, such policies can be significant boons for bright, motivated pupils, while sidestepping the “elitist” label that too often gets applied to gifted-centric initiatives.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) presents just such an opportunity for broad-gauged policy improvement at the state level—and it’s heartening that most of the new state accountability plans for schools under that statute are likely to do some good for...