Are Gifted Children “Second Class Citizens” in America’s Public Schools?

By Charlotte A. Akin, M.Ed.

The question is real.  Are gifted children treated differently in our schools than other children?  Schools focus on special education children. Serious amounts of money from both state and federal governments are available.  Children who come into schools not speaking the English language are similarly cared for. Early childhood has also earned focus and funding from all sources.  The multitude of children who come ready to learn at age-related grade levels meet teachers whose job it is to teach them up to grade level standards. The children are tested on these, and the teachers and schools are evaluated by them. However, the public education in U. S. elementary and middle schools all but ignores its gifted children – children who come to the classroom years above age-based grade level offerings and have the ability to learn faster than most of their age peers. They are ignored – unless they act out their frustration – because they are past grade level standards already when they walk in the door.

Objective tests of ability and achievement are given to candidates for both gifted programs and for special education.  There is a wide difference between how this is done, however.

Special Ed Services:  Consider typical services for special education students.  Referrals for special education can be given at any time during the school year.  Teachers and parents make referrals. The tests are given during the regular school day. A very serious level of individuallyadministeredtests in ability as well as individually administered tests of achievement, processing speeds, etc., are given. The administrator is almost always a qualified psychologist.  The psychologist, parents, and teachers attend the post-assessment conference. No one complains about this.  It is very well funded.

Gifted Services:  Contrast this with a two or three-week referral window per year for high achieving and gifted students. The tests are administered usually at a remote location on a Saturday. Parents are required to bring their referred student.  Children whose parents have no car or have to work on Saturdays don’t even make it as far as the tests.  But those who do come for the Saturday session find hundreds of children in an unfamiliar building – sometimes a single room – with a test group-administered usually by a teacher getting per diem pay.  The children must do this again for their second test, which might mean coming back on another day or after lunch.  The test session may or may not be re-scheduled for students who miss it.  A form letter is prepared by a secretary and sent by mail with the child’s name and results inserted. Welcome to the world of gifted education.  And, yes, districts are looking anywhere they can to streamline even this much because there’s no serious money for it.

When a child’s test results do confirm that the child needs more that what is typically offered in his age-based grade level, the services are marginal.  Even if the child is several years above grade level in terms of what he knows and can do – in all subjects – he/she then might be able to have some kind of service.  It could mean he remains in his regular class with a cluster of a few children similar to him.  Or, he may go into a magnet full time, self-contained class, or he might go into a one-half to one day per week pull out program.  Or he will be be given an Individual Education Plan to spell out what the classroom teacher is expected to do.  The most important word to see in this list is “or.”  There is seldom an array of services, even in America’s largest districts. There is nowhere for the student who is “only” a genius in math. The vast majority of identified gifted children have one and only one service option.

Imagine treating all special education children the same.   Do we have the same services for hearing impaired as we have for dyslexia?  Imagine whole districts without anyservices for gifted children.  Imagine entire stateswith no funding or services for gifted children.  This is a reality in our very own U.S.A.  The truth is that gifted children, children of high potential and high ability, are most definitely second-class citizens in our public schools.

Questions:  There are two corollary questions to look at:

  1. Whyare gifted children second-class citizens in our public schools? In other words, what underlies these national phenomena?
  2. Does it matter?

These questions are the subject of my next blog coming in January, 2019.