Playing Favorites

Gifted Education and the Disruption of Community

By Mara Sapon-Shevin

Why are there programs for “gifted” children? Why are some children labeled “gifted” but not others? And what does all this mean for the education of the “non-gifted”?

In discussions about gifted education, the underlying assumption is that gifted students represent an objectively identifiable population, that they are “out there,” and that the first step in serving this population is to “find them.”

The focus is typically on finding that population that is truly “gifted” and rarely on the integrity or reality of the category itself. “Who is gifted?” and “How do we best find and identify gifted children?” are considered legitimate questions; “Does it make sense to call any children gifted?” is not a similarly sanctioned inquiry.

The use of the term “gifted” provides a scientific explanation or label for difference, and, as such, it comes to replace commonsense meaning and understandings of children’s behavior and differences. By describing a group of children in ways that emphasize their differences from typical or “nongifted” children, we are encouraged to believe that giftedness is something foreign, outside our daily commonsense frameworks. The parent who exclaims, “Well, I knew my daughter was very smart, but I had no idea she was gifted!” provides evidence of the ways in which official, scientific-sounding, technical terminology replaces our commonsense ways of thinking about and talking about children’s differences.

Books on “how to raise your gifted child” or “how to live with gifted children” encourage us to see children who are labeled as “gifted” as “others,” outside our experience and thus outside our capacity to think about or plan for. This “othering” contributes to the idea that educational programming for children labeled “gifted” is logically considered separate from or apart from educational programming for typical children — “they’re different — they need something special.”

Identifying certain children as gifted represents a decision. It represents a decision to attempt to sort children according to specific variables, a decision about how to assess those variables, and then, a decision about what to do with the results of that assessment. Each of these represents a discrete set of decisions. Deciding to identify children as gifted on the basis of tested intelligence is a decision; so is deciding to measure intelligence using a standardized IQ test; and so is the decision to arbitrarily establish a cut-off point along a continuum of scores or behavior and to then act as though those above that point are qualitatively (rather than quantitatively) different from those below.

Defining Giftedness

Giftedness is typically defined as the top 3-5% of the population. Some choose to further subdivide the population into the “gifted,” the “highly gifted,” and the “exceptionally gifted,” and each of these is also generally defined in terms of a percentage of the general population. Efforts by some gifted educators to “liberalize” definitions of giftedness in order to include greater percentages of children have been harshly criticized by others. Nicholas Colangelo, a proponent of gifted education,1 for example, is concerned that the liberalization of the definition (that is, including too many children within it) will lead to a time when we view every child as either gifted or “potentially gifted” and thereby deny meaning to the term “gifted.” Educator Barbara Clark expresses concern that “throwing a wider net may result in children being less well served. … The attempt to serve 25% of the students must not be allowed to reduce the all-too-inadequate support that is given the top 5%.”2

Rather than viewing giftedness as a “natural fact,” we can see the category of “giftedness” as a social construct, a way of thinking and describing that exists in the eyes of the definers. Children vary along many dimensions; it is a decision (rather than a fact) to decide to focus on one of these varying differences and then to label children according to that dimension.

People vary tremendously in height and can be measured with relatively good reliability; nonetheless, deciding to create categories of the “profoundly tall” and the “profoundly short” would mean both deciding that height was a salient characteristic appropriate for describing people and determining where to make the cut-offs along a continuum of heights.

Recognizing giftedness as a social construct means acknowledging that without school rules and policies, legal and educational practices designed to provide services to gifted students, this category, per se, would not exist. This is not to say that we would not have tremendous variation in the ways in which children present themselves in schools or even in the rates or ways in which they learn. But the characteristic of giftedness, possessed exclusively by an identifiable group of students, only exists within a system that, for a variety of reasons, wishes to measure, select, and sort students in this manner.

The most pervasive method of identifying children as “gifted” is based on the use of standardized intelligence tests. But intelligence testing has come under serious attack as both unreliable and culturally biased.

Intelligence tests typically measure a limited range of verbal skills, and these skills are associated with exposure to education and membership in the dominant cultural group of our society. Thus, various cultural groups are disproportionately represented in those categories of exceptionality that are determined primarily by performance on intelligence tests. Children of color and lower socioeconomic levels are overrepresented in classes for the “mentally retarded” and underrepresented in classes for the “gifted.”

But because standardized IQ tests are generally viewed as “objective” and free from the bias we assume would be present if children were identified as “mentally retarded” or “gifted” by their teachers, we neglect both the origins and the continuing uses of intelligence testing to facilitate educational and social stratification.

One of the original uses of intelligence testing (and a major impetus for the development of the testing industry) was to sort out the flood of recent immigrants to this country. Eighty percent of the immigrants tested in the 1920s by test developer Lewis Terman were adjudged “feeble-minded” and channeled into low status, limited educational and employment options.3 The legacy of defining intelligence as those characteristics possessed by white, upper-middle class students, and the subsequent sorting and selecting of students according to this scale, continues to define gifted education in this country.

Acting as though intelligence is a single continuum along which people can be located masks the embedded decisions to value and measure only certain kinds of intelligence. In fact, the narrow ways in which giftedness is defined and the subsequent limitations on which children are served by gifted programs are directly related to the ways in which classrooms are organized and instruction delivered.

Classrooms and schools that define achievement and ability narrowly produce students who rank one another according to limited variables. When classrooms are organized in multidimensional ways, when many kinds of skills and performance are acknowledged and valued, the kinds of global stratification (“He’s smart; she’s not”) present in unidimensional classrooms is sharply limited. Educational researchers S. Rosenholtz and E. Cohen argue that the conventional “back to basics” classroom structures a narrow view of curriculum and relies on comparative marking and grading as the sole method of evaluation, reinforcing racist beliefs about the intellectual incompetence of minority children.4

Identifying giftedness as an inborn, hereditary quality of the individual that can be objectively verified further connects the process of identification to “science” and further removes the decision from commonsense discourse. According to this position, we are not defining intelligence nor making decisions about what kinds of skills we value but are simply identifying and labeling inherent, immutable human characteristics, some of which happen to be highly valued.

Born Gifted?

The belief that certain children are “born gifted” is also used to support gifted education as part of a social justice argument. If certain people are just “born gifted” then you shouldn’t discriminate against them because of a characteristic over which they have no control. So if Jacob was “born gifted,” it would be unfair to treat him like “normal” children by providing him with a typical education, just as it would be unfair to penalize children who have diabetes by forcing them to eat a typical sugar-laden diet. The parallel actually raises a compelling set of issues, because it assumes that the typical sugar-laden diet is appropriate for “regular” children who don’t have diabetes, just as we assume that the “typical” education provided for students is appropriate for those who aren’t identified as gifted.

Marc Gold, a pioneer in education for persons with mental retardation, characterized “retarded students” as those who require more intensive teaching.5 He evaluated levels of retardation in terms of the willingness of educators to extend the time, energy, and commitment necessary to bring retarded students to higher levels of achievement. This same logic could be extended to gifted children, defining notthe children but rather the resources that schools and educators would be willing to commit in order to make all children “gifted.” Such a definition would see all children as underachieving gifted students, and all students would be described as varying in terms of the resources needed to help them achieve at high levels. This would substantially alter the conversation, since it would require an explicit discussion of resource allocation and the values that underlie deciding whom to spend money on and who is worth what.

A careful examination of the rhetoric of “what gifted children need” reveals problems not with that wish list of optimum educational options but with its characterization of distinctiveness. Educators of the gifted are counseled that appropriate goals for gifted children include mental flexibility, openness to information, capacity to systemize knowledge, capacity for abstract thought, fluency, sense of humor, positive thinking, intellectual courage, resistance to enculturation, and emotional resilience.6 Talented children and adolescents are said to need:

  • A maximum level of achievement in basic skills and concepts.
  • Learning activities at an appropriate level and pace.
  • Experience in creative thinking and problem solving.
  • Convergent thinking skills.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Exposure to a variety of fields.
  • The development of independence, self-direction, and discipline in learning. 7

It is difficult to find much in the above list that is objectionable. The only problem with this list is that these are recommendations for “gifted students,” rather than for all students. If gifted children need all these things, then what do non-gifted children need? Ironically, recent research literature on the educational needs of students identified as “at-risk” and “low-achieving” has produced lists of desirable educational outcomes almost identical to the above list. If gifted students and low-achieving, at-risk students all need hands-on, participatory, enrichment activities, then who are all the worksheets for? Who are the typical kids for whom the standard curriculum is supposedly geared? What evidence do we have that an enriched curriculum and a dynamic environment are not stimulating and educationally appropriate for all students?

Not only are the educational needs of gifted students seen as significantly different from those of typical children but many gifted educators argue that the unique needs of gifted students cannot be met within the regular classroom; gifted children must be grouped together in order to receive appropriate education.

Gifted education proponents argue that the regular classroom as currently organized and implemented is largely not amenable to change, and many teachers and students are hostile to gifted students, thus necessitating the removal of gifted students to a “safe haven” where they can be with other students like them.

While I would never argue that the narrow, often rigid ways in which many regular education classrooms are currently organized make them ideal for meeting the needs of students identified as gifted (or any other students), deciding to remove some children from that setting in order to meet their putative educational needs elsewhere has significant implications. First, it communicates a hopelessness and despair about the ability of teachers to create inclusive, stimulating, multilevel, diverse learning communities that meet the needs of a wide range of students within a unified setting. The message is: third grade was terrible for this child, so we removed him to a better setting. The question should be, however, if third grade was terrible for this child, how was it for other children, and how can we change third grade to make it good for all children?

Second, differentially removing some children whose perceived needs are not being met in the typical classroom makes clear the fact that some parents have the possibility of removing their children from non-ideal settings, while others do not.

Wealthy parents who are dissatisfied with the education their children are receiving in public schools have often removed their children to private school settings; poor parents dissatisfied with their children’s education do not have the same set of choices. Similarly, children whose test scores qualify them for gifted programs have the option of removal and differential educational opportunities; children whose measured scores are not high enough do not have the same options.

Most significant, however, is that the removal of gifted children in order to meet their educational needs leaves untouched the nature and quality of the regular education classroom.

Evading the Real Problem

As long as gifted programs are described as programs for “gifted children,” then their boundaries are arbitrarily and narrowly defined. Books on “Language Arts Activities for Gifted Students,” teacher workshops on “Creativity for the Gifted,” and similarly labeled efforts all circumscribe the set of students to whom such programming and educational efforts will be directed. Even exemplary gifted programs may impede whole-school reform that is solidly grounded in broader economic and social concerns because they give the illusion that “something is being done.” By siphoning off the efforts and commitment of concerned parents, teachers, and administrators, such stop-gap or partial measures may keep schools from hitting “rock bottom” and thus facing the magnitude and embeddedness of their problems.

Eliminating gifted programs will not solve school or societal problems, because the problems do not result from the gifted programs. Rather, gifted programs are a response to the inappropriateness and inflexibility of schools — a response that creates as many problems as it solves — and to an economic system that depends on the schools to maintain social, educational, and economic stratification. Parents whose children are not well served in regular classrooms often support removing their children to separate classrooms because they have little or no faith that the typical classroom can be altered sufficiently to meet their children’s needs. As one parent explained to me, “In the long haul, of course we need better schools for everyone, but for now, I have to think about my child.” This reaction, although understandable, nonetheless contributes to maintaining the status quo. Removing the irritating or irritated child (or parent) does nothing to alter the nature of the overall educational system and sometimes masks the breadth and depth of the problem. The focus becomes on finding a “better fit” for Kyle, rather than on examining the system as a whole. Furthermore, removing the children whose parents typically have the knowledge, resources, and influence to result in their placement in gifted classrooms further segregates the schools and results in even greater disparity between the educational opportunities open to children of varying socioeconomic and racial groups. Removing gifted children and providing a differential education for them will not improve the overall quality of schooling for all children nor will it encourage us to analyze the relationship between schools and broader societal and economic inequities.

Some educational leaders have strongly supported the need to “invest” in gifted children as a way of ensuring America’s recovery of economic and political prominence. A changing political climate that attributes many of the nation’s educational problems to overinvestment in poor, disadvantaged, and minority students (at the expense of those who are more academically talented) also provides impetus for increased gifted programming. In tracing the history of gifted education in America, gifted education advocates G. Davis and S. Rimm describe the effects of the Russian launching of the satellite Sputnik in 1957 as a landmark event. Suddenly, it appeared that the Russians were gaining on the United States in the fields of science and technology and that we had better pay more attention (and give more money) to promote high achievement in these areas. Davis and Rimm report, however, that “the scare of Sputnik and the keen interest in educating gifted and talented students wore off in about five years.”8 As the United States took the lead in the space race in the 1960s, the panicked need to cultivate gifted students diminished, only to come alive again in the 1970s with the publication of the Maryland Report in 1972, which declared gifted students to be a vastly underserved population.

The spate of national educational reports that appeared in the 1980s proclaiming us to be a “nation at risk of educational failure,” again gave rise to new fears about the crisis in the U.S. educational system manifested by its failure to keep pace with other nations. Now the scare came from the progress and successes of the Japanese.

While the majority of these reports gave lip service to the twin goals of excellence and equality, some warned that our inadequate educational production was a direct result of “over-investing” in poor, disadvantaged, and minority students. The Heritage Foundation stated in 1984: “For the past twenty years, federal mandates have favored ‘disadvantaged’ pupils at the expense of those who have the highest potential to contribute to society,”9 implying that it had been our nation’s misguided focus on equality that had led to our crisis of excellence.

While some educators are critical of the ways in which America has retreated from equity, they still cite the need to develop “the best minds,” disparaging one kind of meritocracy and substituting another for it. There is little recognition that there are many ways for a child to be “advantaged” and that the overlap between material advantage and perceived educational and intellectual abilities is extensive.

Gifted programs allow society to support differential treatment for a limited group of students and to do so in a way that appears to have a quantitative, unbiased, reasoned, scientific basis. While we would be singularly uncomfortable saying, “We believe rich children deserve a better education than poor children,” we are not uncomfortable enough about setting up structures that maintain exactly that outcome.

Restoring schools as communities in which all students learn will take more than small adjustments. Reinventing schools will involve attending to all aspects of school structure, culture, curriculum, instruction, and administration. Expanding gifted programs to include more students or implementing new tests to find gifted students will not bring the large-scale reform that is necessary for all students to succeed.


  1. N. Colangelo, “A Perspective on the Future of Gifted Education,” Roeper Review7 (1) (1984): 30- 32.
  2. Cited in R.D. Feldman, “The Pyramid: Do We Have the Answer for the Gifted?,” Instructor Magazine, October 1985: p. 62-66, 71.
  3. J. Oakes, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 36.
  4. S. J. Rosenholtz and E. G. Cohen, “Back to Basics and the Desegregated School,” TheElementary School Journal83 (5), (1983): 515-527.
  5. M. C. Gold, “An Alternative Definition of Mental Retardation,” in Did I SayThat? Articles and Commentary on the Try Another Way System, ed. M. C. Gold (Champaign, IL: Research Press, 1980).
  6. K. Albrecht, “Brain Power: The Human Mind as the Next Great Frontier.” Speech presented at the Third Annual Midwest Conference on Gifted and Talented Children, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 1983. Cited in Education of the Gifted and Talented, eds. G. A. Davis and S. B. Rimm (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985).
  7. J. F. Feldhusen and A. R. Wyman, “Super Saturday: Design and Implementation of Purdue’s Special Program for Gifted Children,” Gifted Child Quarterly 24 (1980): 15-21.
  8. G. A. Davis and S. B. Rimm, Education of the Gifted and Talented, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989), p. 7.
  9. The Heritage Foundation, “The Crisis: Washington Shares the Blame,” The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 1984).

Mara Sapon-Shevin is a professor in the Teaching and Leadership Program at Syracuse University.

This article was adapted from Playing Favorites: Gifted Education and the Disruption of Community by Mara Sapon-Shevin (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994). The book may be ordered directly from the publisher by calling 1-800-666-2211.