Gifted Kids: Are the Best Minds Being Left Behind?

May 17, 2010· 3 MIN READ

The brightest kids can also be the most bored.

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine.” — Benjamin Franklin

All across America there are public schools that never bother to identify children who possess extraordinary gifts. Like treasure that’s buried just beneath the surface, these children’s unique talents remain hidden, an untapped national resource gone to waste. It’s a scenario especially common in schools that enroll low-income minority students.

On Tuesday, TakePart's Max Linsky wrote about an experiment that tested second graders from low-income neighborhoods to uncover gifted students among them who might otherwise go unnoticed. The results were impressive: 66 kids—compared to the previous year's 8—tested well enough to be considered "gifted."

Angela Bass, the superintendent of instruction for the organization that tested the children, said, "It's allowed us to ramp up our expectations for children. [W]e've missed the fact that our children are really talented. We need to make sure our teachers know that, our parents know that and our students know they are gifted."

So what happens next? Will these children's lives be changed forever, or will they eventually slip back into a broken system?


In a study published by Indiana University in February, researchers Jonathan A. Plucker and Nathan Burroughs describe what they call a growing excellence gap: compared to their white counterparts, a disproportionately small number of students classified as low income, minority, or English Language Learners are performing at the highest levels of achievement.

Since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, states and districts have focused on improving minimum competency, and bringing a larger proportion of low and underachieving students to proficiency. While progress has been made toward closing achievement gaps at the lowest and most basic levels of achievement, the excellence gap between high achieving white and minority students is growing. The authors write:

The goal of guaranteeing that all children will have the opportunity to reach their academic potential is called into question if educational policies only assist some students while others are left behind. Furthermore, the comparatively small percentage of students scoring at the highest level on achievement tests suggests that children with advanced academic potential are being under-served, with potentially serious consequences for the long-term economic competitiveness of the U.S.


While our failure to identify and develop giftedness among low income and minority children is particularly glaring, according to the National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC)’s 2008-2009 report on the overall state of gifted education nationwide, high-ability learners across all demographic groups are suffering from inadequate instruction, services and support.

A mere 2 cents of every 100 dollars the federal government invests in K-12 education goes toward funding programs for gifted students, and 26 percent of states provide no such funding whatsoever. Teachers receive little if any training on how to meet the special needs of high-ability learners, and there’s an overall lack of reporting and accountability when it comes to identifying and supporting gifted and talented children.

So what are the consequences of failing to properly label and support high achieving children? Couldn’t these children do fine on their own without any special attention?

Not so, insists the NAGC. Gifted children in traditional classrooms designed for low or average-ability students often experience boredom, frustration and decreased motivation that could lead to acting out. Not only will their unusual talents go to waste if not fostered properly, these children may end up dropping out of school entirely.

In her essay entitled Is It a Cheetah?, children's book author Stephanie Tolan uses a powerful metaphor to explain what's at stake when children with exceptional academic gifts are not challenged:

[S]chools are to extraordinarily intelligent children what zoos are to cheetahs. Many schools provide a 10 x 12 foot cage, giving the unusual mind no room to get up to speed. Many highly gifted children sit in the classroom the way big cats sit in their cages, dull-eyed and silent. Some, unable to resist the urge from inside even though they can't exercise it, pace the bars, snarl and lash out at their keepers, or throw themselves against the bars until they do themselves damage… Unless we make a commitment to saving these children, we will continue to lose them and whatever unique benefit their existence might provide for the human species of which they are an essential part.


To conclude their excellence gap study, Plucker and Burroughs claim that as long as the needs of high achieving students continue to remain absent from our national, state, and local conversations about education policy, and we continue to focus on minimum competencies instead of promoting high achievement and excellence, America will never succeed in achieving its fullest potential. In their words:

[C]ontinuing to pretend that a nearly complete disregard of high achievement is permissible, especially among underperforming subgroups, is a formula for a mediocre K-12 education system and long-term economic decline.

Dr. Ann Robinson, President of the National Association of Gifted Children, adds:

Forty years ago, we realized the impact of a sustained commitment to academic excellence when we celebrated the landing of a man on the moon. Future breakthroughs and discovery in science, medicine, and technology will be impossible if we fail to identify and serve today’s brightest young minds. The time to act is now.

michale Creative Commons photo via Flickr