Why We Need To Rethink The ‘Gifted And Talented’ Label

Westend61/Getty
Westend61/Getty

Once a week, back in the dark days of the 1980s, I was yanked from regular classes for special “Gifted and Talented” programs. We learned about the stock market. We slogged through pointless “Great Books” series. We were dragged on a myriad of field trips. The other children resented our special label and privileges. We were supposedly the kids who “got it,” the ones who would “go somewhere” and “do something.” 

Now I have three homeschooled sons. My nine-year-old has dysgraphia. He writes on a kindergarten level and can read like ninth grader. I’ve seen him spell “the” three different ways on the same piece of paper. My seven-year-old adores writing but can’t spell; he spent half an hour crying because he couldn’t properly figure out what comes two days after Wednesday. My five-year-old will catch up, reading-wise, to the seven-year-old in a few months. All of them can spout off esoteric scientific facts, but barely hang on math at grade-level.

They are not Gifted and Talented.

They are children with strengths and weaknesses.

We need to retire, once and for all, the Gifted and Talented label. It’s limiting. It’s divisive. It stratifies students into the intellectual “haves” and “have-nots” at a young age, and as Forbes points out, “gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds too often are not identified as gifted, which causes them to lose out on access to a variety of gifted-and-talented programs at their local schools that could accelerate their development and social and economic opportunities.”

To break it down: if you’re poor or a child of color, you’re less likely to be labeled Gifted and Talented (there were no Gifted and Talented kids of color, district-wide, in my program). As a result, these kids lose out on opportunities. And this perpetuates a cycle of poverty, both social — non-whites are dumber than whites — and economic — non-whites stay poorer, throughout their lifetimes, than whites.

Ouch.

Take my (white) middle son as an example. We started him on one math program. He did swimmingly until hitting a wall. He didn’t know his basic addition and subtraction facts. In school, he’d have fallen further and further behind as his classmates moved on; he’d have been shunted into the lowest math group. Instead, we changed programs and backtracked. Now he’s about to move up to the next grade level mid-year — because he could work at his own pace. With individualized learning programs possible in this brave new world of computers and tech, public schools can accomplish the same thing. Forbes talks about kids who do this: when able to relearn basic concepts, they flourish and even can become some of the best in their classes.

Of course, kids learn in different ways, and some kids’ brains work in ways that require a learning program akin to what we call a “gifted” program. But there are ways to do this without creating a divisive atmosphere. For instance, some schools prefer the Challenge Program. And we also need to look at how we’re evaluating these kids for learning programs.

We are pushing some kids, ignoring others kids, labeling children without giving them a chance. They may have the opportunity to become Gifted and Talented. Instead, they blend into the rest of the herd.

Clearly this label isn’t working.

If you stick kids in a lower math or reading group, you’re telegraphing to the whole class that they’re lacking in some way. If you push them into a Gifted and Talented program, you’re labeling them as smarty-pants. Period. Everyone knows it. It changes their group perception. It changes their self-perception. While it might be true that not everyone deserves a medal for showing up, everyone deserves reward for their mastery in various areas and help in their areas they need it.

I love writing. But in high school, I missed key geometry and chemistry concepts. I wanted to be a doctor. That dream withered on the vine. Given a chance to learn at my own pace, I could have gone pre-med, like I wanted. I actually taught my own biology II class when the teacher was absent. I was good at math and enjoyed it. I was Gifted and Talented in some areas and terrible at others. Like most kids.

We need to bolster those areas in which kids excel and nurture the ones where kids need it. We have the individualized education plans to do it today.

We need to actively seek out those kids of color, those kids who live in poverty, and give them the same chances as the white boy living in the ‘burbs.

We need to level the playing field.

How much talent do we waste with a label like Gifted and Talented?

Sorry, you proud parents with Gifted and Talented kids. But the answer is this: we’re wasting a hell of a lot. We need to fix it. And the easiest way to harness that talent in every child is to toss the harmful label, develop individualized education (using programs like Mathseeds and Khan Academy), and run with them. It’s the digital age. Kids use laptops. To quote Winston in the original Ghostbusters movie: We have the tools and we have the talent.

We just need to harness them.