A new working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in Cambridge, Mass., evaluated the effectiveness of both in-class gifted programs and magnet schools for more than 8,000 middle school students in an unnamed Southwestern school district of more than 200,000 students.
A summery at Boston.com of the study observed:
Public school districts across the country have enacted various forms of special education for “gifted and talented” students. The assumption, of course, is that an advanced curriculum, better teachers, and better peers will allow these students to excel beyond the normal classroom experience. However, new research suggests that isn't necessarily the case. Comparing students who were accepted into a gifted and talented program to those who just missed out — because of a cutoff score or a lottery — the researchers found that neither an enhanced curriculum nor a magnet school produced a significant increase in achievement test scores.
This is fascinating to New York parents on a variety of levels.
At the top, of course, is the question of whether achievement test scores are even an accurate measurement of whether or not a G&T program is "successful." (We can also ask, what is "successful" but such a definition is outside the scope of this column, and needs to be determined by each parent for each child individually.)
We are told by Education Week that:
The University of Houston researchers who conducted the study found that students in these programs were more likely than other students to do in-depth coursework with top teachers and high-performing peers. Yet students who barely met the 5th grade cutoff criteria to enter the gifted programs fared no better academically in 7th grade, after a year and a half in the program, than did similarly high-potential students who just missed qualifying for gifted identification.
“You're getting these better teachers; you're getting these higher-achieving students paired up with you,” said Scott A. Imberman, an economics professor and a study coauthor. “To our surprise, what happened was very little.”
The next point applicable to New Yorkers is children who missed a gifted program due to lottery. In NYC last year, 1,788 four and five year olds scored over the 97th percentile which the DOE determined to be the cut-off score, while only 250 seats were available in five citywide G&T programs. Those seats were determined by lottery. (Children could then enroll in their district G&T programs if they chose, or explore other options.)
Gifted & Talented programs, both citywide and district, use the exact same curriculum as the regular classrooms, but, we are told it is an "enriched" one. However, at least to my knowledge, no one has yet to give a concrete answer as to what "enriched" means. On a tour of one school, I was told that it allows the children to pursue a topic in more depth. For instance, instead of just reading "Charlotte's Web," they may explore farm life and animal husbandry through art projects. They may put on a play. They may write their own stories with anthropomorphic animals.
Or they may not.
Unlike the standard curriculum, there is no citywide "enriched" curriculum, so it falls to each teacher to conure up their own. Which means, even after the lottery to get into the G&T programs, there is still the random chance of which teacher you'll get and what their particular approach to G&T education might be. (Even at the crown jewel of G&T schools, Hunter Elementary, which does not use the NYC curriculum, some teachers are anecdotally well known to be avoided at all costs.)
Another interesting observation:
Ms. Clarenbach also voiced concern that the district program did not seem tailored to students’ particular academic strengths.
“It sounds like whether you are good in math or language or science, you end up in the same program, and that’s not really where the [gifted education] field is going."
This is another problem very common to G&T in NYC. Because here, children are selected (and never retested) at such a young age, the bulk of the G&T classes are filled with children who are precocious primarily in language. Not only can that precociousness even out over time (and exclude late bloomers, to boot), but there is absolutely no correlation between being verbally gifted at the age of four, and mathematically gifted at ten. I've known several children who've ended up leaving Anderson or NEST around middle school, simply because they couldn't keep up in all of the subject areas.
And yet the NYC curriculum presumes that all children develop equally in all fields on exactly the same timeline.
Taking the above into account, it actually becomes rather clear why, with all the potential pitfalls, overall students in G&T programs end up doing no better than comparable students in General Ed.
All programs, gifted and general, are set up for the masses, not for the specific, unique individual, precisely the thing that a truly gifted child, by definition, is.