When Melanie Lichtenstein was a young student, her mother, an educator, took her one Saturday morning to be tested for giftedness. She tested well, received a gifted label and was pulled out of classes several times a week for more advanced work, including problem-solving exercises and experiments.
That’s historically how most gifted students were identified and served over the past six decades, starting when the space race with Russia led to increased attention on science and engineering education. But the use of one IQ or aptitude test to identify potential giftedness, as well as the segregation of students who receive accelerated lessons, led to wide racial disparities in the makeup of gifted programs.
Now Lichtenstein, the talent development specialist for the 13,500-student Albemarle County School District in Virginia, is part of an educational movement to make gifted and talented programs more accessible and equitable.
Instead of using arbitrary, one-point-in-time test scores, educators across the country are incorporating multiple data points at various stages during a child’s schooling to determine talent potential and including giftedness in the performing arts, leadership, and career and technical education.
School systems also are using local norms, even at the building level, to determine who their gifted and talented students are, rather than using national or state comparisons. Additionally, schools are placing students in talent training programs so educators can provide individualized supports to help students succeed when they do enroll in accelerated classes.
Broadening access to gifted and talented programming for diverse learners is more than identifying higher numbers of Black and brown students, experts say. Schools also are aiming to include students from low-income households, students with disabilities, English learners, and others from underrepresented backgrounds and experiences.
“We're really going for that mindset of looking at each child and helping them to identify where they are strong and where they'd like to get stronger.”
Talent development specialist for the Albemarle County School District
These transformations, along with the concept that a school system will view its entire student body as talented, however, are not easy to explain to the public and even to educators. Training all teachers to spot giftedness in individual students and to differentiate instruction based on each student’s talents and interests is a large mindset shift and requires regular training, monitoring, data analysis and adjusting.
And even after years of explaining, training and adjusting, some school districts can’t prove their programs have reached parity.
“It's a process because, first of all, we're dismantling belief systems and barriers that have been around for decades,” Lichtenstein said. “We're really going for that mindset of looking at each child and helping them to identify where they are strong and where they'd like to get stronger.”
‘We’ve been through this rodeo before’
After George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and a national reckoning with racial injustice, several school systems vowed to make gifted and talented programs more inclusive. Some declared they would eliminate identification approaches based on racist and classist practices. Others said they would scrap entire gifted programs.
Efforts at expanding gifted programs to be more inclusive actually began decades ago with research by education psychologist Joseph Renzulli and others, who urged educators to consider various pathways into gifted identification.
Renzulli, now a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, also advocated that schools not only consider a student’s above-average academic ability, but also their creativity and curiosity, as well as capacity for perseverance, determination and dedicated practice.
More recent attention to neurodiverse learners has also lent energy to viewing a child’s learning disability not as a deficit, but as a base to build instruction around that student's strengths. While many educators embraced these approaches, putting them into practice with fidelity across the country has been a struggle.
“We’ll believe it when we see it, because we’ve been through this rodeo before,” said Claire Hughes, professor of Elementary and Special Education at the College of Coastal Georgia.
There are models of success for services for twice-exceptional students who identify as having a learning disability and as gifted, such as in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, New Mexico’s Albuquerque Public Schools, the Colorado Department of Education, and the Bridges Academy in Los Angeles, California, said Hughes and Debbie Troxclair, a faculty advisor for the master's degree in education Special Education-Generalist Program at Lamar University in Texas.
There are also networks of gifted education experts and advocates, including the Council for Exceptional Children’s The Association for the Gifted, that share best practices and policy statements. Hughes and Troxclair are both board members of CEC-TAG.
But at the school-level, Hughes and Troxclair said, expanding access to gifted programming for diverse students is attainable but challenged by a lack of preparation and ongoing training for teachers, disinterest in gifted programming by administrators and programs competing for funding.
There are also longstanding myths that gifted education advocates say they continually need to confront, including that gifted students will excel anyway in general education classes, and that special programming could be socially damaging to the identified students.
It’s also a complex program to do effectively. “It's almost like every aspect of this puzzle, to get the right puzzle pieces in there, it's very complicated,” said Hughes.
By studying the literature, research and anecdotal stories on how some school systems are making progress toward equitable access, rather than focusing on what hasn't worked, leaders can help bring improvements to their programs, Hughes and Troxclair said.
Disproportionality at federal, local levels
Gifted education is not required by the federal government. And while most states say gifted programming is provided in their schools, only 15 mandate services and funding for it, according to the National Association for Gifted Children’s State of States report for the 2018-19 school year.
The report, released in 2020, noted an increase in reported efforts nationwide to address gifted and talented issues related to access and equity. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, there were 3.3 million students identified as gifted during the 2017-18 school year, the last year national estimates are available.
White students were 47.3% of the overall student population, but made up 58.4% of students identified as gifted. Black students were 15.1% of the overall student population but only 8.2% of the gifted population. Students with disabilities and English learners were less than 3% each of the gifted student population.
These national figures were reflected in Albemarle County School District’s data when the district analyzed its gifted program during the 2015-16 school year, Lichtenstein said. Affluent students also were overrepresented in the district’s data for gifted programs, she said.
So when the district committed to a complete overhaul of its gifted program, it started with the hiring of Lichtenstein and a name change — from “gifted” to “talent development.”
The process also began with a lot of community conversations about people’s value systems, access to out-of-school resources, the importance of students’ social and emotional development and more.
Those conversations led the district to commit that a student’s access to advanced course work would not be based on a gifted label, Lichtenstein said. A group of stakeholders then dug into research about recommended best practices.
By 2019, the district had talent development resource teachers at every school who work with classroom teachers in recognizing a student's talent and providing resources for the teacher to support individual growth. This school year, the district began using a response-to-intervention model to differentiate instruction and enhance the curriculum so advanced learners are challenged based on their unique strengths and needs, Lichtenstein said.
The model is flexible, meaning a student could be working on more advanced coursework in one academic subject and general coursework in other subject areas. Students can also move in or out of the advanced work depending on performance and preferences.
This change in approach has led the district to identify talents in different types of learners. For example, an elementary school student with autism was resistant to learning in some classes, but when his class began working with a 3D printer, the student enjoyed working with the machine so much that he built a replica of the Titanic.
“You're looking beyond some of the negative behaviors that are often what put children and families down a path that is not directed towards success, and you start thinking about, 'Well, what strengths does this kid have?'” Lichtenstein said.
'We also have to find talent to nurture'
For Mindy Bissett, a gifted and talented teacher in the North Little Rock School District in Arkansas, using different tools to assess students’ academic strengths has helped toward the district’s goal of expanding access to gifted education to English learners. For example, one assessment Bissett uses is the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which allows students to use shapes and figures rather than pictures or words to demonstrate their reasoning abilities.
In Minnesota’s 8,400-student Mankato Area Public Schools, a comprehensive review of gifted services in 2013-14 resulted in a 125-page document about potential improvements for diversity, said Tania Lyon, the district’s academic standards and talent development coordinator.
Fueling the district’s work was a Jacob K. Javitz grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The $13.5 million grant program is the only federal funding targeted for gifted education, and it specifically aims to increase gifted services for students in underrepresented communities.
Mankato Area Public Schools worked with the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota on identification practices, professional development, parent and community support and more. That process resulted in several changes, including more individualized professional development for gifted identification and service delivery through more rigorous work connected to the district's standards-based curriculum, Lyon said.
The district uses a screening process that identifies students — at various grade levels — who are ready for more advanced coursework. Educators also identify Rising Scholars, who are students who receive individualized academic and social-emotional supports to help them become successful with a more rigorous course load when they are ready. It also subtly clusters students into classes with more advanced lessons.
“We have really bright kids who get it by nature, right, and sometimes then we also have to find talent to nurture,” Lyon said.
Travis Olson, director of the district's Department of Teaching and Learning, also said the school system more recently made a stated goal of increasing student representation in rigorous coursework and is aiming for participation that's reflective of the demographics on a school-by-school basis.
Helping teachers recognize potential talent
At the national level, gifted education advocacy groups are enhancing efforts to promote equitable practices. The National Association for Gifted Children, for example, held its first equity symposium last summer and is reviewing its policies and practices to align with the organization’s priority for inclusivity, said Lauri Kirsch, president of the association’s board of directors.
NAGC also has professional development resources and standards in programming and services, which include that gifted teachers should recognize learning differences among students.
“Training is key in our profession to be able to recognize and address giftedness in these students,” Kirsch said.
Thomas Hébert, a professor of gifted and talented education at the University of South Carolina, agrees training classroom teachers to recognize the characteristics, traits and behaviors of talented students and how those traits may look different in varying student populations could be one of the most effective approaches to making gifted education more diverse.
Experts say teachers need more practical training in bias awareness in referrals, use of multiple data points for identification and effective methods for differentiating instruction. Teachers also need support with practicing equitable approaches in complex situations, such as recognizing students with disabilities first for their strengths rather than their deficits.
“That's a huge challenge, but something that would make a tremendous difference,” said Hébert, who also said diversity in the teacher workforce could boost equity.
The National Center for Research on Gifted Education highlights gifted education best practices based on its research. For example, it published recommendations for identifying gifted English learners in line with case studies, a review of literature and an expert panel.
“We can't afford to overlook any child out there who can contribute to a better future for all of us."
President of the National Association for Gifted Children
Overall, there’s great variation in how states are addressing the equity gap in gifted education, and there’s still a lot of work to be done, Kirsch said. “We can't afford to overlook any child out there who can contribute to a better future for all of us.”
One proactive example is from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which issued a 20-page “Call to Action” earlier this year about ways schools can promote equity in gifted education and real examples of strategies school systems are using.
In Nevada, where Black students in gifted education programs are underrepresented by more than 50 percentage points, education leaders aim to reform gifted education for effectiveness and equity by using Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief funds toward compliance monitoring, professional development, data quality and more.
Although Albemarle County School District in Virginia has made meaningful progress toward equitable practices, it has not been easy work. “How do you get an entire community to shift their understanding of ability, to change instructional practice so that our educators also see strength in children, and that our systems provide those opportunities?” Lichtenstein said.
There are other obstacles, too.
In some places, progressive changes to a district’s gifted and talented programs conflict with state accountability policies for identification and services. And student information systems in some districts are not sophisticated enough to document the various identifications and services students are receiving, making data analysis more difficult.
That’s why the old gifted education model was easier, Lichtenstein said, but it wasn’t equitable.
“Working for each child so that they can achieve their potential and be successful regardless of factors that they have no control over, we need to provide this space,” she said.