How To Fix Education For Gifted Students

In the Washington Post, Joann DiGenarro discusses what needs to be done for gifted students in our schools. As she points out at the beginning of her article, the problems facing gifted students are largely ignored, and this is a situation that there are no plans to change (emphasis added):

At an educators’ meeting in Washington last fall, conversation turned to whether the federal government should support programming for this nation’s most gifted and talented high school students. Educators overwhelmingly said that top students in secondary schools need no assistance, much to my dismay. Priority must be given to those not meeting the minimal standards in science and math, they reasoned.

By the time students reach 12th grade in math and science, they are near the bottom or dead last compared with international competition, according to the Education Department. These are the critical years for supporting students in science and math, for it is when they make career-determining decisions for college studies.

While there’s a small number of people lamenting the fact that a greater number of students are shying away from engineering and scientific professions, the main focus of our governmental programs is to ensure that there is “No Child Left Behind.” Unfortunately, they choose to avoid leaving children behind by ensuring that the kids in front of them aren’t cultivated for success.

Few people understand the challenges that gifted students face. For remedial students, it is simpler. They have a tough time grasping the lesson plans before them, and need additional time, additional instruction, and very hands-on teaching to help them through. Gifted students have little trouble understanding the material before them, though. For gifted students, it’s a matter of motivation.

I was one of the lucky ones. I grew up in an affluent school district, where money was available for gifted programs. Yet I was constant trouble to most of my grade-school teachers. I understood at the time that nothing really mattered until I got into high school (as that was the point at which my grades would be tracked for college), so I didn’t really ever pay attention, do homework, etc. I wasn’t a troublemaker, but I spent most of my time from kindergarten through eighth grade in my own little world. Outside of a few great teachers along the way, the only thing I ever had to look forward to was the 30-45 minutes a week where I’d go off with the other gifted students to do things like logic puzzles and discussion groups beyond the pace of the class. My grades during those years suffered greatly, largely due to a complete lack of effort, but nobody can say I wasn’t learning (I was always at the top of Illinois standardized tests for my grade level). When I finally reached high school, I got on track and started putting forth effort, in order to make my way into college. But still, I was only as motivated as I had to be to get the grades, and no more (again, with the exception of a couple of exceptional teachers who knew how to motivate kids like me). All this, and I was in a “good” school district for gifted kids. In less affluent areas, I can only imagine how mind-numbing it must be.

The problem with gifted kids is not that they won’t understand the material, or that they’ll ruin test scores for No Child Left Behind. The problem is that these kids need to be properly motivated to prepare them for everything they can accomplish. Remedial students don’t become accomplished doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. The gifted kids do that. Too many of them, though, languish in boredom and never develop a love of learning. They grow up knowing that all they have to do is coast along and they’ll be ahead of the pack, but without understanding that history isn’t written by people who “coast along”.

Clearly, something in our system has to be done to change this. We have focused for too long, as DiGenarro mentions, on being a “lowest-common-denominator” school system. We have worried that the people at the bottom are failing, but never even ask what’s going on with the people at the top.

It’s too bad that DiGenarro completely misses the solution to the problem…

At the strategic level, the United States must establish a policy for nurturing its most talented science and technology students and integrate this policy with a long-term vision of U.S. economic and military development. The White House and State Department science advisers should make this task a priority.

The next step should be a thorough assessment of all government educational programs geared to science and math. Shockingly, there are few assessments and little coordination among governmental agencies for the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on educational programs from kindergarten through the undergraduate level.

Finally, some of the millions of dollars devoted to educational programs and policy must be reallocated for the most talented high school students.

The Department of Education doesn’t need to spend millions of dollars and years of study to solve this problem. All they need to do is provide vouchers. A one-size-fits-all, lowest-common-denominator school system will never provide the right type of education for gifted students, because it’s created mainly by government bureaucrats, a profession that doesn’t attract too many of the gifted. You need innovation, free thought, and the ability to think outside the box, responding to new situations and pressures quickly and dynamically. None of these traits are found in government.

Where they are found, however, is in the free market. Currently, gifted rich kids have all sorts of options available to them in the private school market. A few poor ones, in large cities, have access to charter schools. But the vast majority are left languishing in the public school purgatory, waiting for their chance to get out into the real world and do something.

It is time we understand that all students are individuals, and if you try to stick a square peg in a round hole, you’re going to end up mashing that peg. It doesn’t matter if that’s a remedial child forced to fit into a regular school, or a gifted child forced to fit into a regular school. Neither one fits, and the harder you try to force them to fit, the more damage you do.

We’re failing the most capable students in our schools, and as a result, we’re crippling the best resources in our entire society. It’s time we stop trying to force these kids into a public school system that cannot serve them. The only solution is to help them get out of that system, and vouchers are the simplest and most effective way to help them escape.

  • Wulf

    NCLB should have been named the Chains of Harrison Bergeron Act.

  • VRB

    Vouchers do no good if there are not any gifted programs in private schools or your child’s gift doesn’t fit into the type of gifted. Even in college, the curriculum is that we can teach anything to students who have had the opportunities, but not necessarily to the gifted person. Talent is not addressed. I am saying this as a parent of a child that was gifted in visual arts and had worked out most visual problems by himself before he got into high school. This visual arts magnet school nor his highly praised design school was able to motivate him or to truly recognize his talents. They kept trying to push him into their mold, not expand his talents. It not vouchers or the school system it is that most people do not understand the gifted and the world has glorified the mediocre. Most times they envy it and try to put down. How can that athlete be that good, he doesn’t take the sport seriously, doesn’t practice enough, and plays around to much. Our puritan work ethic values the real hard worker, whether it produces anything or not.

  • Dana

    Getting rid of NCLB will help, too. It would give school districts a little more flexibility to meet the needs of their student population.

    But then, there has always been a sort of stigma against gifted kids…they are too smart for their own good. They frustrate teachers because they finish their work quickly and speed through the extra worksheets before the teacher has a chance to explain problem one to some of the slower kids.

    Our whole education system is designed to push kids to the middle, not to encourage them to reach the highest level they can.

  • Brad Warbiany


    I haven’t looked that deeply into NCLB, but I think the system was failing gifted kids before that. I do think it’s focused more and more effort on the bottom at the expense of the top, but it’s not like gifted kids were really a focus before then.

    I think our system doesn’t try to “push kids to the middle”, I think the system is designed only to have a middle. If you’re outside the middle, tough luck.


    Would you agree that there is a market demand for gifted education, and this demand isn’t being met by public schools? I would think that if we had vouchers, someone would try to meet that demand.

  • VRB

    You assume it not being met by public schools. My son was in a good program in a public school and I don’t know if a private school would have been any better. The design school was one of the best private colleges. Teaching and inspiring gifted students I would think is hit or miss. Being in a private school does not eliminate what Dana was speaking about, it just means you are paying more. It is a cultural mind set. I was trying to imply this in my first comment. I also don’t equate high SAT scores as a determinate for being gifted, a gifted student can be an underachiever. They may have problems fitting in the test scores because their mind may work very differently than ours.
    This may be another problem encountered when teaching a gifted student. Trying to put them in the boxes we think are right, but wind up stifling their creativity. Someone might solve a mathematical problem without having any higher math at all. Think of Newton’s insight, what was that based on?

  • Adam Selene


    You assume it not being met by public schools. My son was in a good program in a public school and I don’t know if a private school would have been any better.

    There is ample evidence that Brad is not simply making an assumption, as most parents who homeschool can attest to. In fact, your son is likely one of the fortunate children. Our education system is focused on test scores, standardized educations and teacher tenure, as anyone paying attention knows. There are exceptions to the rule, but that doesn’t make the rule any less valid.

    In fact, my gifted child was failed miserably by the public education system in California. The beauty of a competitive market for education is that students and parents, the actual consumers, would then have a choice. Whether they were mediocre, normal or gifted. Today’s public education system is designed so that mediocre students get C’s, this hardly seems a system that will work well for normal and gifted students. Why defend it?

  • Brad Warbiany

    I’m fairly certain it’s not being met by [most] public schools. Again, I can talk about where I grew up, a highly affluent community, harboring one of the most renowned school districts in the state of Illinois. Even then, I think their program was merely passable.

    Maybe vouchers won’t do as much as I think they will. But neither, in my opinion, will be asking the Federal Department of Education to “fix” the problem, especially when their mission is NCLB, rather than maximizing everyone’s achievement.

    It’s not just the educational aspects, it’s the social aspects. How can you ask an 8-year-old who understands curricula at a 12-year-old’s level to function well socially among fellow 8-year-olds? I personally believe that the public school system is crippling these kids.

  • VRB

    What I was saying that I did not have any indication the a private school would work. The public system failed, but not because it was a bad program. In college, the curriculum was designed for those private school students, it failed too. I don’t think how gifted children are taught has any thing to do with justification of vouchers or home schooling. I probably wouldn’t have been any better in teaching or motivating my child than the school. I think perhaps you and I have a different view of who is gifted or what makes one gifted. Its more than being smart, there is a strong creative component to their intelligence, whether it’s music or physics. One can argue for vouchers, but I think the teaching and motivation of gifted students is unique and is not a good example.

    I see most students that are now failed by the public system, we be failed by vouchers. You have so many more options now, than many parents. In some cities, what a parent would get for a voucher would barely pay for a semester of private school. If I still had a child in school, I would want more choice than a Catholic school or some other Evangelical Church school, which would be affordable. I would not want my child exposed to those religious ideas. I also would not be looking to a school just for the basics, the schools I like in my area would cost too much. So where does that leave me as a parent with choice? No choice.

  • Adam Selene

    The reason that the only schools available, generally, to compete with public schools is religious schools is because the public school monopoly leaves only niche schools able to survive. What you are saying, VRB, is that there can be no diversity, all schools will have to, of necessity, be like the public schools they compete with. You are saying that competition will not lower the cost, as well. Now, in California, the state spends $10,500/year per student. The best private schools cost about $9,500/year. These include both religious and secular schools. The only reason they are not affordable is that you are already paying taxes for a failed public school system.

    Gifted means a lot of things, including highly creative and highly intelligent in traditional terms. I count any child that doesn’t fall within the standard deviations of the curve as either mediocre or gifted, depending on which end of the curve. They may be such for any number of reasons. The reality, though, is that most gifted children are horribly failed by public schools, for a multitude of reasons. Most normal children are also failed by public schools. Public schools are, at bottom, a horrific failure perpetrated by a coalition of special interests.

    Why continue to argue in favor of a failed system?

  • Brad Warbiany


    After the implementation of a voucher system, you wouldn’t be stuck with the choice of “bad public school or expensive religious school”. It would fundamentally change the topography of our school system. It would force the public schools to compete, and allow a wide range of potential alternate choices of private schools to spring up.

    Right now, public schools have little incentive to help the gifted students, because the general public thinks “well, they’ll do fine on their own”. But they aren’t doing so. Free that 2-5% of the student body from the shackles of public school, and a private school will spring up to serve their needs.

  • VRB

    I said where I live. The school system here spends around $10,800 per student. The private schools I was speaking of are $14,000 to $20,000 a year depending on the school and grade. The public school district next door spends $20,000.

    We will see in Utah.

    I don’t believe vouchers will anyway improve those public schools that need to be. I do believe there are successful public schools. I also believe that if we must continue to have government that works and a successful country, we need public schools. I think they are essential to democracy. I am still thinking about how to argue this. I have not been able to completely formulate the reasons for this to be true. It is intuitive, as of now.

  • Wulf

    I don’t believe vouchers will anyway improve those public schools that need to be.

    Even if that were proven accurate, vouchers would decrease the number of students chained to those failing schools. That’s important.

    It isn’t that the country needs public schools. It’s that the country needs educated children. If the public schools are not proven to be the best system for reaching the real goal of educating children, then alternatives are absolutely necessary.

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  • VRB

    What I fear is that the alternatives will eliminate the equality of opportunity.

  • Adam Selene

    VRB, the current system clearly is not working, from either an outcome basis or an equality of opportunity basis. I tend to think that we can’t do much worse.

  • Diane Hanfmann

    As a parent advocate for gifted students, I
    found the article very meaningful and hopeful it will wake many parents out of their complacency
    with poor programming. It has been my great
    disappointment to be so alone, in a very large district, as I fight for the gifted’s opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, a blind trust that the school is serving your child well may be a mistake. YOU are your child’s advocate and what you don’t know/do can hurt your child’s education. I am willing to help start interested parent(s) on their journey to advocacy.

  • A. Ensley

    I think online courses/independent study are great solutions for school districts with few resources. This has worked extremely well for our son. Vouchers would never work because all of the districts around here are virtually the same. Also acceleration is key. He’s taking AP Calc as a ninth grader, as well as some other advanced classes. As he gets older his schedule will allow him to take every AP class the school offers. Independent study has also been great for him, for exactly what the name implies – he has become an independent learner. He can pick up a textbook and work through it. That is an incredible skill to have.

  • Brad Warbiany

    Mr. Ensley,

    I agree with you, with the exception of one point. You claim that vouchers will “never” work, because the current school district is rather homogeneous.

    What I would take issue with is the idea that after a voucher program was implemented, that the district would remain static. I think competition would lead to specialization, and that a school targeted toward catering to gifted kids might spring up to service all the gifted students in the district.

  • VRB

    Mr. Ensley has offered a solution that could be specifically geared toward a gifted student. He feels that it produces an independent learner. This may be what a gifted child would need if his teachers fail to motivate.

    If you don’t know what stimulates or motivates a gifted student, creating a school still would not be a solution.

    I think your concept of gifted is different than mine.

  • Adam Selene

    Mr. Ensley has a good idea. How likely are most school districts to implement something that doesn’t keep the NEA in the driver’s seat?

    VRB, I wonder why you appear to believe that the government can somehow improve schools when they have proven so dramatically incapable of it? Every story we have of a school that turned around or an individual student served well (like the one above) is a story of individuals acting outside of the government plans and standards. Rather than trying to bureaucratize that, we should be empowering individuals. One way to empower individual is through competitive services.

  • VRB

    That is what you believe. I find it interesting how many people have benefited from public education. That have gone to the top schools, have gotten advanced degrees, become our scientist and philosophers. Since the seventies all the public schools suddenly became bad according to some conservatives and libertarians. There were bad schools, yes, but not to the extent they wanted every one to think. It fit their agenda and it still does. I happen to disagree.
    My argument here is not about the validity of vouchers; it is just I think you are trying to convince me to use a flat tip screwdriver on a Phillips head screw. It may work but it is not the best way to drive the srcrew.

  • Adam Selene

    Tell that to the millions of children that have been intellectually destroyed by the public education system. You note the exceptions, not the norm, and call it a good thing.

    Our public university systems work well. What distinguishes them from our public K-12 system? After all, both have bureaucracy, regulation, etc. Yet, one works well and the other doesn’t.

  • Brad Warbiany


    Are you talking about the nice suburban schools, or the ones in the inner city? Right now we have a sort of school choice, but it’s based on where you [can afford to] live. I think the kids in Washington DC wouldn’t consider the public schooling system to be serving them.

    That’s completely outside of the point that our public education system is largely designed to make people into docile workers. But the schools in Washington DC can’t even accomplish that.

    I’d also point out that many successful people probably consider themselves successful despite their public education, not because of it.

  • VRB

    I was not talking about any type of school. You stated that the fix for the gifted student was school vouchers and I am saying even if that were the case, gifted children may still not inspired or motivated. What is needed is to understand how to do this first, and I have been saying that doesn’t come with the type of school, public or private. In some instances, school my not be a solution. Andrew Wyeth, a painter, took his son, Jamie Wyeth, out of school after the sixth grade and put him in the studio. Jamie Wyeth is now a renown painter

    I have already stated what I think makes a gifted person. I did give my view what I thought of vouchers and I think if we had them, millions of inner city children would still suffer. Or course you would know more about that than me.

    “Even if that were proven accurate, vouchers would decrease the number of students chained to those failing schools. That’s important.”

    This is already happening in some school systems. Believe me when I say, it would be the same parents involved now in getting the best for their child, would be the same one in front of the line for vouchers. You all do not know how parents scuffle for the best schools in the public schools. They have the best Home and School associations and bring in resources, while some other schools languish because of the lack of parental involvement. Believe me those same schools will not change, because of vouchers. The parents will run away as fast as they can and the others will be left behind. You may not care about those children, but I would hope that somebody cared about them.

  • Adam Selene

    First, blaming parents for the failures of school administrators and teachers is something I just can’t get on board with. A parent’s responsibility is their child, not the entire school. I can, and will, blame a parent that does not take care of their child. I cannot, and will not, blame a parent that doesn’t try to fix a government monopoly that is a horrific failure.

    Second, I do care about those children. But, leaving a horribly failed system in place because the replacement may not be perfect is something I can’t get on board with. The reality, whether we like it or not, is that some children will be failed in any schooling system we put in place. The goal is to reduce that number to the lowest possible. Our current system does not do that.

  • VRB

    If that last comment is about what I said, let me use another analogy. When I say the sky is blue, why do you say that I say the sky is green. Are you so entrenched in your argument that you have to put words in my mouth, so that you can continue?

  • Adam Selene

    VRB, so far as I can tell, you are arguing that we should retain our current system of education. This appears to apply for both “normal” and “gifted” students. Your primary argument seems to be two-fold:

    1. Some students would fall through the cracks in alternative school systems.
    2. Our current system has provided equality of opportunity that other systems would not provide.

    If that’s an incorrect representation of what you’ve said, please let me know. Otherwise, I don’t think I’m representing what you have said incorrectly.

  • Diane Hanfmann

    I continue to feel strongly that parents MUST stand up for their gifted child and reject inappropriate programming. I doubt strongly that
    school districts will voluntarily decide to act in the best interest of the gifted when legislation and cash flows from interests in conflict with developing the gifted to potential.
    To be more specific, NCLB dominates the educational scene and does little for a student who is already proficient or very close to obtaining that with little growth. State accountability programs may award cash and reputations for meeting a goal of basic proficiency on a state test. This awarding of cash and esteem is more easily obtained by keeping that gifted student from being challenged in accelerated classes. When the parents of the gifted remain quiet, while their child learns little, poor programming is accepted and the district is not put in a place to change.
    (Written by a mom who advocated for an acceleration policy for her children’s district for years and now has made school improvement goals available for the gifted) Again, I suggest
    the parents of gifted educate themselves to become the best advocate they can for the forgotten gifted!A great start is to access on your computer the landmark report A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Students.

  • VRB

    I have been primarily arguing that parents need to investigate into more than a public or a private system with a gifted child. As I have said that my son was gifted in the visual arts. High academic standards would do nothing for his gift. Not that he was not capable of achieving good grades, but what he needed to be motivated and stimulated in his art may not have been in a school as such. I had said that I think that my concept of gifted is different than what most who have made comments. I don’t think that above average intelligence necessarily makes a gifted person.
    Since you had mentioned vouchers as a means to have better schools, I just offered my opinion about who they wouldn’t educate; and how I didn’t think for those it would work for, the parents would not get enough from the voucher to have any real choice.

    I would say part of no1. is true and I would like to qualify no 2. Although I would like to say that when the public schools were providing the equality of opportunity(I use this statement in a comment on another post), it did not for most blacks during Jim Crow. Also, the school districts were more local.

  • Nick M.


    If I understand you, you would like options for artistic people? How is that not served by a private school system? And why wouldn’t vouchers work for that?


  • tarran


    It seems to me that your son actually should have been allowed to start working when he was very young. If I understand correctly, he had a talent that was not being exercised and he became frustrated and bored.

    What if he had been permitted to leave school at 12, and start working as a visual artist? He would have been able to exercise his talents, earn an income, gain recognition for his skills (instead of being derided for not expending effort on schooling he did not want)? Wouldn’t he have been happier?

    This notion that people shoud receive book learning until they are 18 – 25 is a recent innovation that has more to do with the failed social engineering of the 1890’s – 1940’s progressive movement.

  • VRB

    I agree that it could have made a difference, but now a days credentials are everything.

    I am not only talking about artistic students, but other gifted students. It is a hit or miss in any system, a parent would have to try to find a fit for their child. The child does have a better chance if they are gifted in language, science or math. Albert Einstein was not a particularly brilliant student. In his case he had something internal that kept him in the pursuit of science.