End Gifted Programs?

by Robert VerBruggen

Megan McArdle and Arnold Kling think it’s a good idea, and point to a study that found that on standardized tests, middle-school-age “borderline gifted” students score the same whether they were placed in normal or gifted classrooms.

I’m sorry, but that’s a completely ridiculous way of approaching the question. In fact, it proves nothing but that the schools studied did a good job of setting the gifted cutoff.

No one claims that gifted programs are for everyone. They’re for the “gifted,” and placing a student who’s not gifted in one would presumably cause that student to fall behind and learn nothing. The hard part is setting the cutoff so that everyone who will benefit, but no one who will be harmed, is placed into a gifted program — and if tests are revealing that students classified as “borderline” in this system do about as well either way, that means the line is in the right place.

In other words, these students are called “borderline” for a reason: It’s not clear which class is a better fit for them; they’re on the border between them. If they go into a normal classroom, they’ll be ahead of their peers and might get bored, but they will be able to soak up all the material. If they go into a gifted classroom, they’ll be presented with more material, but they’ll be behind their peers and might be overwhelmed.

The real question is whether truly gifted children learn more than they would otherwise. You’d need a study with random assignment to figure that out for sure, but I’d be absolutely shocked if they didn’t. They’re presented with more material, and they’re smart enough to learn it — they can fail to improve only if they don’t bother to learn the higher-level material (which was not my experience in advanced high-school courses), or if they’re so nerdy that they study ahead when they’re placed in normal classrooms (which does not seem likely to me).

And that’s leaving aside other questions of methodology, such as whether the standardized tests were designed to evaluate knowledge that was taught in the gifted programs but not the normal ones.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been amended since its original posting.

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