It has become fashionable, of late, to claim that giftedness is purely a construct. Children learn at different paces, and some kids who enter school ahead of others will later regress toward the mean and others will catch up. IQ has nothing to do with success, etc. We have heard all these arguments.
So I'm not surprised to see the spin on recent research out of Duke University, which finds that, "Schools that seek to help students who are underrepresented in advanced programs should treat them as gifted young scholars, an approach that can result in many of them actually performing at a gifted level within a few years." Project Bright Idea put thousands of young students through what the researchers deemed as "techniques usually reserved for gifted classrooms." Net result? 15-20% of students (and in many cases more) later reached the bar for academic giftedness, compared with 10% of a similar group.
So is gifted education a fraud? Not at all. These "techniques usually reserved for gifted classrooms" turn out to look a lot like...good teaching. According to the press release, "The project requires teachers to undergo regular and intensive training, energizing their profession and their classrooms by weaving together teaching strategies based on the work of national education experts... 'We are literally changing the knowledge, skills and dispositions of teachers so they believe children can learn. It is a lot about teacher expectation and belief,' said Mary N. Watson, the director of the exceptional children division of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, who helped develop the project. In workshops and week-long summer institutes, teachers in the project are taught by national and state-level experts on how to develop students’ thinking and skills such as controlling impulsivity, posing questions and taking responsible risks."
I am not surprised that energized teachers who focus on developing students' thinking skills and controlling impulsivity get good results. I wish all teachers did this, and there's really no reason they shouldn't. If people think this is unique to gifted education, I think they misunderstand the whole idea.
But beyond that, the press release wasn't clear on how students were later identified as gifted, but the fact that 10% of students were identified as such even in the control suggests it may learn toward one of those very broad definitions that get gifted education in trouble. And I worry that the definition may be even broader. This research was funded by the Jacob Javits grant, which, as I wrote back in 2008, had been re-steered to fund programs that solved this problem, per literature from the Department of Education: "In 2007, 32 percent of all 4th grade public school students scored at or above the proficient level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to only 17 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch under the National School Lunch program (i.e., students who are economically disadvantaged), 13 percent of students with disabilities, and 7 percent of students with limited English proficiency. Students from these three groups are significantly underrepresented at or above proficient levels on the 8th grade reading and 4th and 8th grade mathematics assessments." The idea was to find programs that can bring at-risk students up to the top third on standardized tests.
Which is great -- and definitely a worthy endeavor. But not necessarily what gifted education is about. To my mind, gifted education is about meeting the needs of children who are so far outside the norm that they can't be readily accommodated in good classes. All children should be treated as bright, capable scholars. All children should be challenged and their teachers should demand their best. But that has little to do with giftedness.