Gifted education—what I saw, what I’m learning

I’m halfway through an ambitious research project, in which I examine how other countries educate their high-ability kids in the hope that we might pick up tips that would prove useful in improving the woeful state of “gifted education” in the U.S. (In case you’ve forgotten what’s woeful about it, look here, here, and here.)

So far, I’ve checked out eight lands worth taking seriously, all of which have done pretty well over the years on PISA, TIMSS, and similar measures and all of which are fairly termed “competitors” in the planetary economy. (I’m talking about Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Western Australia, England, Finland, and Hungary.) I will soon have more observations from Canada and countries in Europe. Here are a dozen early impressions:

  • Nobody has blown me away with a perfect approach. Singapore probably comes closest. As one might expect, they take human-capital development seriously at every level—but at present, their full-on gifted-ed program is limited to 1 percent of the population, which seems skimpy. (It’s under review and may be expanded.)
  • There’s scant coordination between what passes for gifted education in the early and middle grades and what happens at the high-school level. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Finland, and Hungary, for example, all have some ultra-selective high schools that end up giving some smart kids an impressive education, but these are preceded by thin supplemental programs (a couple of hours a week) in the earlier grades or, in Japan’s case, essentially nothing. Japanese culture prefers to act as if nobody is smarter than anybody else. This means parents who have kids they hope are smart, or just kids they want to get into high-status high schools, resort to private after-school programs known as “juku”—which only works, of course, if they have the financial wherewithal to pay the fees. (Finland is culturally similar in this way but has no juku.)
  • This lack of synchrony leads to bizarre situations, such as an arts-keen kid finding a program that’s right for him at one level but only in science, or maybe nothing, at the next level and youngsters welcomed into “gifted” program as late as ninth grade who find no openings in suitable high schools starting in tenth.
  • Total enrollments are declining almost everywhere I went (not in Western Australia, but few people live there!), which you’d think would make access to selective gifted-ed programs easier. But budgets are also tight and—as will sound familiar—smart kids aren’t seen as very “needy.”
  • On the other hand, particularly when it comes to selective high schools, the resourcing can be lavish, albeit not available to many students. I’ve been in (public) schools where the pupil/teacher ratio is just four to one and the equipment and facilities verge on awesome.
  • I’m finding real ambivalence as to whether the rationale for gifted education is “every child deserves the education that works best for him/her” or “the country’s future depends on developing potential inventors, scientists, and leaders.” Educators tend toward the former view, big-picture policymakers toward the latter. (In my eyes, both arguments have merit.)
  • Science and math are in the ascendancy wherever there’s gifted education in Asia, partly because that’s what parents want for their kids and partly because countries are worked up about “STEM” (or STEAM). In Europe, on the other hand, the arts—music especially—are very big deals. This is associated with the predictable gender imbalance, with boys tending to predominate in the science-gifted programs and schools and girls in those oriented toward the arts.
  • Save for some tracking and ability grouping within heterogeneous classrooms, nobody is doing gifted education, at least the publicly financed kind, in the early grades. Fourth grade (i.e., nine- or ten-year-olds) seems to be the starting point for both supplemental and “pull-out” programs.
  • Nobody is compensating well for the absence of pushy, prosperous, influential parents. That is to say, disadvantaged kids, however able they may be, are indeed at a disadvantage in terms of accessing gifted programs, supplemental activities, and selective schools. This is apt to turn out to be toughest nut, and we may find no really good way for public policy to crack it. (I’m still hunting and hoping. Hungary is trying hard.) Moreover, a lot of gifted-ed programs and schools, even in the public sector, carry costs that parents must bear, ranging from ambitious field trips to summer camps to basic transportation.
  • Though many parents seem content to cram knowledge and higher test scores into their kids as rapidly as possible, educators and policymakers in the “gifted” world are paying more attention to nurturing qualities like “creativity” and “independent research” in high-ability youngsters.
  • The gifted-ed world is so far making feeble use of online opportunities to enrich and extend student learning, either in school or out. Thinly populated Western Australia is making some headway here—for kids who live “in the country,” as they say—but mostly it’s via real-time online classes taught by regular teachers sitting in regular schools.
  • How to get into a gifted program or school? This varies enormously, from old-fashioned IQ testing to teacher observation/recommendation to student applications and interviews (and sometimes all of the above and more). This is related to the fact that, as in the U.S., there’s widespread uncertainty as to what exactly constitutes giftedness and how best to identify it. How much, for example, takes the form of innate intellect and how much is the product of “developed skills”? (Francois Gagne’s “model” is taken seriously in many places.)

That’s it, so far, but please stay tuned.

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