Are Gifted and Talented Classes a Bright Idea?

Gifted and talented classes are becoming increasingly popular in public schools. They are often seen as an alternative to private schooling.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald at the weekend said that non-selective high schools in NSW are increasingly doing their own testing to stream students into selective classes and some are doing it based on NAPLAN results. NSW also has the largest number of selective and partially selective public schools in Australia and they are in high demand.

Miraca Gross, the emeritus professor of gifted education at the University of NSW, said there was an argument that NSW could benefit from more selective schools and primary-level opportunity classes. She said:

“Selective schools and opportunity classes are working so well that students are clambering to get into these schools.”

She said gifted and talented classes were an excellent alternative for students who did not want to go to a selective school.

Chris Presland, the deputy president of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Association, said there was an “ongoing philosophical debate in schools” about streaming.

“Selective streaming is often a marketing tool for schools depending on the level of competition between schools in the areas, and I am not talking private schools versus public schools, but public schools competing for enrolment numbers”, he said.

“Some schools make a really big deal about their entrance test into year 7 and really market that they have a selective stream.”

The picture is similar in other states. A Victorian Parliamentary committee report found that gifted education is an intensely competitive area. It noted that there is growing competition between some schools to attract high-performing students, with many schools actively promoting their programs for gifted and high-ability students.

Despite the increase in gifted and talented (G&T) programs and strong opinions on both sides of the debate about them, there is little real evidence about whether they contribute to student learning. The Victorian Parliament’s report, for example, said its fundamental premise was that gifted education must be available in every classroom in every Victorian school, across all school sectors. However, it did not provide any research evidence to support its premise.

A new study just published in the American Economic Journal suggests that they are not such a bright idea. It found that gifted education makes no difference to student achievement. The study is the first to credibly analyse the causal effects of G&T classes using sophisticated statistical techniques.

The study analysed the effects by two different methods. First, it used data from a very large school district in the United States to estimate the impact of G&T on marginally eligible students in fifth grade. The second approach used random lotteries for two selective middle schools (called magnet schools) in the public sector to assess achievement gains from more intense G&T treatment.

This combination of methods allowed the researchers to analyse the effects on two different groups of students participating in G&T classes. The first looked at the effects on students who only just gained entry to the classes. It compared students who scored just above the cut-off points for eligibility to the classes with those who scored just below. Achievement gains for the two groups were compared for mathematics, reading, language, science and social studies between fifth and seventh grades.

The second focused on high ability students who achieve above the average GT student. It compared achievement differences between students who won the lottery to attend the selective schools and those that did not and attended local schools with a G&T program.

Students in the G&T classes and the lottery winners for the selective schools received a different educational experience than the alternatives. In the first sample, the G&T students took at least one more advanced class each year with stronger peers and were placed with more G&T students than marginally non-G&T students. Teachers in the G&T classes were slightly more experienced. The lottery winners for the selective schools took classes with higher achieving peers, had a higher percentage of peers that are G&T, and had slightly more educated and more experienced teachers.

The study found no greater achievement gains for marginal students in G&T classes or for those in the selective schools. Marginal students in the G&T programs did not achieve any more than marginal students in regular classes and lottery winners for the selective schools did not achieve any more than the losers in G&T classes in local schools, although they did in science.

These results raise questions about the purpose and effectiveness of G&T programs in public schools. It also places a question mark against the effectiveness of selective schools.

The expansion of G&T classes in public schools has increased without any substantial evidence of whether they make a difference to student outcomes. Some governments provide additional funding for these programs without having reviewed the evidence that they make a difference to student outcomes. The Victorian Parliament report recommended more government support for G&T students without any evidence that they are effective.

G&T classes seem more designed as a status good designed to appeal to well-off families who may otherwise enrol their children in private schools. Other recent research published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that high income parents are more likely to stay in public schools when their children are eligible for G&T programs.

Little is known about the number of G&T programs in Australian schools, the number of students participating in the programs, the extent of their funding and their effectiveness. It seems we should know much more than we do.

Bui, Sa A., Steven G. Craig, and Scott A. Imberman. 2014. Is Gifted Education a Bright Idea? Assessing the Impact of Gifted and Talented Programs on Students. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy , 6(3): 30-62.

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