Gifted and Talented Programs are not a Bright Idea

Gifted and talented (G&T) programs are popular in many government and private schools. Governments around Australia provide special funding for these programs, but to date there is virtually no evidence that they make a difference. A new study just published in the United States suggests that they are not such a bright idea. It found that the gifted education makes no difference to student achievement.

The study found that test results in reading, language, mathematics, science and social sciences were no better for students in the programs than those for similar students not included. This was despite the extra resources for G&T students and classes of higher performing students.

The study also found a marginal negative effect on school attendance rates. Students in the G&T programs attended slightly fewer days of school.

The study is the first of its kind using sophisticated modelling techniques to compare the results of students just over and just under the threshold for eligibility in G&T programs in a large urban school district in the American south-west. It was conducted by academics from the University of Houston and was published last month by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The study controlled for differences in several background characteristics of students, including gender, race and socio-economic status.

The findings are significant. There are about three million students in the US who are classified as gifted. However, until now little was known about the effectiveness of G&T programs. It has been assumed that they help high achieving students because they group them with other high-achiever students, and offer a variety of additional resources including specially trained teachers and a more advanced curriculum.

The study was able to draw on an extensive data base in the school district. All students in the school district are evaluated in grade 5 using a combination of standardized tests, course grades, recommendations from teachers and information about the student’s family background. Those identified as gifted are eligible for advanced classes and may be assigned specially trained teachers. The students are tested again in grades 6 and 7.

The study compared the test results in grades 6 and 7 for students who scored just above the eligibility cut-off scores with those of students who scored just below the threshold. Students exposed to the G&T curriculum for the entirety of 6th grade plus half of 7th grade exhibited no significant improvement in achievement.

The study explores possible explanations of these findings. One explanation is that the effect of joining the G&T program for marginal students is not necessarily positive in that they go from being near the top of a regular class to being near the bottom of the G&T class and this may affect their motivation. The relative ranking of these students in class is lowered as a result of joining the program and this leads to less effort and poorer performance. Some studies show that student self-worth is lowered and anxiety is greater amongst gifted students in ability-segregated classes.

The study found suggestive evidence using both course grades and the ranking of students within each class that indicates invidious comparison may be sufficiently important to balance out the other characteristics of G&T programs that would be expected to increase achievement.

These results raise questions about the purpose and effectiveness of G&T programs, especially in government schools. Governments are providing additional funding for these programs without having reviewed the evidence that they make a difference to student outcomes.

It is likely that the only role of G&T programs is 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 NBER has shown that high income parents are more likely to stay in public schools when their children are eligible for GT 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.

Further reading
Sa A. Bui; Steven G. Craig & Scott A. Imberman, Is Gifted Education a Bright Idea? Assessing the Impact of Gifted and Talented Programs on Students, Working Paper No. 17089, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass, May 2011.

Davis, Billie, John Engberg, Dennis N. Epple, Holger Sieg, and Ron Zimmer, Evaluating the Gifted Program of an Urban School District using a Modified Regression Discontinuity Design, Working Paper No. 16414, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass, September, 2010.

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