Are Gifted Programs Elitist?

by Todd Stanley

Are gifted programs elitist? This is a criticism leveled upon gifted and talented programs. Some perceive because children are treated differently, with services designed to their specific learning needs, this means they are receiving special treatment. That is certainly one way to look at it. Another, more logical way to look at it is that special education children are treated differently, with services designed to meet their specific learning needs. No one would accuse special education of being elitist. So why the double standard?

The definition of elitist is a class of persons considered “superior” by others or by themselves.

Just the fact that children who achieve gifted identification in cognitive skills are labeled “superior cognitive” instantly puts a target on their backs. What can add to this is the way a district decides to provide gifted services. There is no one prescribed way to offer services. If a school decides to use inclusion where the teacher simply differentiates the curriculum, because the service is not as obvious, it usually avoids being labeled elitist. The one that receives the most scrutiny is the self-contained class of gifted students. This usually involves pulling kids from regular classes and putting all of them in one classroom. It is this pulling the supposed best of the best and putting them all together in one place that causes people to label it elitist. How is this fair to teachers who are left with only the students who were not smart enough to qualify? How is this fair to students who do not qualify for the program? By identifying children as gifted, you are identifying the other children as non-gifted. What effect does this have on the psyche of a child, to be told she is not good enough?

I am here to assuage these concerns and lay out why gifted programs are not elitist. When you have a vast variety of abilities in the classroom, it can be very difficult to meet all of the students’ needs. A student with an 80 IQ and a student with a 130 IQ are going to have a much different approach to a lesson. We challenge teachers with simply differentiating in the classroom, a magical term that means to tailor the lesson to fit each of their levels. There are some teachers who are very skilled at differentiating in the classroom, but most times what ends up happening is the teacher teaches to the middle. This is what it looks like in a regular classroom:

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