L-R: Jawad Kamara, Madeline Ulmer, and Peter Moser form a study group during Rosalyne Cameron's 4th grade class for gifted students in Alexandria, Va. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The story raises a number of questions, including how students are chosen for these programs, and, ultimately, what gifted and talented means, and how to tell if a child really deserves the designation.

There is a definition of “gifted students” that was developed in the 1972 Maryland Report to Congress, which was the first national report on gifted education. It remains the current federal definition, though states and districts are not required to use it:

Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.

The National Association for Gifted Children reports that about 6 percent of the K-12 student population in the United States are academically gifted, though no federal entity collects statistics on this and, frankly, that estimate is suspect given that there are different ways to define giftedness.

There are plenty of myths about gifted and talented students. Here are some of them. You can find more here, at the association’s Web site, (and here).

*Gifted students are so smart they can do fine on their own in school and don’t need help. And they always get great grades.

This is wrong on several fronts. For one, gifted students often aren’t gifted in every subject. A first grader who can read a fifth-grade book and thoroughly understand it may not be able to write legibly. Even in those areas in which students have a gift, they need teachers who challenge them, though most teachers are not trained to deal with these students. A 1991 study showed that between 18 and 25 percent of gifted and talented students, most often from poor families, drop out of school. Unchallenged gifted students can get bored, or frustrated, or develop bad study habits.

*Gifted students are good role models for other students and can provide a challenge for them in a regular classroom.

Actually, students who aren’t gifted don’t much look to their gifted classmates as role models. Kids generally model behavior at which they believe they can succeed, and a student who struggles with algebra is not likely to try to emulate a student of the same age zipping through Advanced Placement Calculus. In fact, research suggests that a struggling student’s self confidence can be harmed by relying on, or watching a gifted student who is expected to succeed.

*All children are gifted.

Many and perhaps all children have some special gifts. But in an educational sense, most are not, meaning that they tend to be on the same level academically as their peers and do not have the ability to learn and apply what they know at a level far above their years.

*Students with learning disabilities cannot be considered gifted and talented.

Wrong. Some gifted students have various disabilities, including learning. Sometimes, a learning disability can mask a gifted ability in a child.

*Gifted students develop socially and emotionally faster than other children their age.

They don’t. Their social and emotional needs are the same as their peers, though because they are academically gifted, many adults make the mistake of thinking they are more emotionally mature than they are.


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