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Why gifted education may not be a smart idea

Is gifted education a bright idea?

Research by University of Houston economists Sa Bui, Steven G. Craig, and Scott Imberman, presented at the recent Society of Labor Economists meeting in Vancouver, suggests that sometimes it isn't.

The authors study a large urban school district in the American south west - "LUSD-SW" - with a gifted program similar to that found in many Canadian school districts.

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All students in LUSD-SW 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, placement in magnet schools, and may be assigned specially trained teachers.

Because of the No Child Left Behind act, students in LUSD-SW also take standardized tests every year. They take them grade 5, when they are assessed for eligibility for gifted programs. They take tests again in grade 6, when some of the students have had a year of gifted education, and some have had a year without the gifted designation. The testing is repeated again in grade 7.

This gives Bui, Craig and Imberman an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of gifted education. Who does better on the grade 6 and 7 standardized tests, the students who just made it into the gifted program, or the ones who fell just below the gifted threshold?

Bui, Craig and Imberman have standardized grade 5 test scores for 5,500 students either side of the gifted cut-off point before the gifted programming begins, and the same students' grade 6 test scores, one year later. They have similar information for 2,600 grade 7 students.

Their bottom line: for students on the margin, gifted education makes no difference to standardized test scores: "students exposed to gifted-talent curriculum for the entirety of 6th grade plus half of 7th grade exhibit no significant improvement in achievement." The students in the gifted-talented program have more educational resources coming their way - they are in classes with higher performing peers, are more likely to be placed in advanced classes, and more likely to attend a gifted-talented magnet school - but these extra resources have no effect on the test scores of marginally gifted students.

(The authors actually find that marginal students in the gifted-talent program do worse in math, but do not emphasize this finding, as they suspect it is a spurious result).

What's more, the challenging, advanced curriculum offered in gifted programs fails to keep students engaged: attendance falls for the students who just make it into the gifted program.

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The authors repeat their analysis for students who won a "magnet school lottery." With one exception - better science outcomes for students at a gifted magnet school - the students at the bottom end of the gifted spectrum would do just as well, if not better, in a typical classroom. This is true even though the gifted program provides substantially enriched educational environments.

One possible explanation of these findings is that students are motivated by success. When a marginal student goes from a regular class to a gifted class, their course grades fall. As Bui, Craig and Imberman put it, "the data is clear that otherwise identical students will receive lower grades in the more rigorous programs." Lower grades lead to reduced confidence, less motivation, less effort, and poorer performance, both in school and on standardized tests.

Canada is not the American South West. But Bui, Craig and Imberman's results suggest that more research is needed about the effectiveness of alternative approaches to gifted education.

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University

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About the Author

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance. Professor Woolley is a former Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Economics Association, and currently co-editor of Review of Economics of the Household. Her research on taxation and the family was awarded the Purvis Prize in 2001 and the John Vanderkamp Award in 1997. More

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