The Title of Our Public Schools’ “Gifted” Program Needs to Change

Before my daughter entered the Wissahickon School District in the suburbs of Philadelphia this past fall, as a first grader, we were invited to take a tour of the school. It reminded me a lot of my own elementary school growing up, except that the walls were filled with inspiring messages including “Promote a Growth Mindset.”

As an educator, I knew exactly what this meant, and I was thrilled that my daughter would be going to a school that taught her that nothing comes easy: if you want to get good at something, you have to work hard for it.

Carol Dweck, who developed the concept of a growth mindset, describes it as follows:

Some students believe that their intellectual ability is a fixed trait. They have a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s that. Students with this fixed mind-set become excessively concerned with how smart they are, seeking tasks that will prove their intelligence and avoiding ones that might not. The desire to learn takes a backseat.

Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand:

…believe that their intellectual ability is something they can develop through effort and education. They don’t necessarily believe that anyone can become an Einstein or a Mozart, but they do understand that even Einstein and Mozart had to put in years of effort to become who they were. When students believe that they can develop their intelligence, they focus on doing just that. Not worrying about how smart they will appear, they take on challenges and stick to them.

You may have heard of this concept in pop culture parenting articles that advise parents to stop telling their kids that they’re “smart” when they get a good score on a test or play a song on the piano, but rather to say things like “Wow! You must have really worked hard and practiced a lot,” with the advice generally about praising them for working hard, not suggesting they are innately smart or talented.

So, needless to say, I was thankful my daughter was going to a school that was aware of the dangers of teaching children that intelligence is innate and was so progressive and modern.

Or so I thought. After most of the year had passed, and she’d generally had a wonderful experience, I was surprised last month when I got an email from the school informing me that the “Gifted Screener” would be coming next week, and would be screening first graders to see if they qualified as gifted.

Wait. What?

Don’t get me wrong, I’d heard of the program. It’s state-wide, it exists in a variety of forms around the country, and we had it when I was growing up. I think it’s a valuable program. But I also thought that, surely, this outdated title would have been replaced by a more progressive one given that we’re trying to teach our kids to work hard and not expect things to be “gifted” to them.

Now, I am not arguing that there aren’t kids that truly have an innate level of intelligence that is far beyond their peers. I certainly believe this is the case. For some kids, having a very high innate level of intelligence doesn’t just mean they do well in school. In fact, it often means they do poorly in school because it is difficult for them to function in the regular learning environment. For some of these students, being “gifted” might not feel like much of a gift at all. I am not questioning the need for the program or the benefits for children. My understanding is that these programs are tremendously helpful. However, I have two major concerns with how the word “gifted” might negatively influence other students.

Let’s take a step back and look again at the idea of a fixed mindset (“academic skills are innate and you either have them or you don’t”) vs. a growth mindset (“you work hard and practice if you want to improve your academic skills”). If you’re not familiar with this literature, there’s a fascinating experiment that was done by James Stigler and Harold Stevenson in the 1990s comparing American and Japanese first graders that captures it perfectly. This excerpt summarizing the experiment is from an NPR article:

We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up. The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this.’”

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’”

You may or may not agree with an educational environment that teaches children to work on an impossible problem for an hour, but the point of this line of research in general, as with Dweck’s research on fixed vs. growth mindsets, is that some students learn that there is value in struggle, that if you can’t figure something out it doesn’t mean that you’re not smart, that it might be an opportunity to learn and grow, and that it might even be enjoyable.

This is lengthy but worthwhile excerpt from an article by Dweck, summarizing research her and her team have done:

In many of our studies… 5th grade students worked on a task, and after the first set of problems, the teacher praised some of them for their intelligence (“You must be smart at these problems”) and others for their effort (“You must have worked hard at these problems”). We then assessed the students’ mind-sets. In one study, we asked students to agree or disagree with mind-set statements, such as, “Your intelligence is something basic about you that you can’t really change.” Students praised for intelligence agreed with statements like these more than students praised for effort did. In another study, we asked students to define intelligence. Students praised for intelligence made significantly more references to innate, fixed capacity, whereas the students praised for effort made more references to skills, knowledge, and areas they could change through effort and learning. Thus, we found that praise for intelligence tended to put students in a fixed mind-set (intelligence is fixed, and you have it), whereas praise for effort tended to put them in a growth mind-set (you’re developing these skills because you’re working hard). We then offered students a chance to work on either a challenging task that they could learn from or an easy one that ensured error-free performance. Most of those praised for intelligence wanted the easy task, whereas most of those praised for effort wanted the challenging task and the opportunity to learn.

While some students may have higher innate levels of intelligence than others, and truly do need alternative learning environments because of it, I think we ought to be very careful about suggesting, even through language such as the word “gifted,” that there is a clear line between students who are “highly intelligent” and those who are not. While some students may have an innate ability that other students would never achieve, even with hard work, I am unconvinced that any kind of test or screener can determine with 100% certainty who falls within this category.

According to the Pennsylvania Code, it is very clear that the designation of a student as “gifted” is subjective. According to the Code, a person with an IQ score of 130 or higher may be designated as gifted but multiple other criteria can also be used, and students with scores under 130 can also be designated as gifted. Assessment is completed by a school psychologist. I cannot imagine that there aren’t any question marks or borderline cases. After some internet digging, I found that my school district has approximately 4,900 students, and in the 2018-2019 academic year 449 students, or about 9% of students, were deemed to be gifted. It is difficult for me to believe that every single one of these students is leaps and bounds above the other 91% of students. There has to be a gray area, and therefore there has to be room for movement.

When it comes to IQ, I am certainly not the first to suggest that intelligence tests are not perfect nor that they might not reflect fixed, innate, intelligence. The fact that kids from high-income families tend to be overrepresented in gifted programs indeed suggests that there is something more to being gifted than simply genetics.

But the word “gifted” suggests just that. It literally brings to mind a present bestowed upon someone – not something you can work toward.

My second concern is that, even if you had a perfect test that recognized some precise point at which students needed additional learning support, using this word still sends a harmful message to kids. You cannot convince me that average kids (or adults for that matter) understand the nuanced difference between “really good at school” and “gifted.” I am sure that for at least some kids they see the gifted kids as the “smart” ones and feel that they are, therefore, not as smart.

I distinctly remember in the first grade that there were three students in my class that got pulled out for special math lessons, and I remember being pissed that I wasn’t selected to be part of this special group. I could tell you right now what their names were; they were seared with jealousy onto my brain. But I worked hard at school, I liked school, and by the sixth grade I was part of a gifted and talented program. (It was not in Pennsylvania and I don’t think it used the same criteria as Pennsylvania.) At the time I didn’t think twice about the significance of the words, but I do wonder now how it would have affected me if I had gotten the message in the first grade that I simply didn’t have the “gift.” Would I have worked as hard as I did, or would I have given up a little? The research on growth mindsets suggests that the latter is at least a possibility.

And what about kids that are “gifted” in other areas like music, art, cooking, fashion design, poetry, etc.? Are we suggesting that these other kinds of natural talents aren’t as valuable? That they aren’t also gifts?

I have been told that many of the teachers and staff in our elementary school use the word “enrichment” instead of “gifted.” To me this suggests an inherent acknowledgement that “gifted” is a word we should not be using with young children who are trying to discover who they are. Why, then, do we feel it’s ok to use this word with any children? Especially when there are other terms, like enrichment, that could function just as well? Why can’t the program be framed as something that students might qualify for one year, even if they didn’t qualify the previous year? How many kids are we, intentionally or not, deterring from achieving their academic potential?

There are a lot of problems in the world right now and the title of a school program is arguably not high on the list of things we should be exerting our energy on. But at the same time, it’s a pretty easy fix. So I appeal to the Pennsylvania Board of Education: Can we please just change the name of this program??

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