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Gifted – or just privileged?

Some say gifted kids are a national asset – others argue they’re just the rich kids getting spoiled. Where do you stand?

By Gail Robinson

Since her oldest daughter started kindergarten, Jennifer Glover’s* life has revolved around finding suitable schools for her two gifted children, Lauren, 15, and Emma, 10. She saw them get easy A's with almost no effort, she moved them to different schools, she confronted teachers, she watched as her daughters struggled to make friends in schools filled with less atypical kids. At one point, Jennifer quit her job as a social worker just so she could take Emma to school in a different district.

While the pursuit of positive educational experiences for unchallenged children like Glover’s are taking place in communities across the country, the plight of the gifted child is still a battleground of opinions. With no agreed upon standard or definition for giftedness parents, educators, and politicians debate whether gifted children need special programs or whether the very idea, particularly in a time of tight resources for public education, smacks of elitism.

Myth: The gifted kids are alright

According to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the number one myth about the gifted is that highly intelligent students don’t need extra help. "There's an assumption … that gifted children left to their own devices will rise to the top,” says Mariam Willis, NAGC parent outreach coordinator, “and that is absolutely, positively not what happens."

Because gifted students learn quickly or are already ahead of the curriculum, says Willis, “their resulting boredom and frustration can lead to low achievement, despondency, or unhealthy work habits." And though no one has precise figures, an estimated 5 percent of gifted children drop out of school.

Failing to meet the needs of gifted children, some argue, hurts us all. "The gifted are our country's most neglected resource," says Joan Franklin Smutny, founder and director of the Center for the Gifted in Glenview, IL. "These kids need to be challenged; they need creative activities, strategies, materials."

Raising expectations, without tracking

But some education experts suggest the solution isn’t creating new programs for gifted children, but raising the bar for all students."If schools had higher standards and were more challenging, you wouldn't need [special programs]" — at least not for moderately gifted children, says Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College.

In New York City, some parents of gifted children agree. A number of the city's best public elementary schools do not offer gifted programs, yet many parents choose these top schools for their gifted children. Back in Northern California, Jennifer has high praise for a charter — not designated as a gifted school — where both her daughters ended up. The school serves only fifth and sixth grades, and all the teachers have been trained on offering differentiated learning. They provide the depth and complexity Jennifer found lacking at her local district school.

Only for the affluent?

The entire gifted industry has come under fire as a bastion of elitism and privileged helicopter mothers gone wild. The makeup of gifted programs only fuels such charges. While 8 percent of white students and 13 percent of Asian students were in public school gifted programs in 2006, only 3.6 percent of blacks and 4.2 percent of Hispanics were

Tests to assess giftedness come in for even more criticism, often because tutoring programs — like the $1,300 tutoring "boot camp" that preps 4- and 5-year-olds for New York City public schools' gifted program admissions test — are beyond most family budgets. In fall 2012, the city announced plans to change its test program to try to make it more equitable, but few expect it to work. As soon as the new program was announced, parents went into a frenzy, enrolling in test prep programs and buying test prep booklets for the new exam, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Indeed, many experts question the value of such early screening. "I do not recommend testing very young children," child clinical psychologist Deirdre V. Lovecky, director of the Gifted Resource Center of New England and a panelist for the Davidson Institute for Talent Development has written. "Under about age 4-and-a-half, scores are exceptionally unreliable... Some kids are just too immature to assess at all."

Gail Robinson is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer specializing in education and other public policy issues. Her work appears in many publications, including Inside Schools and the Huffington Post. She has two children who went through the New York City school system.