Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 03 2011

Why I hate gifted programs

At the very beginning of my first year teaching, my mother clipped an article called “The Truth About Grit” from the Boston Globe. You can find the full text here, but it’s really only the end of the article that stuck with me enough to hunt it down a year and a half later. What it says is that intelligence tests are not good predictors of real-world success. More than being smart, what matters in making someone successful is their level of “grittiness”. If you can persevere, you can go far. If you give up quickly, you aren’t going to accomplish much… no matter how high your IQ.

This gets relevant when they started praising fifth graders on their grade-level test performance. One group was told, “You must be smart at this” while the other group was told, “You must have worked really hard.” When both groups were given an eighth grade IQ test, the former group gave up quickly while the latter group fought through it for much longer. I think this is gold. If you tell children that they’re smart, there’s not much they can do about that. When something doesn’t come easily to them, they will assume it is beyond their level of intelligence and give up. If you tell kids they’ve done well because they work hard, they’ll keep working hard because that’s something they can control, and they’ll see that as a tool they have to deal with challenges. The article says that both schools and parents are in charge of teaching grittiness – it doesn’t just come naturally – and I’m all about that idea. You can’t argue with the potential benefits.

This is exactly why I’m so opposed to the gifted testing we do at my school. We give kids an IQ test, tell them that they’re gifted (or not!) and then track them accordingly. This might not be a big deal in most classes, where the “gifted group” is just marginally more accelerated than the other groups and just has fewer behavior problems. (Although I would like to argue that it does not-worth-it damage to the students who are evaluated as not gifted, I have nothing to back that up.) Yet it starts to matter when they get to my advanced math class, where suddenly they’re being pushed significantly harder and required to learn significantly faster than they’ve ever been asked to before (not my doing, it’s the curriculum). Suddenly they’re the 5th graders taking the 8th grade test in that study, and their whole lives they’ve only been complimented on being smart. They give up unbelievably quickly. They whine like toddlers when they don’t get something. They leave tests blank when the answer doesn’t come immediately to them. THEY DRIVE ME NUTS.

I blame it on the gifted label. Neither my special ed kids nor my really low IQ kids whine like that when they don’t get something, and they’ll at least try to put something on the paper. These gifted kids have gone through school being told they’re smarter than everyone else, but they’ve never been asked to work hard and never been given rewards or consequences for persevering or failing to do so. We haven’t taught them grit, because for some reason my district values a gifted label above all else.

I would love nothing more than to get rid of that test. Kids should get in to advanced classes because they work hard and find success, and they should not be put in advanced classes if they refuse to put in effort. Make them earn it, and leave it open for any kid at school (regardless of their score on one test) to earn. I don’t care if your kid is gifted, and neither will colleges or employers. I wish we could keep that in mind and get rid of that stupid label… it’s making smart kids lazy and that’s going to hurt their chances of success.

Of course, no one’s asking me. But keep this in mind if you’re a parent or a teacher, because I’d love if you’d start switching, “Wow, you’re smart!” for “Wow, you work hard!”

17 Responses

  1. James

    THANK YOU. In high school, I was placed in a “gifted” program that had an IQ cutoff, and my experiences there did nothing but confirm my intuition that IQ and “gifted” are at best meaningless labels and at worst detriments to learning.

    P.S. Thanks for the all your awesome writing. I was recently accepted to the 2011 corps, and your blog was one of the first that I read in its entirety.

  2. Patrcia

    I think the whining is called a sense of entitlement and unfortunately almost everyone who hasn’t fallen and fallen hard before gettin back up has it. I agree we need to get rid of this. No one is entitled to anything until they work for it.

  3. Anna

    I taught 4th grade in a “regular” ed classroom and our school had triplets, two of whom were in the “gifted” classroom, one in my class. SOL testing results in Virginia history, the two “gifted” students, while achieving pass advance status (they completed the test in less than an hour) were left behind by the third triplet who took over three hours but recieved a perfect 600 on her test. A good example of your theory.

  4. Catherine

    As a person who had this happen to them in AZ in middle school – ha! – i think this is totally true. I learned a lot of bad lessons for the first 12 years of school that made me think everything should just come naturally to me. College was a surprise, let’s say.

  5. Edwin Vargas

    Yes! I agree 100%…I have two brothers that went to gifted as kids and middle schoolers and were lazy and unsuccessful in high school and higher education. I think mainly due to laziness and thinking they were smarter that everyone else. We should definitely emphazise hard work.

  6. Eleanor

    This is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine that a child with an average IQ attended a school with predominantly moderately mentally retarded children (IQ 75-55), and a curriculum designed to fit their needs. Would you expect the “normal” child to sit through the SPED lessons, bored out of their minds with the over-simplicity and tediousness of the lesson? The child would presumably drop out the day they turn old enough to.
    It is the same with gifted children. A child with an IQ considerably above the norm grasps concepts more quickly and learns faster. I am not gifted, but I have heard from people with high IQs that grade-level lessons were incredibly boring and their grades suffered because of it. Studies have shown that gifted students are more likely to prevail after graduation, and less likely to drop out of high school early; if they are given the education their mental state requires.
    “Gifted” does not just mean smart or good at taking tests. Just like a mentally retarded child, gifted children have special needs that need to be met in order to ensure they fulfil their potential.

    • Lisa

      I agree totally with this post. My son absolutely HATES school at this point. He is a high school junior and the only reason he can tolerate school is because of band and his love of music. He failed his U.S. history class – but made a nearly perfect score on the End-of-Course exam in the class. He would be served much better by a school that allowed him to focus more on his interests and less on what he already knows.

  7. Jacob

    I think that this is an unfair generalization. I went to a gifted middle school, and one of the most challenging experiences of my academic life was taking Algebra in sixth grade. (Even though the whole school was gifted, only about an eigth took Algebra in 6th grade, and the rest in 7th.) Answers did not come easily to me. No matter how hard I tried, I kept getting Ds and Cs on tests, but I maintained a B or B+ because I did my homework and projects. Eventually I started to get mostly Bs, and really good because of the grades on my midterm and finals, I got an A- for the year, and if I didn’t try as hard I would have kept getting Ds and Cs for the entire year. I thank the gifted program for that.

  8. Jacob

    I would also like to add that of the 600 kids at my school, those who were able to conquer through intelligence were the extreme minority. Some were arrogant, but for the most part nobody felt any superiority over regular kids. I don’t think it’s fair to blame schools because some kids feel like they have a sense of entitlement; soon enough, the kids will be exposed to the real world, and from then they have to realize their problems for themselves or suffer the consequences. At my school, things did not come naturally because they did a good job designing the program.

  9. Mike

    I agree the emphasis should be on effort. “You’re smart” is useless and can easily be harmful. You make an important observation here, but I think you attribute the cause incorrectly. It is precisely to AVOID the lack of grittiness (and that’s the perfect word!), that strong gifted programs are so essential. Without challenges, failures, and recoveries, humans do not naturally learn to persevere. Gifted students that are not given a matching level of education learn that life is easy and that they can do well with little effort. And this will happen every single time unless someone (a parent, for instance) steps in and provides the challenges necessary to this aspect of education. There is a solid body of research on this topic, and Eleanor’s comparison of SPCED and general education is an excellent illustration. Educational and psychological research have emphasized for decades the importance of instruction appropriate to development; really, the newer research about this symptom came as no surprise.

    The label can be a thorny issue, but only when we allow it to dismiss actual industry. The key is to expect what each student is capable of, and give them the instruction they need to achieve it. Without the option of fully-individual instruction (no teacher can differentiate instruction perfectly, because they’re one person), you group children according to their current and potential development. Really, there’s no efficient alternative, hence the categorizing, the labeling. It’s a problem when you fail to take into account reactions to labels, but when the program is effectively designed, this is not a major flaw. All students can be industrious and get an appropriate public education. And no program should fail to teach the students that giftedness is no achievement in itself.

    • mathinaz

      Mike, this is one of the best arguments for gifted programs I’ve heard. The ones I have interacted with did not function like this, but I’m much more comfortable with what you’re explaining.

      • Mike

        Sorry to hear you’ve seen some dysfunctional programs. Deep fixes are never easy, but they are doable in increments. The problem is implementation, not the nature of gifted programs. Is the school culture hostile to the idea? If so, that would be crippling in itself. Karen Rogers wrote an excellent, comprehensive, 15-page synthesis of the research, doi: 10.1177/0016986207306324. Are you in a position to bring changes? Small but significant changes like the shift in language you proposed earlier can bring about broader changes over time.

    • laura

      One of the big problems is that when students are tested, they aren’t tested to find their actual level of instruction. The ceiling is too low for a lot of kids. To reach that zone of proximal development, you have to know where a kid stands. Otherwise, you’ll never develop the grittiness you want. In my opinion, this is one of the two biggest problems high IQ kids face in school. The other is the asynchronicity that hides ability. A child who has trouble writing simply won’t be able to show you what he knows, and we’re not good at identifying and supporting these weaknesses.

  10. Natalie

    I don’t think that this is fair to generalize the gifted students in the population like that. I am a gifted student and I worked intensely to get to where I am taking Algebra 2 in my eighth grade year. I don’t whine when I don’t get a problem I just work harder. I still struggle like any other kid. I just happen to start struggling at a different level.

  11. laura

    In order to develop grit, you need to have the opportunity to do challenging work. If your gifted students are learning nothing than that they are smarter than everyone else, you are doing something wrong. Schools need to test students to determine their ACTUAL LEVEL OF INSTRUCTION (be given pretests with high ceilings) and then given work that addresses that. If your young students aren’t reaching their Zone of Proximal Development (which takes scaffolding, which means all outliers get some personal attention), then you are robbing them from developing the “grit” you speak of. This is EXACTLY why gifted education is important. The boldface “I don’t care if your kid is gifted” scares me. We must care about our students and teach them how to work, even high IQ kids need to learn to do that.

  12. Suzanne Ring

    I have mixed feelings about this article. I agree we should tell our kids “You must have worked really hard.”, but I think its equally important they know how smart they are. I am a mother of three gifted students, two of which have been diagnosed with ADHD and SPD and have struggled in the classroom because of this and not their lack of understanding or intelligence or ability to work for their grade! My son has an IQ of 156 but struggles with writing, he can verbally explain everything to me perfectly but because of his SPD he avoids writing. My children struggle and perservere everyday of their lives, they have “grit” and are constantly learning how to deal with “challenges” .Maybe you need to do more research and understand that a “majority” of gifted children do have some form of neurological disorder and they struggle with things you may not be able to see!

  13. Sabrina

    Ahem I happen to be a 12 year old gifted kid myself and this article was pretty offensive and WE DO NOT GIVE UP. I don’t know who you were dealing with but that goes exactly against our nature. We aren’t even told in school much about giftedness and if ANYTHING they downgrade us from the mainstream kids. In my school, they give all of the opportunities to mainstreams and leave us in the dust to do all the dirty work. And we were specifically taught that gifted doesn’t mean smart, it means DIFFERENT, so yeah, we follow a different way of learning by nature. Plus gifted kids should go to gifted high school. You can’t really blame us them if its your own test given to them and its not for gifted kids. That’s your fault. So please, next time consider the fact that gifted people can’t help their differences and we are not taught that we are getter or worse than anyone else.

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