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Is Gifted Education Elitist?

by Carolyn K. director, Hoagies' Gifted Education Page

People advocating against gifted education in America claim that gifted education is elitist.  And you know what?  Sometimes they're right!  But it shouldn't be...


Gifted education, when it took the form of tracking as was implemented in the 1970's and 1980's, was elitist.  Children were tested upon or even before entry to kindergarten or first grade, and placed into "tracks" based on the results of those tests.  Those tracks were maintained year after year, often through high school, with each student having no means of getting in or out of a track he wasn't assigned to from the start. 

While tracking worked relatively well for bright and moderately gifted children who were appropriate tracked from the start, it discriminated dramatically against many other children: the lower- and lower-middle class students who didn't have the enriched pre-school environment, and therefore didn't score as highly on that initial placement test; the first or second generation immigrant student whose English skills was not well-developed by the time they took the placement test in Kindergarten; the twice-exceptional student who's (perhaps undiagnosed) learning differences prevent her from doing as well as she could on the test.

And worse, research on tracking showed that lower track students were more often minority, more often low-income, and more often never offered the opportunities available to the middle and high track students.  A child's future was determined by his or her performance on a single test back in kindergarten.


Later, tracking was replaced by flexible grouping of students.  Similar to tracking, students in different classes are given different work, in either pace, depth, or both.  But different than tracking, groups are flexible.  Groups may vary by subject, by chapter, or by school year.  Students can move up or down in the groups as appropriate for their level in the subject. 

Grouping may be more complicated for schools to implement.  Since groups are determined by subject, students can be in the highest group for math, but not for language arts, or the highest group for science and math, but not social studies.  A student might be in the highest group this year, but slide down a group next year, as his academic subject levels moderate.  Groups are determined by meeting pre-requisites, and learning at the pace of the group, not by high-stakes IQ testing.

And while research shows that heterogeneous groups are advantageous to students, (Slavin) that research has discounted the highest and lowest students before the study was conducted; the gifted students weren't included in the study. When gifted students and studied, the results show grouping is advantageous (Rogers, Using Current Research to Make Good Decisions About Grouping).

Groups are only beneficial to students if, once grouped, the different groups cover differentiated material, at a different pace.  Grouping kids appropriately, then teaching all groups the same material at the same pace, destroys any positive effect grouping might have had (Loveless, The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate).

Gifted Enrichment Pull-Out

The gifted enrichment pull-out program is the hardest type of gifted programming to defend against charges of elitism.  Why shouldn't all students get the fun activities, field trips, in depth-studies, hands-on puzzles and problems, that characterize the gifted pull-out program?  Why should the gifted students be spared the endless repetition of the classroom, to attend the pull-out program instead? 

There are answers: all students can't get "the fun stuff" because they need the additional repetition on the basics that the gifted child does not need.  Studies show that 9-15 repetitions of material are needed for the average student to learn.  Gifted students, however, may need as few as 1-3 repetitions to learn that same material.  The enrichment pull-out program can fill in the extra time that the rest of the students are getting those repetitions of material. 

These are good answers, but the question that isn't answered is, does the gifted enrichment pull-out actually serve the educational needs of the gifted child?  In most schools, the gifted enrichment pull-out IS the gifted program.  And while the pull-out activities are fun, may be challenging, and may teach the child useful thinking, planning, speaking, and other skills, it is not a replacement for appropriate academic education.  More often, it's a pacifier... if the child sits quietly in the regular classroom, he is rewarded with the gifted pull-out program once a week.  If behavior in the classroom deteriorates due to the inappropriateness of fit, the child is "punished" by withdrawing the gifted pull-out.  Appropriate educational levels are never considered.

Unless the child enrolled in the gifted enrichment pull-out is also offered appropriate level academic subjects, preferably in groups with other gifted or high achieving students, then the answer is "No."

Appropriate Education for ALL Students

While many argue that providing appropriate education to gifted children is elitist, that it takes resources away from other children, I contend that this isn't so.  If we were to teach ALL students at their own level or pace, we'd find that there already is a classroom in the building where children are learning the level of academic subjects that the gifted children need.  There would be no cost to move the gifted kids who need that level of learning to that existing classroom.  And while we're at it, we would move the kids who don't belong in that classroom either up or down, as appropriate for their educational levels.

Yes, the majority of kids would be placed into the age/grade classrooms that we already have.  But children with special educational needs, at either end of the spectrum, would be placed into appropriate educational classrooms, and taught appropriate subject material, so that they, too, can work in the least-restrictive environment.  And if one or two gifted children need placement that's not available inside the school building, there are always distance education options for every subject.

Better still, when this appropriate education includes cluster grouping, not only the gifted children benefit from it.  For more on cluster grouping visit Grouping Gifted Children, and read the book The Cluster Grouping Handbook: How to Challenge Gifted Students and Improve Achievement for All Recommended by Susan Winebrenner and Dina Brulles.

While this sounds complicated for the school to implement, it shouldn't be.  The key is reducing our total dependence on the age/grade lockstep placement that currently prevails in our schools.

And the gifted enrichment pull-out program?  If the in-depth study, fun-and-games, projects, and field trips, add depth to the academic subject education the gifted child receives in the classroom, and it's depth that the other kids in the class do not need and would not appreciate, then it's easy to justify as an appropriate part of his education.  If not... then it's not a gifted education program, it's a pacifier for the parents of gifted children, to say that "we've got a gifted program" without providing gifted education to the child.

2006-2009 by Carolyn K., director of Hoagies' Gifted Education Page
May not be republished without permission.

 Last updated December 01, 2020  

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