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The State of U.S. Gifted Education: Your Rights & Resources

The State of U.S. Gifted Education: Your Rights & Resources
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Tedra Osell, PhD profile
Tedra Osell, PhD October 7, 2015

Like all of us, parents of gifted children want to ensure that their kids’ learning needs are successfully met. Learn from Noodle Expert Tedra Osell how giftedness is defined in U.S. schools and where to turn for resources.

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No parent wants her child’s opportunity for an education wasted — nor do most children want to feel they’re wasting their time in school.

A 2013 report by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) found “excellence gaps" between the top achievement levels for advantaged students and low-income learners as well as between white and minority students in every state. The research also revealed that

most gifted students receive the majority of their K-12 education in a regular classroom, taught by teachers who have not been trained in gifted education, such that for many gifted students, much of the time they spend in school is wasted.

Defining a Gifted Education

For parents who lack the means to afford private school, enrichment programs, or independent tutoring, educating a gifted child can present a genuine problem. To begin with, the definition of gifted varies from state to state. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) defined gifted and talented learners as

students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.

Despite this definition, which indicates that gifted students need extraordinary services, there is no federal requirement for gifted education in the U.S.

Inadequate Services and Local Funding

Whether or not to provide services for gifted students falls to each state to decide, and within these locales, to individual school districts. Among the 50 states, only 35 have any legal requirements about gifted education3, and most of these simply mandate that gifted students be identified, not that they be provided with classes, acceleration, or support services. A mere four states — Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia — fully fund gifted education. Indeed, financing formulas vary and depend on what each state considers adequate educational services for gifted students.

While almost half of states offer some amount of funding for gifted education, what this translates to on the ground can be negligible, not even enough to identify gifted students. Take California, for example, which does not require gifted education but does provide some money for it. I served on the budgeting committee for my son’s public K–8 school in the state and learned that, for roughly 500 students, the annual gifted education funding for the entire school was just $500 — or, enough to pay for perhaps an hour or two of a supplementary activity once a year.

In addition, since students at my son’s school were identified as gifted via a single standardized test — offered twice a year and only to those who were recommended by teachers or parents — very few children were ultimately classified as gifted in any given year. In fact, my own son wasn’t tested until I requested it after he consistently complained that he felt he was “learning nothing."

Even in those states that mandate gifted education, the process of identifying these learners varies from district to district. During the 2012–13 school year, according to the NAGC, only 14 states required all local education agencies to use the same tools for identification.

Advice for Parents

If you have a child you believe is gifted — one who learned to read early or whose vocabulary is frequently commented on; who likes to take things apart, builds amazing Lego constructions, or shows surprising mathematical aptitude; one who can pick out tunes on a piano or learns lyrics to songs after just one or two hearings — your school’s official recognition of her abilities will vary greatly depending on where you live. And even if the school does acknowledge her talents, it may still not have the services to support her learning needs.

Identifying Gifted Students

The first step is to ask your child’s teacher or principal about gifted identification services6; that is, does the school or district have a formal process for identifying gifted children (which is usually some sort of test), and if so, can you, as a parent, request that this assessment be done? If you’re told that there is no publicly-provided identification process, double-check with your state’s gifted education association, which will also be able to give you information about what programs and funding are available, if any. Remember, too, that many university-affiliated programs offer identification services, through a standardized test like the SAT or PSAT.

Accelerating Gifted Learning

Whether or not your school has a gifted program, you may still be able to argue effectively for accelerating8 her learning having her skip a grade or more. Though many parents and educators worry about the social-emotional effects of skipping grades, research shows pretty conclusively that not moving a gifted child up by a year or so is far more damaging.

In some cases, even if your child skips a grade or your district provides gifted education through special classes, pull-out programs, or a dedicated gifted and talented school, you may want to supplement what the district makes available with other materials or classes tailored to your child’s particular interests and talents. There are a number of private offerings, nonprofits, and university-affiliated programs for gifted students10 that provide online courses, summer programs, or in-person classes, typically structured around the regular school year.

Supporting Gifted Diversity

Families of culturally diverse children will also want to bookmark WeAreGifted2, a blog and resource guide for advocates and parents that is run by NAGC board member Dr. Joy Lawson Davis. In Massachusetts, the Talented and Gifted (TAG) Latino Program serves Latin@ and English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Boston Public Schools. Similar programs may exist in other states; contact the NAGC or your state gifted organization for help locating them.

Providing Financial Means

It’s always worth looking into what programs and financial assistance may be available, even if you believe you won’t be able to afford such opportunities. There are several organizations for gifted students that offer free services or full or partial scholarships. The Davidson Institute for Talent Development, for example, offers services for “profoundly gifted" students (those at the 99.9 percentile on intelligence or standardized tests), including free consultation, fee-based summer programs, and a free public day school in Nevada open to students across the country who are willing to move to the community with a parent or guardian.

Working With Educators

Of course, you may find yourself wanting to advocate not only for your child, but for better gifted programs or services18 in your local schools. Having a good relationship with your child’s teachers is an important part of effective advocacy. A committed educator can provide invaluable emotional support for a frustrated or bored child, suggesting books or projects that will engage her.

Most teachers, moreover, will be happy to have the backing of parents who are interested in advocating for better services. If you establish a mutually supportive relationship, a teacher’s knowledge of administrative norms and district regulations can be a great help as you pursue improved services for gifted learners.

One word of caution is that teachers believe strongly in the importance of serving all of their students; be careful not to frame your discussion of giftedness in terms that imply your child is better or deserves more than other children. Keep in mind that because of the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap, many educators — and other parents — perceive giftedness as a way of intensifying educational inequities.

Learning From Special Education

It may be very useful to take cues from special education advocates]19 who have been successful at raising awareness of the inadequacies of educational opportunities for children with disabilities. In fact, at least one state, West Virginia, considers gifted education to be a subset of special education. And while federal special education law does not apply to gifted students, the fundamental promise of special education — the provision of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all students — is familiar to educators, and is a goal that should unite all parents seeking successful educational experiences for their own exceptional children.

Further Resources for Families

You can also find free resources here on Noodle, including a page on gifted education where you can ask questions and read articles by Noodle Experts like Tedra Osell.


Advocating for gifted programs in your local schools. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.

Definitions of giftedness. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.

Gifted by state. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.

Gifted education in the U.S. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.

Gifted education policies. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.

Identification. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.

Lynch, S. (2009). Should gifted students be grade-advanced. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from SENG.

State mandates and funding levels. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from National Association for Gifted Children.

West Virginia gifted education guidelines. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from West Virginia Department of Education.

Wright, P., & Wright, P. (n.d.). From emotions to advocacy. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from Wrightslaw.


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