CALL TO ACTION: Making Gifted Education Relevant Today

By Deborah Mersino

The educational world is in motion, in spite of the fact it seems to be shifting backwards at times and/or fully stagnating. As Sir Ken Robinson points out in his inspiring TED talk, every country in the world is in the process of reforming education today. In the United States, we’re struggling to find our way toward hope and success, as we untangle the contradictory challenges No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has brought upon our diverse learners, administrators, teachers, educational spending, curriculum models, evaluation policies, and ultimately, our educational prowess.

Here’s a clip showing Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) introducing the Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act a few weeks ago (May 13, 2011). The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) tweeted the clip this morning. Javits is among the supposedly “inefficient, wasteful” programs on the chopping block.

Amid all the debate between top education reformists, technical proponents, standards gurus, curriculum writers, instructional coaches, policy makers, teachers, lobbyists, and local school board members, we’re left wondering…Is it even possible to make the radical shifts needed to instill creativity, critical thinking, and newfound fresh approaches to a system born of the Industrial Age? Given that the top 10 jobs in 2010 didn’t even exist in 2004, can we give learners the skills – including the vital technical knowledge – they will need in order to survive and thrive in a global world?

In a day and age when nearly all third graders are still learning cursive as opposed to keyboarding and college graduates are no longer guaranteed a job, how do we – as adults and advocates – make sense of what’s essential, what’s not, what to advocate for, and/or how to be a part of the solution? How do we avoid the thinking that policy makers are untouchable and that the voices of parents and visionary educators are not only valuable, but also essential to the solution and the shift needed to find our way out of the complexities toward meaningful, relevant education reform?

And finally, where in the world does gifted education fit into this picture?

It’s clear that despite 25+ years of empirical research and dogged advocacy efforts, the needs of gifted, talented, and creative learners are not being met in the majority of public classrooms throughout the United States. Myths continue to promulgate and the potent paradoxes inherent in scholars’ findings and stances have further dimmed the light. The gap between public and private schools’ support of these learners only continues to grow. It’s a sad day when a $17,000/year price tag is what stands between a high-potential student being challenged and fully supported or being left to languish.

Phenomenal administrators and teachers do exist though. I see them on Twitter and online platforms every single day. They’re in classrooms engaging learners. They’re educating teachers and conducting critical research. I see them sharing the type of thinking and resources that could, in fact, help us find the threads of hope, construct them in ways that work, and give all learners a chance. Insightful, concerned parents exist. They’re the engines who help keep public schools working, vibrant, and positive. Gifted education advocates exist in large numbers as well; however, allow me to be the first to say, “The current course for advocating on behalf of gifted learners is doomed; a radical shift in mindset is needed.”

Here are my top five suggestions for making gifted education relevant in today’s world. Take a look at these straightforward, yet radical ideas and tell me what you think. Comment, argue, debate and/or agree. The time to crowdsource is upon us.

1. Get rid of the word gifted.

I don’t care if it’s been around forever. There’s no consensus and far too many definitions. The term “gifted” has proven to be one of the single, biggest inhibitors to the movement’s success. Like it or not, words matter. I know the majority of empirical research to date has utilized the term. What if we stopped and started using Asynchronous Learners or something related to the Columbus Group’s definition of gifted? I personally have been a fan and ardent proponent of “gifted” for a long while; however, it’s time to wake up to the fact the term is too loaded, causes too many negative connotations (and confusion with high-achieving students), and truly does more harm than good to the laudable efforts aimed at supporting these kids. The same holds true for the term “gifted behaviors.” FYI – I’m well aware of the domino implications, including renaming associations, conferences, publications, research shifts, legislative wording, etc. However, it’s time to face this deterrent once and for all. It might just be the ideal launch pad needed to ignite change. Before immediately dismissing it, think about it. I’m not 100 percent ready, but I’m certainly open to contemplating it.

2. Focus research on big picture education reform and simplify focus.

This recommendation will likely cause raised eyebrows. Allow me to shed light on my thinking. If all of the research (e.g., contents of the Gifted Child Quarterly, the Roeper Review) were being put to use, we wouldn’t be in this situation (albeit much of it is contradictory). Nevertheless, I’m well aware of the need for ongoing research. Javits proved extremely important. However, what if thought leaders in gifted education focused research more on a singular, yet collaborative area that could offer the most impact throughout the next five years and/or decade? Yes, we need to know how gifted fare in IB schools and whether certain discussion group formats work better than others (fascinating research to me). I think we would all be aghast though, to realize the raw numbers of how many classrooms employ some of the most forward-thinking models and best practices available.

The approaches may be sound, but they’re not being used nearly enough. It’s time to ask the cold, hard question – how many of leading scholars’ recommendations have found their way into the majority of classrooms in all states?

I’m happy to be first in line to kiss the feet of Renzulli, Van Tassel-Baska, Dweck, Rimm, Siegle, Tomlinson, Delisle, and Piechowski, and so many more. I’m in awe of their work. Nevertheless, if gifted education were an organization or business, we would have declared bankruptcy long ago. I’m not saying learners aren’t better off than they were decades ago. They are. Far, far more school districts allow acceleration and early entrance than ten years ago. My own kids benefit from Renzulli, Stanford’s EPGY, William & Mary curriculum and the like in a public school setting. I’m utterly grateful to all who have devoted their lives to make these realities possible.

I do believe, though, that it’s time to reevaluate exactly how past research and future research will fit within the context – yes the context – of today’s economic realities and reform efforts. It’s time to boil down the most vital empirical findings to a simple, straightforward foci with bullet points and utilize our advocacy platform wisely. As important as the next research project might seem, isn’t it even more important to enlighten the public about needs of asynchronous learners and ensure funding and professional development for all teachers, so alignment among top policy makers actually occurs? Underfunded and/or non-funded mandates have plagued the movement for far too long.

I’m well aware that there is no universal curriculum for these students and that individual needs vary greatly. Nevertheless, the need for influence exists amid customization and also requires coordination or the result is a mishmash of poorly implemented programs without strong backing.

For instance, if 2012’s focus is cluster grouping, then find a way to advocate for cluster grouping for asynchronous learners in a way that doesn’t make people cringe. And make a goal of guaranteeing it happens broadly. Find alliances within the gifted community AND with general education reformers and policy makers to garner consensus. Stay in a room until the fighting stops about the best way to identify for cluster grouping – knowing full well there will always be exceptions and that identification needs to be flexible and ongoing. SIMPLIFY. And then focus efforts accordingly. We can’t have it all, but right now, we propose so much, our most powerful messages get lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t have to be cluster grouping; it can be professional development of all general educators. Regardless, the time for narrow focus and rapid, collective movement is now.

3. Change the descriptor to the Talent Development Movement (no more “Gifted Education Movement”), and start tearing down protective, yet ultimately inhibiting walls.

After all, that’s what has allowed the Gifted Education Movement to stagnate. It’s understandable. Leaders respect other leaders; they feel a kinship. They collaborate and want to support each other. They apply for grants together, work tenaciously with each other on boards, and accomplish a lot. Unfortunately, gifted education as a movement has become a lowly island unto itself. It’s time to go across the bridge – aisle – and be linchpins for reform and learners. Separate silos of scholars, gifted specialists, administrators, general classroom educators, parents, psychologists, and policy makers have naturally led to misperceptions, miscommunication, lack of awareness, and ultimately – diminished impact.

4. Overhaul national and state nonprofit gifted associations’ missions and purpose.

What started out as an important mission – ensure the rights of gifted learners – has forcibly turned into a profit and loss game of cat and mouse between speakers and gifted education specialists. Worries about budget cuts now have state gifted education leaders in a corner; however, teachers aren’t the only target audience. State organizations have vastly underserved parents of asynchronous learners and the general public for decades. And we wonder why our funding is in the toilet? It’s time for state organizations to get lean, eschew bureaucracy, and start modeling futuristic behaviors relative to a successful Talent Development Movement. If state orgs simply started by cutting the number of presentations at their annual conferences in half, doubled efforts to engage parents, and started viewing and treating the Web and Social Media as their single greatest educational advocacy tool available, our students – and those who serve them – would be far better off. Stop printing, stop mailings, and start blogging, tweeting, creating posts, wikis, podcasts and online conferences. Create thumb drives for administrators, educators, parents, and school board members. Read The Networked Nonprofit. Get training. Take risks.

5. Give things away. Be generous.

Make research, articles, tips, events and conferences available online without roadblocks, sign-ins, and/or memberships. Read books by Seth Godin. Start following Mashable and embrace social media. Let go of APA style online. Be human. Nonprofits, schools, and leaders will be relevant in the future only through a complete about-face. Still not think it’s necessary? Well, that’s what Tower Records, Kodak, Borders, and scores of newspaper and magazine editors thought too. That’s why they’re out of business today and/or well on their way out. The Office Depots of the world will not survive in an Amazon world. Nonprofits will not thrive unless they learn the Rules of Engagement and find donor support from new sources and new constituents online. You’ll see financial returns on influence. Revenue streams will be altered. Times are changing and relevancy matters. Still not sure?

Think on this…How abhorrent is it today that most administrators and classroom educators across the United States – the ones who spend the most time with this critical population – have never heard of overexcitabilities, asynchronous development, multipotentiality and/or grasp the needs of twice-exceptional learners? How sad is it that the gifted world speaks primarily to itself? The time has come. The walls must come down.

Are you ready to be relevant?

11 Responses to “CALL TO ACTION: Making Gifted Education Relevant Today”

  1. janine Logan says:

    What a fantastic article. I whole heartedly agree that the term “gifted” can be a major barrier to forwarding the cause of educating to an appropriate level and working in different ways that encourage children to achieve their potential. I have always shied away from the “gifted” label as, like it or not, it causes many different types of discrimination, good and bad. My son is in the gifted bracket and he absolutely refuses to be seen as gifted. In his words his brain works quicker and smarter that some others and that he thinks he learns differently. If he was identified as a child who requires different educational input he would not feel so bad. Many of his peers are of the opinion that just because you are gifted then you must “know everything” and if you get something wrong then it is a big deal. Gifted gives a perception that theses children do well anywhere when in reality that is not true, however the general population still believe that that is true. A more acceptable term may help further the cause.
    If you are not going forward then the reality is that you are going backwards. The world moves on and if you don’t move with it then you are not stagnating, you actually are effectively going backwards.

  2. Wonderful, well thought out and necessary post! I have long advocated for a different label for our asynchronous learners – Gifted/Talented is too loaded with emotion and wrongly associated with privilege. And I have supported Javits for many years – still with a wary eye knowing the money was not directly benefiting students in our public schools. There – I said it…\You may have started a revolution here Deborah!

  3. What a fabulous, valuable post! We at Asynchronous Scholars’ Fund feel strongly about leaving the term “gifted” behind as well, for the same reasons you describe here. But I particularly like how you took this further to make very specific recommendations for action NOW. Thank you for all you are doing for this community!

  4. Peter Lydon says:


    Great post. I fully understand what seems to me a feeling of exasperation behind it.
    I chose the term ‘giftedandtalented’ for my website simply because I knew they were known terms and would come up in internet searches. In Ireland, our National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (www.ncca.ie) discourages use of the term ‘gifted’ in preference for ‘Exceptionally Able’. I think this term while good, doesn’t encourage any cuiosity as to its meaning. If ‘gifted’ was to be replaced – and it can be – then a suitable term should encourage exploration of its meaning. I think ‘Asynchronous Needs’ (AN) is one possibiliy – somewhat in the same vein as ‘Special Needs’.
    You mention later on in your post that the movement should be called ‘Talent Development’. ‘Talent’ is the term the Hungarians focused on and it has a lot of merit. My only concern with this is of it falling prey to the idea that every child is talented. Theya re but not in the way we mean when we use the term. Is ‘Asynchronous Needs Movement a better term?
    You make two important points about research. Yes – free stuff should be given. But more importantly, it should be accessible (i.e. comprehensible) to the people who we believe matter in this endeavour – teachers. If AN research is only available to the AN movement then we merely preach to the converted. We need to preach to a wider audience – so we need our message to be accessible, digestible and delivered in a manner to shows the clear advantages for teachers who engage with it.
    I think the AN movement needs to ask itself the question you ahve posed indirectly. After 25 years or so, what he we achieved. It is easy to mislead ourselves with our own importance – ‘I’ve written this’, ‘I’ve spoken here’ without actually evaluating the effectiveness of these activities in moving the agenda forward.
    The AN movement needs to be bold. That involves going forth beyond the place in which we are, beyond our comfort zone. A bold idea. But you may just have opened the door and pointed to the horizon. Well done.

  5. […] to start thinking about this topic than with Deborah Mersino recent Ingeniosus blog post, “CALL TO ACTION: Making Gifted Education Relevant Today“: “For instance, if 2012’s focus is cluster grouping, then find a way to advocate for […]

  6. Karen Kraeger says:

    Excellent post! I agree with you on so many counts. I like the term you’ve suggested, but wonder if the general population will grasp its meaning. I’m thinking here of the parents of underrepresented categories in the current “gifted” classroom. Most english language learners will not know the meaning of asynchronous. The challenge will be to build a bridge of understanding that tears down the elitist connotations of the current label of “gifted.”

    As a classroom teacher trained in teaching gifted students, I see daily reminders of the huge need for more professional development on reaching the most able students. So many of my colleagues still think that talented kids make great peer tutors and independent workers and that’s all the extra development they need! The training needs to start with the administration though; that’s where the true change can begin to happen. Administration needs to be knowledgeable about and supportive of the needs of the most able learners. If they lead the movement, more of the teachers will realize the importance of looking at things differently.

    I agree that laser focus on one issue at a time is the right next step. Perhaps we start on professional development. Once we have a larger group of teachers trained to implement best practices for highly able learners in the classroom, the next step is advocating for more use of appropriate cluster grouping. The trained teachers will be in place to make it happen and the administrators will understand what it means and why it’s an important strategy for educating highly able students.

    I hope to hear more about this topic because I think it may be the start of a revolution!

  7. Dear Deborah:

    That is a most thought-provoking post. I serve as Head at a private, independent pre-K through grade 8 school with a gifted education mission — Quest Academy in suburban Chicago. Yes, you are right in stating that it is a sad day when the needs of gifted students cannot be met due to tuition costs. Despite allocating 10% of our annual budget for Financial Aid, it is not enough to meet the needs of financially needy families with gifted students. We do the best we can — and we are especially grateful for donors who allocate funds toward Financial Aid.
    From a fundraising perspective, the term “gifted” occasionally elicits the thought that philantropic dollars would better be invested in students in “true” need of help — this, I suppose, mirrors the trends we encounter in the minimal investments made by government at all levels to invest in gifted education in our public schools.
    While I do not shy away from using the term “gifted,” I prefer using the term “gifted education.” The term “gifted” refers to the individual i.e. the gifted student, while “gifted education” refers to a type of education that — in my opinion — stands in stark contrast to the type of education we have created by means of “No Child Left Behind” legislation.
    Thus, your point #3 really resonates — gifted education is the Talent Development Movement.
    If we are looking to reform education (as Sir Ken Robinson asserts that every nation is currently doing), gifted education ought to serve as the poster-child for the type of education that would transform our schools, our students, and ultimately our nation.
    “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education,” said Albert Einstein. There it is — plain and simple: gifted education is not formal education but rather an education that awakens curiosity; and thus results in creativity, passion, innovation, reflection, stimulation, critical thinking, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving — and everything else that could possibly expand the human brain. We should be singing that from the mountaintops.

  8. […] I was a kid who carried it.  I never thought much about it before.  Until I read this post written by @Deborah […]

  9. Josh Shaine says:

    I’m going to be brief, here, but perhaps can put more and longer thoughts together elsewhere. If I do, I will pass them along to you in another format, like FB.

    1) Getting rid of the term will not get rid of the conflict. That argument is a red herring – the folks who have the biggest problems with the term will a) have problems with any other term you use that suggests that THESE children have more intellectual potential than THOSE children, and b) have had such problems in places where the “g word” was not in place.

    This goes toward the bullying argument as surely as the funding and staffing arguments – I was a part of the Massachusetts Association for the Advancement of Individual Potential (MA/AIP) long before it got renamed MAGE, and we faced the same resistance.

    2) The research about effectiveness of different approaches is not contradictory. It is clear what works for the majority of intellectually gifted kids and unclear what works for others, but we even know which types are which. The work by Kulik and Kulik, for example, spells it out quite thoroughly. Those who have found fault with it are mainstream, and even then it was not ‘fault,’ per se, but complete misinterpretation.

    3) Education “reform” has been going on in this country for more than a century. Seldom has even a decade gone past without a crisis, a reexamination, or some other dramatic pronouncement about the state of our schools. “How Old the New” was written about the cycles of educational movement and how each of the new theories was not so new after all.

    It was written almost 100 years ago.

    4) In the early 60’s Abe Tannenbaum noted that Gifted Education was like a rocking chair – a lot of motion, but no movement. Rest assured that you are in good company in your frustration.

    5) The Talent Development movement casts underachievers to the side. It does it in both theory and practice.

    Oh, so much more to say on this topic, but time to run out the door!

    Let’s talk?

  10. […] to continuing to ask hard questions and provoke thought, action, and change. Seeing that my CALL TO ACTION: Making Gifted Education Relevant Today and 10 Ways Social Media and the Web Are Moving Gifted Education Forward posts were among the […]

  11. I just came across this post and your wonderful blog. I completely agree with everything your wrote.

    I actually wrote a blog post several months ago, also recommending a change from the term “gifted” to something different, such as high ability learner, or anything that does not evoke so much controversy.

    Thanks for your advocacy.

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